Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Some Things to Occupy Your Time

QUESTION: My mother has a large collection of figures stamped “Occupied Japan”—at last count over 200. Over the years, collecting them has become an obsession with her. What makes these figures so special and why do people like my mother love to collect them?

ANSWER: Some people like the innocent look of Occupied Japan figures while others collect them as part of the nostalgia of Post War America. But to truly understand what they’re all about, it’s necessary to look at the history of the time.

The surrender of the Japanese occurred on Aug. 11, 1945, and the signing of a treaty to finalize the ending of the war took place on the battleship Missouri on Sept. 3, 1945. The War took its toll on the once mighty Japanese Empire. Faced with damaged and destroyed buildings and factories, the country faced real hardship unless something could be done to restore its economy. Harry Truman assigned General Douglas MacArthur to oversee this process as well as the reestablishment of trade. The period in which this took place became known as the American Occupation of Japan and lasted until April 11, 1952.

Using what few buildings and little equipment that they had, the Japanese exported items beginning in the late 1940s, ranging from a majority of poorly made merchandise to high quality goods. It was the poorer quality goods that gained Japan a reputation for producing junk wares.

The U.S. Customs Service required that all Items entering the United States from Japan be marked "Made in Occupied Japan." However, no one common mark existed and manufacturers utilized more than 100 of them. Customs officials inspected the goods, and if they saw no mark, they often used a rubber stamp to add one. Some pieces made it through with no mark or simply with "Made in Japan." These items have little value for the collector of Occupied Japan collectibles. In order to be considered a collectible in this category, the item must have the "Made in Occupied Japan" mark.

Figurines were one of the most prolific items to come out of Japan during this time. Artisans produced them in a variety of shapes and sizes, from large porcelain likenesses of Colonial men and women to small ones of children and animals. . Figurines also served as lamp bases or candleholders.

One of the most popular figurine styles was the single man and single woman. These single figures came in all sizes and often depicted musicians. Since many talented Japanese artisans died in the War, the ones working in the Post-War factories copied many popular styles of porcelain figurines, including Dresden and Delft. Another type of single figurine depicted an Art Deco-style woman wearing a large hat and long, flowing skirt. At first glance, it’s often hard to tell the difference on the better-made pieces, but the poor quality ones lacked the fine detail of authentic Dresden pieces, for example.

Japanese artists also introduced figures of couples. Common scenes showed a man playing an instrument for a woman. Other pieces portrayed 18th-century couples dancing. Another common motif was the woman sitting and the man standing. Like other figurines, these pieces came in all sizes. The amount of facial detail differentiates the finer pieces from the poorer ones.

Though most of these figures were bound for the United States, the artisans also produced ethnic figurines, creating Siamese, Japanese, Mexican, Dutch, and African-American figures in single and couple combinations. These figurines, available in porcelain and bisque, showcased the ability of artisans to create colorful examples of dancers and musicians.

The presence of American servicemen served as an important influence for Japanese craftsmen. They began to emulate the familiar look of Western faces in their figures. Bisque and porcelain figures depicted American Indians in full costume. Cowboys also became popular subjects. .

Figures of children were big sellers. As the Japanese emulated the work of other artists to appeal to American consumers, they chose the Hummel style for many of the figurines of children. Bisque and porcelain figures portraying seated boys with bamboo poles became popular as adornments for the sides of fishbowls. Unfortunately, many of these fishbowl items haven’t survived intact and locating one is rare.

Hundreds of animal figurines first appeared in dime stores and cost mere pennies. A majority of the animals were small and intended to be decorative items for shelves. Many of these pieces showed animals in motion. In some cases, the animals took on human characteristics and artisans portrayed them playing instruments. Another example of the Japanese attempt to appeal to Americans came through the imitation of Staffordshire-style dogs which appeared in both bisque or porcelain.

The great variety of Occupied Japan figurines available is what drives most collectors. Post-War Japanese factories produced them in great quantities to fill the store shelves of American retailers.

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