Simple local toys made by hand
Handing down the skills passed down from our ancestors to the next generation.
Konoha-zaru, or Konoha monkeys, are simple toys made of unglazed clay in the Konoha area of Gyokuto Town. We interviewed Mr. Reizou Nagata of the Konoha-zaru Kiln.
Reizo Nagata Born in 1937.He studied under his father, Takeji, from the age of 20, and became the seventh generation. His daughter, Sae Kawamata, is the eighth generation of the family to work with him.
A Unique Toy Born from a Legend
It is said that the “Konoha-monkey” was born from a mysterious legend about 1,300 years ago.
―What is the origin of the Konoha monkey?
It is said that in 723, a refugee from the capital made items to be offered at a shrine using the red clay found at Mt.Konoha after he received a divine message in his dreams. According to legend, the leftover clay he threw away transfigured itself into monkeys.
Konoha-monkey is a symbol of the wish to ward off evil and misfortune, and to pray for the prosperity of descendants.
―There are many different kinds of monkeys
Monkeys on horses, monkeys holding children, three wise monkeys, etc. have been handed down from generation to generation. We have about 15 to 16 different types, including newer products such as wall hangings.
Humorous expressions created by fingertips
Konoha-monkeys are made by twisting clay into shapes with the fingers and baking them unglazed.
―What is unique about Konoha Monkey?
Everything is handwork. It is just like children’s clay works. The charm is that the shapes are created one by one by hand.
―What is the key to making them?
Traditionally, Konoha-monkey has a slightly upturned face and a humorous expression. I make my monkeys hoping to make them as fun as possible.
―What is the interesting part of your production?
I enjoy making the big Konoha-monkeys. I have to concentrate to make it. It is hollow inside and shrinks more than 10% when baked. Sometimes it takes two people to make it. I have to harden the soft clay a little before using it, but it is difficult to find the right timing and requires intuition based on many years of experience.
The only remaining kiln
Until around the Meiji era (1868-1912), there were four kilns producing this type of pottery, but today, this kiln is the only one producing Konoha-monkeys.
―Please tell us about the Nagata family.
As far as I can tell from the records, I am the seventh generation, but I believe there has been a longer history, since the Konoha monkey has a history of about 1,300 years.
When my father was a child, about a hundred years ago, there were several kilns, but now we are the only ones.
―Have you been interested in it since you were a child?
When I was a child, I used to play and make something with my father by my side. I remember my father praising me when I was good at it. Even now, my grandchildren come over and make things.
―What are some of the new products you have started to make?
Due to requests from our customers, we started making dolls of the Chinese zodiac about 40 years ago. Traditional crafts are difficult to make a living just by making one thing, so I started making zodiac signs.
Passing on the Dream to the Next Generation
Nagata’s third daughter, Sae Kawamata, is the eighth generation to make Konoha Monkey together.
―Please tell me about successors.
I have three daughters, and my third daughter has been determined to succeed me since she was a child. I often hear that there are no successors in traditional crafts, so I am very happy to hear that. I hope my daughters will do her best.
―What does tradition mean to you?
I think our ancestors had to work hard to continue making Konoha-zaru for so many years. It must have been very difficult to keep the tradition alive.
I am working very hard to preserve this tradition so that it will not be lost in my generation.
Our ancestors left us fine Konoha-zaru for generations, and I believe it is my mission to pass the baton to the 8th generation.
―For the future
It is now time for the next generation, the eighth generation.
This kiln is a Japanese-style building that fits the atmosphere of a Konoha monkey. We have a garden here, and we hope that it will be a place where visitors can come here to relax and spend time in peace and quiet.
My dream is that this place will be crowded with many people and that the Konoha monkey will flourish even more. I hope that the 8th generation will carry on this dream.
※The information is current as of March 2022.
A simple and humorous Konoha-zaru. Because they are handmade, each one has a different color and expression, which is fascinating.
■ Konohazaru kamamoto 60 Konoha, Gyokuto Town, Tamana County, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan "Konoha-zaru" is said to have been made about 1,300 years ago, are simple toys made of unglazed clay by hand. Currently, only the Konoha-zaru kiln continues to produce these toys.