Children playing games

Children on a swing. Trademark registration of this label filed to Japan Patent Office by Mr. Mokichi Iwaki based in Osaka (1915), 50 x 32 mm

Exhibitor Takeshi Yokomizo

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The Japanese match industry was one of the main industries underpinning the economic development of Japan after the country established itself as a modern nation in Meiji era (1868 – 1912). The match industry peaked its activities in the early 20th century. During the peak-time (1907 – 1919), 80% of its production was for export and shipped mainly to China, Hong Kong and India. 5% of its export volume was also shipped to Western countries such as the US and Australia.

  • The label designs for the biggest importer – China – featured auspicious motifs such as dragons, kilins (Chinese unicorns), deer, monkeys, bats, peaches and peonies, as well as children and elders often depicting old fables.
  • Elephants and Hindu gods were popular designs for India. The label designs for export matches were diverse and playful as it was common to tailor the design to the tastes and likes of each destination.

The trade was carried out by Qing (Chinese) merchants who were based in the Japanese exit port of Kobe. Most Japanese manufacturers were small businesses who received financing from Qing merchants so we can speculate that they instructed Japanese manufacturers to make specific designs suitable for their clients. At that time, manufacturers were able to meet elaborate design orders as they had skilled wood engravers who previously produced detailed news-sheets and Ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) but had lost jobs due to the emergence of letterpress printing.

Skipping rope. Manufactured by Ryota Kon-su. Other details unknown, 91 x 70 mm

Labels depicting children playing games

The images here are labels featuring children playing games made during the peak-time of export (1907 – 1919). By the look of the clothing, some of them were possibly aimed at exporting to Western countries, and others were to China and India. Regardless of its origins and prevalence, many children’s games were similar beyond cultures and regions, as we find games and play depicted that is common across the world.

These labels might have drawn a smile from an adult while striking a match and remembering his/her childhood. I would like to think of these designs as a kind of modern version of auspicious motifs bringing people some good omen.

Click on an image below to enlarge it and see the matchbox label.

Here are a few notes about some of the games that the Japanese children played :

  • Hoop Rolling : Japanese hoop rolling was said to have started from rolling a hoop taken out from a wooden basin. From Meiji era onwards, bicycle rims were commonly used.
  • Paddling pool : during Meiji era (1868 – 1912) and Taisho era (1912 – 1926), it was a common custom in summer for people to place a large flat basin in the garden and cool-off by splashing water using a pail. It was also a great summer fun for children.
  • Goldfish fishing originated in China and became a popular game often seen in festival stalls in summer. Nowadays, a player uses a paper scooper to catch a goldfish until the scooper breaks.
  • Flying kites became popular during Edo era (1603 – 1867) and have been enjoyed ever since.
  • Sumo is a Japanese national sport. Two wrestlers fight with bare hands in a circular ring and try to push his opponent out from the ring or topple him to the ground. The printed text “TATA & SONS/BOMBAY” was probably for the commemoration of  the regular shipping lane between Japan and Mumbai opened jointly by Japanese NYK Line and Indian Tata Group in 1893. It made exporting large quantity of matches to India possible.

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