Culture in an Age of Globalization or Things We Make

Japan, like the rest of the world, is changing fast.  Since Japan has such a long, isolation guided history, there are a myriad traditions and cultural aspects unique to each community.  With the spread of globalization, however, the crack that started with Japan’s opening in the Tokugawa era has become a flood of change and consolidation.

It is true that Japan still lacks many unique traditions and culture, but it’s also clear that changes are causing dialects to disappear, festivals to fade away, and some simple pleasures to be forgotten. While not all change is bad, how are communities passing on culture to the next generation in the face of so many pressures to change?  On Kumejima, one method is a yearly summer event that gives families a fun way to play and learn together from older generations.

While the event “Things you can Make” is put on by the local Board of Education for community growth and fun, I saw it as a critical opportunity for kids to learn from the grandparents.  There were several modern stations including balloon art, beads, sweets, painting, sandal carving, and gel candles, but the one that had the most consistent draw was an area run by a few of the older generation where students and parents were taught how to make toys from plants found all over the island.

むかしい作り Things Made Long Ago

This is actually the second time I’ve attended this event.  My first day on Kumejima last year was during this event, so I got to see plenty, but having just off the plane, I didn’t have my camera or state of mind to catch the deeper meanings behind the swirl of introductions and new students (I was going from teaching 100 kids to over 1,000).  This year, I was able to take things in a bit more slowly, but still was blown away by some of the really interesting things that can be made from simple plants.

Spit-Wad Gun

No straw and unsanitary salivary gunk for Japan!  Using thin sections of bamboo, grandfathers show children how to make an air powered projectile that can shoot a piece of wet paper very far and with a bang! After opening both ends of a thin tube, they cut a handle and a small rod by whittling down a thin piece of wood with a scythe, a common farm tool in Japan.  When rammed into the tube, the rod creates enough air pressure within to send a wad of wet paper meters.

Leaf Fan and Fish

Fans and small fish made from strips of leaves woven together.  When attached to a thin rod, and held in a bamboo tube (think the spit wad gun) they can catch the wind and become spinning pinwheels.  Fish and other designs can also be made to play with.


Stilts are a common enough toy, but in old Japan they had a real purpose.    With a good chance of high rain, or the occasional need to walk through a rice paddy without getting your clothes dirty, the ability to use stilts could come in hand.  Though kids can buy them in Japan, the grandfathers showed off easy ways to make stilts from simple tools.


If you think that helicopter toys are unique, think again.  Using bits of bamboo, families carved out a propeller blade that when attached to a stick and twisted quickly between two hands could fly high into the air (see the picture above for it in motion!  Look closely).  The most practiced, could set them spinning around their heads and then catch them again.  An interesting note, to do this, students had to use knives, cutters, and other nice sharp objects.  Its something I’ve noticed in schools, too.  Kids in Japan get a lot more access to sharp objects, but neither do I see them misusing them.  No safety scissors here.

Water balloons

The most surprising and unique item I saw being made from simple local plants were balloons, though granted not elastic.  Using the core of the Hamayu (Crinum asiaticum var. japonicum), a flowering plant, the grandmothers were able to make an extremely thin cellulose bag for air or water.  By carefully removing outer layers and plant fibers, they were able to get to a layer of cellulose (think of the thin membrane inside onions) that could then be rolled off.

Once unrolled again, one end would be tied, then air would be blown in and the other tied.  This made a simple balloon that could be used to play games like trying to keep it from falling to the ground.  The cellulose could also be filled with water as an impromptu water vessel, or for the more mischievous, as a water balloon.

Bug Traps

Finally, one of the favorite playthings for young Japanese kids used to be, and still are bugs.   Cicadas and kubota beetles are still captured and kept as pets, or set to fight another.  Before plastic cages were available though, ingenious youngsters found a way to make their own cages.  Using a type of palm frond, they could weave an enclosure for their prizes.

A roving hermit crab cheers on the attendees “Do your best at making things!”

More on Cultural Exchange

While the toys at the event may not seem important, they do illustrate the changes affecting local cultures. After all, the introduction of sugar cane as a cash crop has eliminated rice cultivation on an island whose name is made from the symbol for rice, which hugely lessens the need for stilts.  The difference in experiences as children creates generational gaps.  Where once many generations experienced similar childhoods, things change so fast that it is growing difficult for generations to relate to one another.

Events like the “Things We Make Day” help to create at least a shared experience as a kind of translation between the generations. Community building events like sumo competitions, undokai, ekiden, marathon, and festivalsare another important way communities create shared experiences that give the young the chance to find significance behind the things their parents and grandparents do.

Okinawa Kibou21

The things we make day was also a special chance for a group of students from Fukushima to learn a bit about Okinawa and make some fun objects of their own.  A non-profit org put together by Days Japan and other sponsors has created a program where kids from radiation high areas are given a month out to play in safely on Kume Island.  Since they can’t go outside back home, it’s a unique chance to play and enjoy life free from worry.  Today all of the students got to come and make balloon animals, learn about Kumejima olden toys, and be kids.  There’s more information in Japanese on their website.