Simanaitis Says

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THE WHEEL IN JAPAN

THE WORD 車, KURUMA, vehicle, appears in the ancient historical chronicle Nihon shoki, 720 A.D. However, as noted in The Wheel: A Japanese History, “In China, whose influence on the formation of Japan’s ancient civilization was to be profound, vehicles existed from much earlier times. During the Shang dynasty of the thirteenth century B.C., lightweight two-horse chariots appear to have been in use for warfare, and in the Chou dynasty that followed, wheeled carts of various sizes were employed for the hauling of goods.” 

The Wheel: A Japanese History, by Yoshida Mitsukuni, Toyo Kogyo, 1981.

How appropriate that this book is part of a Japanese cultural series published by Toyo Kogyo, founding company of today’s Mazda. Others in the series have appeared here at “Japanese Aesthetics, Courtesy of Mazda.” 

Here are tidbits on Japan’s wheeled culture gleaned from Mitsukuni’s book, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.

Geographical Discouragement. “Ancient Chinese civilization,” Mitsukuni noted, “was centered in the arid northern region, and vehicles functioned in much the same ways there as in the Near East. Japan, on the other hand, lies in a humid climate, where vehicles are difficult to use without good roads. The geography of the country, moreover, is characterized by long ranges of mountains extending from north to south, from whose height flow countless rivers, cutting across the path of any roads built along the coasts.”

“These factors,” Mitsukuni explained, “hampered the construction and maintenance of continuous level roads for centuries. Long-distance transportation of goods was usually by ship, and a combination of routes hugging the seacoasts and running up and down the rivers constituted the main transportation network of pre-modern Japan.” 

Mitsukuni noted that Japan’s earliest rulers and their immediate families “did not ride in carriages on wheels, but were carried in covered or open palanquins (koshi) shouldered by several bearers.” 

Wheeled Vehicles and Festivals. “Wheeled vehicles,” Mitsukuni wrote, “proved convenient within limited areas on level grounds, and they became popular in Kyoto and other major cities. They even became part of annual festivals held to welcome the deities visiting from the distant heavens, perhaps the most important event in the cities.”

Model from the author’s collection. See “Japanese Folk Art” here at SimanaitisSays.

“Today as well,” Mitsukuni said, “elaborately decorated vehicles play a vital role in many of the festivals celebrated across Japan. These floats, upon which the gods are believed to ride, are drawn along specified routes in each neighborhood bringing good fortune and happiness to its residents.”

The Wheel in Design. Mitsukuni observed that “to use the wheel motif was to partake of the power of the gods or of the privilege of the nobility.”

“The outer curtains of the people’s open-air Kabuki theater bear a pattern of impressive wheel crests.” This and the following images from The Wheel.

The Wheel as Utility. Waterwheels were found “in every civilization in the world as a mechanism for utilizing the power of water. The uses of the waterwheel were generally two,” Mitsukuni noted, “to generate energy and to raise water from rivers for irrigation.” 

A waterwheel operating a mill grinding wheat in Onden, Edo. 

This is one of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji by the 19th-century woodblock print master Hokusai.

Wheels From the West. Commodore Matthew Perry’s Black Ships entering Edo Bay in 1853 were “smoke-belching vessels propelled by huge exterior paddle wheels,” the first steamships seen by the Japanese, noted Mitsukuni. 

One of Perry’s four Black Ships.

Mitsukuni wrote, “Plans were subsequently made to build paddle-wheel steamers in Japan itself and shipyards were constructed at Nagasaki in the west and Yokosuka in the east…. The year 1868 signaled the end of the feudal society ruled by the Tokugawa clan.” 

The Meiji Era was a period of adopting Western ways, including wheeled travel. The first Japanese railway, imported from England, was completed in 1872. It made the 18-mile trip from Shimbashi [in central Tokyo] to Yokohama in about 53 minutes. 

Could other wheeled vehicles be far off?

Mitsukuni said, “In Tokyo in 1911 there were 82 automobiles, 12,547 bicycles, 156 horse-drawn carriages and 22,403 rickshas.” It has scads more automobiles today, though I suspect rather fewer rickshas. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022  

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