Bold blue and red! Kitemaking has a long tradition in Japan -- look at these special fighting ones from Nagasaki.

Japanese Kites: In Pursuit of Nagasaki Blue

A cheerful Hello to our first Tuesday of the month that is reserved for PingMag MAKE! Today, you’ll learn something about the Japanese kite culture: Compared to other Japanese cities, Nagasaki has a particularly colourful look to it. The town has an international feel, but in a different way to cosmopolitan mega-city Tokyo. Nagasaki was the only port town open to foreign trade during the Edo Period, and that influence has left its mark in many ways, including the aesthetic sense of its citizens. This week PingMag MAKE speaks to kite maker Akihiro Ogawa with a particularly fastidious attitude to colour.

Interview by Takafumi Suzuki
Translation by Claire Tanaka

Dyed paper waiting to be made into a kite.

First off, could you tell me a bit about Nagasaki kites?

First and foremost, Nagasaki kites are fighting kites. The movement is the most important thing. They have no trailing tail, and they have bits of glass stuck to the string. Of course, that’s used to cut your opponent’s kite string with. Every April, when the southwesterly winds come blowing in, there’s a big kite fighting tournament here in Nagasaki

Fighting kites! That sounds so dramatic! Was that style of kite invented here in Nagasaki?

Nagasaki kites have their origin in the area around India and Pakistan. When the Dutch East India Company was around, people came here on the Dutch boats and they brought kites called Indian Fighters. They came into Dejima Island on the trade boats just as the southwesterly winds were blowing. And while the tradesmen where holding their discussions, the sailors had time to kill before they set sail again. So what did they do with their free time but fly what were to become Nagasaki kites. Traditionally, kits are flown at New Years in Japan, but in Nagasaki, when the north wind changes to the southwesterly is when we fly our kites here.

A kite-flying scene from the Edo-era. The people on the roof holding poles are called ‘yadamon,’ and they try to catch the runaway kites and keep them for themselves. There is a finders-keepers rule for loose kites. The two bottom photos show the pole the yadamon uses to catch the kites.

Despite all that, the designs on all the kites are surprisingly simple.

You’re battling your kite one hundred meters in the air, so you’ve got to be able to tell your kite apart from that of your opponent from a long distance. That’s why the patterns we use are quite simple. Basically, there are three colours. I imagine the colours originated with the colours used on the Dutch flag. They say that’s where the designs came from. That’s probably why they look so non-Japanese.

Mr. Ogawa, have you always been a kite maker?

No, I actually lived in Sugamo, inTokyo, for a while and worked for Shimizu Construction. The pay was really good. But my father, who was an atomic bomb victim, got cancer. Since there was no one else to take over the shop, I wound up doing it. But at that time, they weren’t making enough to live on from selling kites alone. So just like that, I went from Tokyo to Nagasaki, and my lifestyle went from heaven to hell. (laughs)

The callus-covered hand of a craftsman.

But, now you make enough just from the kites, right?

Yes. But it took many years before I was able to do it on just the kites alone. It was around 1989 when I finally made it. Up until then, I had two irons on the fire. I was doing construction labour as well as the kites. It was tough going. I’d wake up early and go to the construction site, and in the evening I’d come home and make kites. My father had told me, “Don’t let the kites die out.” With his wishes in mind, I worked really hard. And little by little, we started to sell more and more. And then I decided to build a Nagasaki kite museum, and borrowed some money from the bank to do it.

Working a day job while single-handedly reviving the kite company,

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that must have been a monumental task!

All I did was stay serious and work my hardest. From morning to night, my hands were in motion practically the whole time. I never went out drinking at night, and I never even went out to the bars when I was in Tokyo participating in department store special product fairs. But if you’ve got an exhibit in a department store, you wind up surrounded by pretty young girls anyhow. (Laughs) I didn’t want to screw up. I’d have been the shame of Nagasaki. (Laughs) Liquor, ladies, and dice. If you let those three evils take you over, you’re done for. Well, it’s important to get a good taste once so you know what you’re missing. (Laughs)

Dying the paper is much harder than making the frames. Mr. Ogawa only mastered the art of producing a consistently bright blue four years ago.

Did you learn how to make kites from your father?

No. My dad was sick, you see. He just told me to keep trying until I got it right. He told me, “Persevere, stay serious. If you do that, you’ll learn. If you do that, you’ll be all right.” He watched me cutting the bamboo for the framework, and I know he was thinking “He’s pretty poor at this.” At that time I was a rank amateur, so it’s only natural. So no, I couldn’t really say I learned it from him.

What was the hardest part about teaching yourself how to make the kites?

The colours were the hardest part. My father would make the frames himself, but he bought coloured paper from a big kite manufacturer and used it to make his kites. So I was completely on my own trying to figure out how to make the colours. Of course, that big kitemaker wasn’t going to tell me how they did it. So I just had to experiment myself, how much powder to how many litres of water. The powder got all over my face. One day I’d be all red, another I’d be blue. I sure wasted a lot of expensive paper and dye, but I really had no idea what I was doing. (Laughs)

The bright, blocky designs on Nagasaki kites are said to have their origin in the Netherlands.

The bright colours you use now are the results of those experiments.

I’ve only been able to consistently produce the same bright colours for the past four or five years now. It’s been thirty years since I started. The red is an acid dye so it’s not so hard, but the blue is an alkaline-based dye that reacts with the air and causes a chemical reaction which changes it to an acid. I try to get a rich, deep blue, Nagasaki blue. But it’s not merely a case of adding more dye to get a darker colour. That actually makes a stronger chemical reaction. It might look alright directly after you paint it on, but when you look at it after it has dried, you can see how the colour has changed. When I first saw that I was so disappointed, my face blanched, and my own face was bluer than the kites. (Laughs)

It’s such delicate work! But the fact that you’ve spent thirty years pursuing the ideal colour is a real example of dedication.

I even asked a science professor at Nagasaki University to help me out but he just told me, “Blue’s tough!” But the fact that I didn’t give up then is because I was born a kitemaker, I’ve got a duty to the kitemaking tradition. I’ve managed to catch up to and outpace the big shop I had as my goal. But all the time I was experimenting, I wasn’t making a whole lot of money. (Laughs)

Blindingly bright blue paper (above) Kite strings coated with bits of glass to cut the opponent’s kite loose (below).

Even then you continued, and in the end you made this vibrant Nagasaki blue all on your own. That really makes you a great man in my books.

What are you talking about! I may be the only kite maker, but I didn’t do it alone. My family, my neighbours, my friends, my customers were all there. They listened to me when I was having trouble, they lent me a hand, and they took me to dinner. I had those people around me, and that’s how I was able to do it. I must never forget my gratitude to them. If you’re not grateful, you’ll never be able to continue. That’s the way it is with anything.

The Ogawa Tako Ten kite factory in Kazagashira-machi 11-2, Nagasaki City, Nagasaki.
Kite maker Akihiro Ogawa, born in Nagasaki in 1949.

Aww, we want to get our hand on these kites to let them fly! Thank you, Akihiro Ogawa, and thanks to PingMag MAKE!

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