A Japanese toy designer took a discarded tin can and hammered it into the shape of a U.S. Army jeep in 1945. Crudely painted by hand, and powered by nothing more than an elastic band, the inches-long jeep by Matsuz Kosuge spawned a miniature automotive industry. This and other examples of buriki, as they are called, are being featured in an exhibition at the Japan Society Gallery opening today (through August 16).
“Replicating the automotive styling of Detroit’s ‘golden age’ down to the tiniest fin, these pint-sized vehicles helped repurpose Japan’s manufacturing sector from munitions to peacetime production,” says Joe Earle, Director, Japan Society Gallery. “They also salved a pent-up thirst for glamour and beauty in the then impoverished country, as well as in the newly affluent United States.”
The 70 tin-toy vehicles on view range from small, rudimentary examples made in the fledgling phase of Japan’s postwar toy industry–beginning with a bottle-green Cadillac sedan stamped “Made in Occupied Japan”–to later, elaborate models made for the high-end American market. The latter often sport a combination of battery-powered lights, electric (as opposed to friction or clockwork) motors, remote controls, chrome trim, and retractable parts.
Not all of the featured automotive models are sedans: convertibles, station wagons, delivery wagons, buses, trailers, and racing cars are included, as are the “show” cars that so captured the imagination of the American public in the 1950s and 1960s. A handful of jets, helicopters, and speedboats are featured to help provide a sense of the variety of products created by the tin-toy industry in Japan during these years, as well.
Among the “concept” or “show” cars on view are a 10-inch-long Pontiac Club de Mer, modeled after a prototype inspired by contemporary aircraft construction; the Firebird II Turbine car, designed by GM’s chief designer Harley Earl in 1956; and the 1955 Ford Lincoln Futura, which never made it into production, but achieved immortality as the model for the Batmobile in the Batman television series of the 1960s.
Many of the featured tin toys retain their original packaging, including one 1959 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner convertible whose cardboard box, on view in the exhibition, touts, “amazing pushbutton automatic top-forward-reverse and steering.” Also on view is a blowup of a 1951 board game depicting Japanese children riding every type of American conveyance, including a Jeep and a Cadillac sedan and boxes depicting prosperous families, blessed with ample leisure time, speeding through America’s “great outdoors.”
Early manufacturers of buriki (derived from “blik,” Dutch for “tin toy”) often had to rely on photographs to style their models, for few American cars and automotive reference materials could be found in Japan in the post-war years. Says Joe Earle: “In those early years, more than half of the metal toys made in Japan went overseas–helping to pay for vital imports such as rice as well as meeting a severe shortage of toys in the U.S.”
A 96-page, fully illustrated catalogue by Earle, who is also the curator, provides an historical and cultural context for Japanese tin-toy vehicles and documents the 70 works in the exhibition. Published by Japan Society and distributed by Yale University Press. Buriki: Japanese Tin Toys from the Golden Age of the American Automobile, The Yoku Tanaka Collection will be available at the Japan Society Shop and in bookstores nationwide.
Are you born to be wild? See the raciest of the buriki on exhibit and get a hit of Steppenwolf on Design Commotion’s home page.