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Akabeko 赤べこ is a folk toy with a 400-year history, made of hariko (papier-mâché) in the shape of a cow with a bobbing head. From Aizu in Fukushima Prefecture, in the northeastern Tōhoku region of Japan, its name translates as ‘red cow’ in the local dialect (aka is ‘red’ and beko is ‘cow’). Akabeko is not only a toy or an ornament, but a talisman of good fortune and health, as well as a symbol of the Aizu region. The lacquered toy is made out of two pieces - the body and the bobbing head and neck.

The Legend of Akabeko

There are at least two legends that explain why akabeko is cherished in Aizu. In 807 CE when the temple Enzo-ji was being constructed in the small town of Yanaizu, the cliff-top position of the site made transportation of heavy building materials difficult. The legend is that a red cow, in a herd of cattle, helped to transport the materials and refused to leave the site of the temple even after it was finished. Yanaizu continues to be regarded as the home town of akabeko.

Another legend is set in the time of Japan’s outbreak of smallpox, in the late 16th century CE. There was a belief at the time that akabeko toys protected children from the disease. The circles painted on akabeko’s side are said to represent pockmarks from smallpox. The colour red is also thought to protect against illness and is associated with good health.

Origins in Aizu Wakamatsu

In 1590 CE, the daimyō (feudal lord) Gamō Ujisato became the lord of Aizu, governing from Tsuruga Castle in the town of Aizu Wakamatsu (in present-day Fukushima Prefecture). In an attempt to boost enterprise amongst his low-ranking samurai, Gamō invited dollmakers from Kyōto to help establish dollmaking skills and techniques in the region. The result was the first akabeko toy, its design based on the 9th-century fabled red cow that helped to build Enzo-ji. The ornament was often given as a gift by local rulers to political dignitaries and with the local lord residing and governing from Aizu Wakamatsu, the city became the main production area of akabeko. Nowadays, akabeko is regarded as the symbol of Aizu and its motifs are ubiquitous throughout the region, from statues to souvenirs.

Makers of Akabeko

Akabeko are made by craftspeople using the Aizu hariko (papier-mâché) method, whereby a carved wooden mould is wrapped in washi (Japanese paper) which has been soaked in a specially prepared mix of glue and chalk. Once dry, the structure is split to remove the wooden mould and further layers of washi are applied to rejoin the two sections. Finally, the moulded parts are painted. To achieve the bobbing movement of the head, the moulded head and neck are suspended from a string, attached to the hollow body.

In 1997, akabeko became a designated craft of Fukushima Prefecture. Nowadays, only a few workshops remain where the technique of handcrafting akabeko continues to be passed down through generations. One such workshop is the family-run Nozawa Mingei Folk Craft Shop led by head craftsman Hōrin and his daughter Hayakawa Minako.

Nozawa Mingei Folk Craft

Head craftsman Hōrin established the workshop in Nishi-Aizu Town, Fukushima Prefecture, 1962, after having learned woodworking at a drawer-making factory, and has created designs and wooden moulds for a variety of folk toys for almost 60 years. His daughter, the second generation Nozawa Mingei Folk Craft artisan Hayakawa Minako first joined the workshop as a painter and now, more than 30 years on, creates her own toy designs. The workshop has been producing akabeko in the same design and form for the last 50 years.

Year of the Ox

The Ox is one of the 12 symbolic animals in the Japanese zodiac, which follows a 12-year astrological cycle. Although this system originated in China, it is an essential part of the New Year celebrations in Japan which occur in January in accordance with the solar calendar. In fact, the Japanese astrological calendar is a cycle of 60 years; each of the 12 animal signs can be combined with the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. In 2021, the Metal Ox 辛丑 or kanoto-ushi, is the 38th year in the cycle. Particularly for 2021, akabeko is an appropriate symbol due to its additional association with healing.

Akabeko are available in The Shop at Japan House London, along with a selection of other crafts from different regions of Japan.