Kites are unique in that they have an international appeal that is rooted in antiquity. As a result they are excellent for bridging chasms of culture or language.
Japanese historians believe that kites were first introduced into the country by Buddhist missionaries who traveled from China in the Nara period (649-794 AD). Initially they were used in religious and ceremonies associated with the giving of thanks.
Legend of The Carp. The oldest written reference to kites is a circa 981 AD Japanese dictionary. This is the earliest written use of the Japanese word for kite that uses the character for “Kami Tobi” meaning paper hawk.
During this period Chinese culture began influencing many aspects of Japanese life. However, the Japanese developed distinct traditions associated with kites. They also developed unique and original designs. The Japanese absorbed much of the Chinese culture but they developed their own distinctive kite designs and traditions. They also developed legends and stories of unique characters.
There are stories in Japanese folklore that large kites were used to lift materials which enabled the construction of shrines, castles, and temples. There is a even a story about a brilliant thief that used a kite to fly to the roof of Castle Nagoya where he stole the golden scales from the ornamental dolphin. According to the legend his pride was his undoing. In bragging about his daring deed he was caught, and he and his entire family were sentenced to death by boiling oil.
Another Japanese legend about a large man carrying kite dates to the 12th century. According to the story, Minamoto-no-Tametomo, a warrior of tremendous renown, was exiled to an island along with his son. Greatly saddened as his son came of age but had no prospect of marriage built a kite large enough for him to escape the island.
The artistic and colorful traditional kites associated with Japan today were first developed during the Edo period between 1603 – 1867. This was an isolationist period during which Japan was closed to all foreigners. In these years each prefecture or region a signature style and even shape of kite. Most, however, were decorated with characters from Japanese folklore, mythology or with religious symbols.
Traditional Japanese kites are often brightly colored with the use of an array of natural dyes. Most are constructed using hand made washi paper and bamboo or cypress wood. One of the most whimsical Japanese kites is the koinobori or carp kite.
They are designed to mimic the ornamental freshwater carp called a koi. In Japanese culture there is a reverence for the koi that is traditionally seen as a symbol of strength and courage. The carp kite is a favored attraction at many festivals such as Children’s Day on May 5.
The origins and history of Japanese carp kites has been obscured with the passing of years. It is also intertwined with legend and mythology. One of the oldest stories dates to about 1200 AD and a legend about samurai warriors going into battle with carp kites as flags on poles.
Tumbleweeds and Tarantulas may not have traditional Japanese kites in stock. But they have everything you need to get started in a hobby that has ancient origins and an a rich as well as colorful history.
Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America