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ArtsPeople, Tokyo

A Child's First Encounter With Art

The analog joy of toys in a digitally-saturated world - with the Tokyo Toy Museum


At first glance, the Yotsuya Elementary School in Shinjuku looks like any other public school in Tokyo – a compact, grey, nondescript building, with a small turf playground and concrete entrance way. The only things missing are the familiar sound of bells ringing, and the school kids themselves.

This elementary school, like so many across Japan, was a ‘haiko / 廃校’ or ‘abolished school’. With a declining birth rate and rapidly ageing population, empty schools have become a symbol of Japan’s demographic crisis.

But amongst sad school closures, there are beautiful examples of repurposing that poignantly remind us of how Japan in fact celebrates and nurtures children. The Tokyo Toy Museum is one of my favourites.

While living in Tokyo raising three kids, it was the most inspiring regular outing for my family.


As you enter, you notice the school interiors have been barely altered; you feel the spirits of students past, still walking the halls. But the atmosphere is not eerie or melancholy – just a natural acknowledgement of the history and past-life of the school. Very soon you remove your shoes and glide your feet across the warm wooden floors into a hand-crafted timber play-forest. Now your ears are met with the joyful voices of children playing and the sound of wooden toys clanking.

Room after room is filled with toys from around the world – from old-fashioned Foosball tables and wooden stilts, to dolls and kinetic puzzles. If you get stuck trying to play a game or work out the mechanism of a toy, a volunteer quietly appears to assist you. The warmth of their kindness matches the warm glow of the timber interiors.

Every time I visited the Museum, I'd wonder how it came about (and dream about creating one in Australia). 

So before moving back to Sydney I interviewed Ms Harumi Kitsutaka, General Manager of the Tokyo Toy Museum facility. 

Kathryn Hunyor (KH): I first came to the Tokyo Toy Museum (TTM) about three years ago with my children and have been in love with it ever since. A huge part of the appeal for me is the fact that it’s a completely ‘analogue’ experience – the only electricity used is for the lights. This is so refreshing in our digitally saturated lives. A huge issue for families of our generation is limiting ‘screen time’ and the hours our children spend on addictive digital devices. 

But you established the TTM more than 30 years ago, in a completely different context. Could you tell us how and why you first started your activities?

TTM: The organization that runs our toy museum started out as a research center called the ‘Art and Play Creative Association’ (芸術と遊び創造協会 / Geijutsu to Asobi no Sozo Kyokai) – a place for training art education specialists. The association was established by the current museum director’s father, Mr Shinsaku Tada, with a desire to instil professional skills in people engaged in art education at kindergartens and primary schools. That was more than 50 years ago, a time when very few people in Japan were studying such concepts. 

In an effort to further develop Japanese arts, the first museum director gathered traditional Japanese toys and travelled to Europe and other parts of the world offering the toys in exchange for local toys from each country. During cultural exchange activities with Russia and other countries, he was often asked why Japan invested so much energy into learning European early childhood education styles like Steiner and Fröbel instead of raising Japanese children in their own culture. This encouraged Tada to place more emphasis on Japanese toys and was an impetus for our current focus on the Japanese concept of “wa” (和), or “harmony” in English.

They continued art education but also began to consider the significance of toys to children, realizing that toys are actually the first objects of art that children encounter. It’s the idea that being exposed to beautiful things at an early age fosters a sense of unease when you come across something dirty, and a compulsion to make it cleaner or more beautiful.

KH: I really love that idea – that toys are a child’s first encounter with art. So that was the origin of this Museum. Although thinking about the Japanese context 30 years ago – it was still the ‘bubble’ period of rapid economic growth and mass-consumerism.

TTM: That’s right. So much cheap and nasty stuff …

Unravelling the story from even further back, our awareness around toys grew gradually from about 50 years ago. In the process of focusing on toys, we realized that making Japanese children more cultured required the elevation of toy culture. Then jump forward 20 years to 32 years ago to when we started our “good toy” selection process. We felt that by selecting quality toys, and creating standards by which children could discover good toys, people would find comfort in seeing the "good toy" mark, and this would in turn nurture an eye for quality in toys.

Until then the focus had been on consumption – countless cheap toys you play with for a year or two and then throw away. And looking at Japanese toys from wartime, we see toys used as tools to drum up militarism, such as a game of sugoroku, similar to Snakes and Ladders, with captions like “Hooray for the soldiers!” That’s not what toys should be. We thought seriously about what makes a good toy for children and captured that in our guidelines. That was 30 years ago.

The next mission was to train people in choosing toys based on those guidelines, and training toymakers and toy sellers too. We started training people to become “toy consultants”. And therein lies the direct connection with the toy museum. The Art Education Institute (芸術教育研究所 / Geijutsu Kyoiku Kenkyujo) conducted activities such as toy exhibitions, toy libraries, and toy hospitals, while also engaging in art education. The toy division of the institute went independent to become the Tokyo Toy Museum. That was ten years ago.

What started 30 years ago as a process for selecting good toys sparked a desire to share those toys with more people and to introduce toys from around the world. Mr Tada, the first museum director, built the concept for the museum, which became a reality when he found and repurposed a decommissioned elementary school.

KH: How interesting to see that connection to art. Again it feels particularly relevant for this generation, to be exposed to objects of quality, especially ones made of wood, not plastic. The number of opportunities to engage with nature and to touch and feel natural materials are limited for our children – but here we can do it even in an indoor environment.

TTM: As a museum, we want to share the beauty of objects based on colour, form and material, so we don’t just focus on wooden toys. However, we do promote ‘mokuiku’ / 木育 ‘wood education’, because it corresponds with the idea that the first art that children encounter is toys. The word ‘mokuiku’ is written with the characters for ‘wood’ and ‘nurture’, and we engage in it to spread the idea of lifestyles surrounded by timber and to build a bigger base of fans of all things wooden. There is quite a lot of attention on wooden toys these days, and we have many wooden toys in our museum. We treasure Japan deeply, so when building display cases and other furniture, we only use Japanese timber. One example is the exhibition room called “Toy Forest”. We initially wanted to share the culture of Japanese carpentry craft, and that has now expanded into mokuiku and efforts to revitalize the forests.

KH: That’s very interesting and brings me again back to my earlier point that although your activities have been going for many decades, it feels so incredibly relevant to our lives right now. We touched on the relevance to our ‘digitally saturated lives’, but this brings us to another major issue – that of environmental sustainability and the urgent need to protect the natural world. Over the past three years as I’ve regularly visited here, I’ve thought “you’re just so spot on!”. But I also realise that you’ve arrived at this point from a distinctly and authentically Japanese perspective. The trajectory of getting here is not the same as in the West. It’s not a ‘coincidence’ that we’ve arrived at the same place, but to a certain extent you’ve followed a slightly different path, but ended up at the same point as the rest of the late-capitalist world.

By using wood the sustainability issue is so tangible, and as the timber production cycle is long, I assume this means you need to think about repair and re-use, rather than disposal and replacement. Are you conscious of this?


TTM: Absolutely. The founder of the Tokyo Toy Museum, Koki Sunada, was originally a history and culture expert, and the museum is heavily influenced by his designs. He first struck on the idea of using domestic timber – not a common concept even ten years ago. And when contemplating the best methods for conveying Japanese culture to children, I think his focus on the power of toys was a major influence too. The people who make our display cases – the carpenters and artisans from around Japan – are actually also toymakers.

KH: Oh that’s fantastic.

TTM: When we build new partner toy museums, we make sure to use local timber from that prefecture. And it is very important to us to involve local artisans, seeking their input and cooperation on the interior and the development of new toys. Wooden toys are spawning a movement for regional revitalization.

KH: How interesting. This brings me to another observation – although in many ways the Museum feels “very Japanese” it is also a very welcoming space that appeals to everyone regardless of their background. It meets our shared universal, innate human needs. Could you share any interesting anecdotes about this?

TTM: Yes, when it comes to barriers to communication, we of course experience that with visitors from overseas or deaf-mute individuals. But we all firmly believe that toys transcend language. I truly feel that in my bones. Among the toy curators, one or two individuals are proficient in each of Chinese, Korean, English and Russian, but most cannot speak another language. But I think it leaves an even deeper impression when they use their hands and bodies, with clapping and the like, to explain how a toy works. Unlike in the digital world which we spoke about earlier, there’s no single right way to interact with a toy. Play is based on each person’s own ideas and imagination, so the communication we have really surpasses language. It may explain why we haven’t yet made a lot of progress on making the museum multilingual (laughs).

KH: Even if you’re not explicit, the meaning somehow gets across. But that’s good isn’t it?

TTM: The play element gets across, but not the cultural aspect. For example, the toy where you assemble the fine pieces of latticework is not actually a puzzle but a Japanese construction technique. It emerged long ago from competition between carpenters trying to formulate the best techniques as they worked on projects such as Horyuji Temple (in Nara, completed in 607). They tried to one-up each other with ever more intricate work.

KH: Architecture with no nails. Like the new Olympic Stadium by Kuma Kengo. That’s been a massive shift since I last lived here 15 years ago. When I returned to live in Japan three years ago after a 12-year gap, the one thing that really struck me was the revival of Japanese traditional crafts and carpentry in many areas of life. Until recently there was appreciation amongst people in that world, but now it seems to be more widespread and broadly accepted.

TTM: There are many young people active in this field today. Along with running the museum, one of the things we do is engage young people in various programs aimed at local and regional revitalization. City office staff and people from local governments come to Tokyo to learn about how to stimulate activity in their regions and the importance of capitalizing on their town or village’s unique strengths to encourage visitors. Others move to regional areas to aid the revitalization process – that must be such a new experience for them.

KH: Yes it must be wonderful, especially for young people who grew up with plastic and were not necessarily surrounded by hand-crafted traditional Japanese objects. In particular, children of the bubble who are now parents.

Which brings me to the ‘Toy Curators’ you mentioned earlier. When I visit the Museum I’m always touched by the warm atmosphere, but this is not only due to the timber interiors and beautiful design of the spaces. The way the volunteer Curators interact with the visitors plays a huge role. For example, my children would be playing with a toy and a volunteer would quietly approach and just simply say “did you know that’s actually an abacus?”, “there are acorns hidden in the ball pit”, or “twist it the other way too!”. Just short, simple prompts. They don’t overwhelm you with instructions or advice – there’s no didactic “here let me show you”. They are not at all invasive or overbearing. It immediately struck me as a very Japanese way of interacting with children. Is this an explicit directive, and how the Museum trains the staff?

TTM: That’s right. Our work is based on the concepts of ‘multi-generation communication’ and ‘family communication’. We talk all the time about our role when families visit as simply being a bridge for parents and children to play together. Some of our Curators when they first start are so excited that they engage a child and play for ages, drawing them away from their family. When that happens, we mention that the other family members look a bit lonely and explain that we need to think about what we can do to get the family playing together.

KH: Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like. I can imagine that there are many parents for whom playing with small children doesn’t necessarily come that easily. Sometimes we’re so busy that the change of pace can be hard to adjust to, even when it’s your own child. When they come here they can feel a sense of ‘oh this is how I can play with my child’. The atmosphere is so conducive thanks to the skills of these wonderful older people who help you out in this small way.

TTM: This is the interesting thing. Our older Toy Curators, especially men from the baby boom generation, were corporate warriors in their younger years. Which means they weren’t active participants in raising their own children. At the end of every day we share our thoughts and they often make comments like, “so that’s what one-year-olds are like”, “that’s what 18-month-olds do, I guess”, and “it’s such a delight to see how children grow”. Sometimes they come across former colleagues at the Museum and those colleagues will say, “Wait a second, aren’t you so-and-so? But you used to look so scary!”

KH: Ha ha, like “you were my boss!”…

TTM: Exactly! Apparently, people say to them “you have such a gentle, calm expression here!” In that sense, working here is like moving to the next stage in their lives. That’s why the way they engage changes. All they think about is how to reach out to bring a smile to the faces of those right before them. I think it’s a wonderful spirit of service and hospitality.

KH: I’d like to hear more about the volunteers. Why do they become volunteers? What do they see as the benefits?

TTM: The motivation varies greatly, but our Curators include former nursery teachers and people who enjoy craft. Funnily enough, one man was told by his wife to find something to do after retiring because she didn’t want him in the house every day. Others have always been interested but have not come to us until five or ten years after retiring. The younger staff are typically university students or the like, trying to gain experience for the future. The paths leading them here differ, but for each of them, working here becomes a part of their lives and they go on to establish their own goals.

KH: You mentioned earlier it becomes “their place” – what did you mean by that?

TTM: When I talk about it becoming a “place where they belong”, I’m talking about that feeling of wanting to connect with society. When toy curators prepare their business cards prior to starting work here, some former office workers mention how it’s nice to have a business card again, and housewives comment that it’s their first-ever business card. It instills a sense of belonging. Then when they start working and visitors say thank you, and people like you, Kathryn, make kind comments, they discover the value of their presence. This then leads to ideas of how to do things better the next time which instills a stronger sense of belonging. Our role in making this a worthwhile place to belong is in building it as a venue for lifelong learning where we work to show people the way to the next step and broaden their perspectives.

KH: Finally I’d like to ask you about your vision for the future - how do you plan to expand your activities? 

TTM: We are an NPO and as such absolutely want to contribute to society. With toys and play as our tools, by building museums and promoting mokuiku, our great hope is to bring happiness to all of society. One means is to take toys to less developed countries overseas and build spaces for children there to play and learn. And supporting the adults involved in those activities ties in with our other goals. Also, by assisting in building partner museums around Japan, we believe we can revitalize the regions and uncover previously untapped human resources. In reality, our current activities were not all instigated by us, rather they are the result of others reaching out to us and raising possibilities. First, we need to make the most of the time and ideas of the people we encounter. Then it’s about searching for the next step.

KH: Yes. I guess that was my motivation for today’s interview – to share the fascinating story of your activities in English and hopefully create a new opportunity for international collaboration. In particular, I hope we can make something happen in Australia.

TTM: Yes, it would be wonderful if foreign residents in Japan stood here with our aprons on. They could put words to our ideas in different languages. This pamphlet here was made internally by our staff – one is a former graphic designer. As a former nursery teacher, I take the lead when addressing nursery teachers. We are all leveraging our expertise, desperate to convey our ideas as best we can. So yes, we would love to make the most of this encounter with you and extend our activities to Australia some day in the future.

KH: Yes please. Let’s work together towards that goal!

Interview: Kathryn Hunyor

Producer: Tsusako Corkill 

Translation: Lucy Takato & Kathryn Hunyor

Ballpit - A Child's First Encounter With Art
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Stilts - A Child's First Encounter With Art
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