When Brooklyn Museum Curator of Ethnology Stewart Culin visited Japan for the first time in the fall of 1909, he escaped from the harangues of curio dealers by asking them to bring him a traditional children’s toy called burri-burri. Culin knew this rare and obscure object only from a specimen in Tokyo’s Imperial Museum and another owned by the collector Seifu Shimizu. Culin’s request to the dealers quickly confirmed the toy’s rarity, as neither he nor any of his numerous assistants were ever offered one. In the end, Culin asked Shimizu to make him a copy to bring back to Brooklyn.
Only on a subsequent trip to Japan in 1912 did Culin secure an original, from an old shop on Kyoto’s famed Shijo Street. It bore the dim painted traces of pines and storks beneath its patinaed surface, complete with a plaited cord of knotted and tasseled red silk, and was accompanied by a pair of small wooden disks. The only lore that the shop owner could provide Culin was that the burri-burri had been used in an ancient game. The designs seemed to resemble the emblem associated with the Boys Festival, and also with traditional New Year’s toys — battledores and shuttlecocks.
During Culin’s visits to Japan, Seifu Shimizu — director of a major Tokyo trading company, artist, calligrapher, and leading Meiji Era collector of omocha (toys) — was in the midst of publishing the ten-volume Unai no tomo, comprised of charming woodblock prints of traditional objects of play. The founder of Odomokai (十八番クラブ), a Connoisseur's Club to advance the appreciation of tomo (“playfellows” or “companions”), Shimizu treasured Japanese toys. He created the Takeuma-kai (Hobbyhorse Club) for their study in 1880, and curated the first known exhibition in 1906. After Shimizu’s death in 1913, his friend Nishizawa Tekiho completed the final volumes of the Unai no tomo series. Browsing through these catalogs we meet: jack-in-the-box chickens; whales on wheels and magnetic mice; a clay sumo wrestler grappling an orange carp; and popguns, hobbyhorses, and noisemakers galore.
Only the barest of labels accompany each of Seifu Shimizu’s prints and were it not for Culin’s connoisseurship, these ubiquitous folk objects may have remained in obscurity for the English-speaking world. Student, friend, and colleague of the pioneering anthropologists of play Frank Hamilton Cushing and Frank Gouldsmith Speck, Culin was the world’s paramount encyclopedist, philosopher, and collector of children’s games and toys, having published Korean Games in 1895 and the eight-hundred page Games of the North American Indians in 1907. Widening his discoveries about burri-burri, he noticed that the Unai no tomo were almost without exception derived from amulets and talismans rooted in Shinto and traditional Japanese folklore. As miyage — souvenirs — they were commonly given as presents to children by travelers returning from both sacred and secular pilgrimages. “They are frequently, in fact”, Culin concluded, “degenerate forms of charms and magical things, and the line between the two classes of objects cannot be sharply defined”.
By the time that Culin penned these words, he felt a deep, bittersweet attachment to both the Unai no tomo volumes and the toys that he brought home to deposit in the Brooklyn Museum, for modernity was sweeping from the American as well as the Japanese child’s landscape all manner of games and toys. Regaling a Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter in 1925 with descriptions of a half-dozen varieties of tag, “hares and hounds”, “ring relieve”, “red lion”, “head and footer”, “Spanish fly”, “kick the wicket”, “one o’cat”, and “fungo”, Culin grew wistful, observing that “the street games of Brooklyn grow fewer and fewer. The great amount of traffic has driven the children from the streets that used to be their playgrounds. The old-time street games like the burri-burri are becoming a thing of the past.”