In 1945, Matsuzo Kosuge, a Japanese toy designer, picked a tin can off the streets of Kyoto, which had been spared the devastation of U.S. bombing because of its religious significance, and fashioned it into a model of a U.S. army jeep, with a rubber band for a motor. Soon, Kosuge received permission from U.S. authorities to manufacture toy cars for the U.S. market, as a means of converting Japanese wartime factories to civilian use. Until 1947, these cars were required to be stamped "Made in Occupied Japan."
Japan had been an innovator in metal toy design since the 1890s, its main competition being the factories of Nuremberg, Germany. The collector Yoku Tanaka began collecting these cars as a boy and, during the 1970s, began purchasing the rare toy cars made in Japan from the 1950s, from U.S. toy stores. The cars were rare, of course, because most of them had been destroyed by the American boys who played with them or had been thrown out by their mothers. The enthusiastic Tanaka was even able to buy many of the original boxes for his mostly mint condition collection and was present last week for the unveiling of his collection, which forms the majority of an utterly fascinating exhibition, "Buriki: Japanese Tin Toys from the Golden Age of the American Automobile" at the Japan Society on East 47th Street.
The ironies of this show are implicit, at a time when the Big Three U.S. auto companies are on their knees. The Japanese toys are loving reproductions done exactly to scale, from mere posters or drawings of the U.S. luxury cars, as these cars were unknown during the reconstruction of Japanese society in the 1950s. The Cadillac, which had all the aura of a spaceship to the dedicated toy designers, was a favorite. A particularly gorgeous model in the show is the GM Cadillac 62 El Dorado 4-door with working lights. The turquoise 1960 Cadillac Eldorado with fins is so luscious that it would make Jeff Koons drool.
The two-door convertible Ford Fairlane Victoria Sunrise from 1956 offers pink detailing and sun drenched yellow seats. You will wish that you could jump right in and take it for a spin. I asked Joe Earle, the erudite Brit who is the director of the Japan Society, how, given the fact that these toys were unknown in Japan, because they were exclusively exported, they could have influenced the Japanese children who eventually created the dominant Japanese auto industry. He pointed to some posters in the show of Japanese tots playing with the U.S. toys. "They were widely distributed in Japan in the 1950s," he said.
That a culture reinvented itself almost by osmosis from second-hand observation of American innovation is an especially humbling lesson for the troubled current U.S. economy. So thorough was the toy homage that Japanese designers even reproduced a couple of 1958 Edsels, the famous lemon from Ford. Specialty vehicles are also included in the show, including a huge 1960 Black Fleetwood converted for police use and the Greyhound "Noble Bus" from the mid-1950s, charmingly decorated in green with red and olive stripes.
Yet, even the best toys suffer from obsolescence and changing fads. By the early 1960s, Japanese designers were including the pioneering anime character Ambassador Magma behind the wheel of an El Dorado Biarittz to boost sales. Unfortunately, U.S. urchins had moved on to other play fetishes and the Japanese metal car market collapsed. If those kids had saved and studied the small cars in front of them, perhaps we would still have an American auto industry today.
"Buriki: Japanese Tin Toys from the Golden Age of the American Automobile, the Yoku Tanaka Collection," July 9-Aug. 16, 2009, at Japan Society Gallery, 333 East 47th Street, New York, N.Y. 10017.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).