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Toy Story

General Motors Oldsmobile Two-Door Sedan, 1955; with trailer. Yonezawa Gangu. Yoku Tanaka Collection.

Reviewed by Deborah Hay

If you fancy vintage cars, baby-boomer memorabilia or cool mid-century design, there’s big fun to be had this summer at the Japan Society in New York. Buriki: Japanese Tin Toys from the Golden Age of the American Automobile is a wonderful exhibit of 70 miniature vehicles, powered by batteries or friction motors, made in Japan during the 1950s and early ’60s.

    All manner of cars from Detroit’s heyday are represented in Buriki: Flamboyantly finned Eldorados. Studebakers with a “European look.” And Ford’s famous concept car, the Lincoln Futura, never produced but immortalized nonetheless as TV’s Batmobile. Also on display are assorted trailers, buses, speedboats, race cars and rockets.  

    Japan was already enjoying a global reputation for making quality tin toys (buriki is Japanese for “tinplate”) when World War II broke out, prompting a ban on the use of metals for anything other than military purposes. But the industry quickly rebounded after the war as Japan began exporting thousands of tin vehicles to a toy-hungry U.S. Faithfully styled after the big bold Cadillacs, Thunderbirds and Buicks coming out of Detroit, the exports buoyed an impoverished post-war Japan and, according to Joe Earle, director of the Japan Society Gallery, “salved a pent-up thirst for glamour and beauty.”


Ford Thunderbird Two-Door Coupe, 1956. Nomura Toys. Yoku Tanaka Collection.

Buriki includes an outstanding example of the first tin-toy car to reach American shores, a strikingly realistic 1950 Cadillac manufactured by Marusan. It arrived just before Christmas, 1953, available in both battery and friction models and in a range of colors. Yesteryear’s price: $2.

    Japanese toy makers tirelessly replicated Detroit styling, down to the tiniest headlamp. Marusan was the first to lithographically print striped or plaid fabric designs onto pressed-tin car seats for a more realistic appearance. Some makers used real chrome to produce their teeny door pulls and hood ornaments.


Chrysler Imperial Four-Door Hardtop, 1962. Asahi Gangu. Yoku Tanaka Collection.

Many buriki toys are highly collectible today. The 1956 Ford Fairlane Victoria, seen in royal blue and cream, is prized for its exceptional authenticity. But the hands-down Holy Grail of tin-toy cars is the1962 Chrysler Imperial Hardtop by Asahi: Swank and black, the four-door sedan is 15-plus inches long with a wraparound windshield, whitewall tires, a chrome grill guard and rocket-ship tail lights. The Imperial nameplate in gold script adds a regal touch.

    The exhibition includes a terrific display of original packaging that underscores the Japanese longing for the wealth and brashness of 1950s America. Illustrations depict smiling Caucasian families as they cruise through the scenic American west. The box for the1956 Plymouth Belvedere seems to speak to jetsetters, with images of The Great Sphinx, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, London’s Tower Bridge and the Statue of Liberty.

    Buriki presents highlights from the collection of Yoku Tanaka, a 65-year-old Japanese businessman who bought his first model car in 1961 when, at age 17, he wandered into a Tokyo toy shop and found himself “transfixed,” as he describes it, by a display. Today, his tin-toy collection fills a warehouse and part of his home. This is his first exhibition.

Buriki: Japanese Tin Toys from the Golden Age of the American Automobile is on view through August 16, 2009 at the Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, New York City.

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