WADAKO – Stories of Japanese kites –

The word "wadako" means "Japanese kite".

This project focuses on the latest professional makers, collectors and kite enthusiasts who strive to perpetuate the Japanese kite culture. In Japan, the history of kite dates back to the 8th century – they were imported from the islands of Southeast Asia through China and Korea – but their golden age is more recent, it dates from the Edo period (1603-1868) until the first half of the 20th century.


In Japanese, there are several words to refer to kites. The most used today is “tako”, which means “octopus”, and the second most used is “ika”, which means “squid”. This ocean themed battle of semantics reflects the rivalry between the old capital (Kyoto) and the new one (Tokyo). Nevertheless, Tokyo and the octopus seemed to have gained the upper hand, and in the international kite-flying community, it is not uncommon to speak of “flying octopus” to refer to Japanese kites as a joke.


Talking about kites with the Japanese evokes strong childhood memories of time spent in pleasure and games. For the elderly, kites are particularly associated with the few days of holidays that follow the New Year and with May 5, which in Japan is dedicated to youths. For the younger generations, it recalls time spent playing with their families on weekends. Kites make it possible to gather people of all ages!


Japanese traditional kites are crafted objects made of Japanese paper and bamboo. They are also objects deeply connected to the vernacular culture. There are several hundred kinds of kites in Japan, which differ in the shape of their bones, the paintings on them, and even their names. Their iconography is often linked to regional folk legends. As for their construction, it requires as much skill to work the bamboo, as it does to realize the painting of the decoration with its pictorial qualities. Sometimes, recognizing the high quality of these paintings, people buy only the sail (without the bones) in order to hang it on the wall, like a painting or a print.


Despite the strong presence of kites in the Japanese collective memory, since the second half of the twentieth century, kites do not really attract children as they did in the past. There are two reasons for this decline in popularity: on one hand, children no longer have enough flying space for kites in the streets of big cities, and, more importantly, children prefer manufactured and high-tech toys to compete with their peers in looking cool and up to date. As a consequence, in the second half of the twentieth century, the number of professional kite makers has decreased considerably. While at the beginning of the last century there were several hundred workshops throughout Japan, today there are only about fifteen workshops left. Moreover, at the present time, most makers are relatively old and have no apprentices to take their workshops over after their deaths. The vast majority of these last professional workshops (of which the oldest have existed for about two hundred years) are therefore condemned to disappear in the near future. We are happy to know that part of their stories, skills and knowledge will live through our project.

Photographes by Mami Kiyoshi (Photographer) and texts by Cecile Laly (Researcher)

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Copyright © Mami Kiyoshi