The Toy Maker
Morito Toyonaga creates toys that are miniature works of art. His designs have been exhibited in Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Sendai and Okinawa. He has a love of traditional techniques that would otherwise disappear.
Morito Toyonaga studied sculpture at Okinawa Prefectural Art University and the School of the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, Massachusetts. His interest in sculpture blossomed into a passion for preserving the skills once used to create Okinawan children’s toys. In 2002, he set up his own toy store called Road Works beside Shuri Castle.
What materials do you use to create the toys?
“Some of the figurines are sculpted from wood, while the stuffed toys are fabric filled with cotton balls. The majority of my toys, however, are made from papier-mâché. To create these paper toys, I start by carving a wooden mold. I then layer a mixture of newspaper, brown paper and glue onto the outside of the mold. The wooden core can then be removed, leaving a thin paper skin. To strengthen the toy, I mix powdered sea shells with strong glue and paint this onto the brittle structure. After several layers of the mixture, the paper has a tough outer coating. I then use traditional Japanese powder paint mixed with more glue for a final colored layer. The last things to be done are the intricate details like the manes of horses or hats for people.”
Your elephants are bright blue and your horses are scarlet. What influences your choice of colors?
“For the more traditional designs, I look at paintings and photographs of original toys stored in Okinawan museums. Unfortunately, because the toys are made of paper, not many of them have survived. The photos did show that certain animals were always painted with the same colors – such as bright red horses. With modern designs I can be more flexible, but I still tend to stick with bright primary colors.”
Do you get inspiration from other forms of art?
“I have an interest in African tribal art, but my designs are very much based around Okinawa. My modern toys include miniature versions of Japanese police boxes, shîsâ, and Naha City’s monorail. I have even created a small paper toy based on my dog.”
Who usually buys your creations?
“Although these are toys, most of them are not given to children. The traditional designs are very popular with collectors of Okinawan crafts. The more modern pieces are often bought by young women they like the cute designs, and they’re a great souvenir to remember a visit to Okinawa.”
(Interview first published Okinawa Living Magazine May 2006)