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Are These Japanese American Antiques and Heirlooms Familiar to You?

We've collected and listed 20 of the most commonly mentioned Japanese American antiques and heirlooms that families have found in their cupboards, shelves, kitchens, and attics.

As we were discussing the concept of "heritage" for this issue, one of the recurring themes was the things we've inherited... or will one day inherit from our parents. We realized that these heirlooms, as well as the stories and memories that go along with them, are truly an important part of our family heritage and histories.

So we made this into a crowd-sourced list; we've collected and listed 20 of the most commonly mentioned items that families have found in their cupboards, shelves, kitchens, and attics. You'll find things like antique Japanese porcelain plates, vintage Japanese vases, and even common hand-me-down Tupperware.

Of course, I'm not a cultural anthropologist, so some of these item descriptions come from anecdotal stories.

Japanese Dolls

Many members in our community indicated that some of their dolls were made or acquired by their families prior to WWII. For the decorative dolls, my aunt indicated that some are from traditional/formal Japanese dances others are depicting a bride. Some, like the ones from my mother, are from Japanese folk tales. Let's also not forget that there are a variety of Hinamatsuri dolls and, of course, kokeshi dolls in various shapes and sizes.

Tupperware with "Burping Seal"

The burping seal, patented in 1954 by Earl S. Tupper, was a revolutionary food storage development allowing for the air-tight storage of food within plastic containers.

As our Nisei grandparents held onto these priceless pieces of storage magnificence, our families received the true reward of egg salad, chicken salad, chirashi, gyoza, and karaage found within.

Ceramic Serving Plate

New Year's Day and potlucks are the prime times where these heirlooms truly shine. My mouth waters as I imagine musubi, inari, and karaage carefully arranged on these plates.

The Community Center Cookbook

It's too bad that you can't vote multiple times on this item. I believe I have at least five of these, with my parents owning an additional five.

These cookbooks are filled with a mixture of the church or temple's favorite potluck dishes, all individually contributed by members. Most of our churches and community centers have developed at least one, if not more, of these over the years. In the words of my aunt, "these cookbooks are a goldmine when it comes to looking for 'Bachan-style' Japanese American comfort foods."

The Knitted or Crochet Blanket

Totally and completely "out" when it comes to modern interior decorative fashion, but totally and completely "in" with our hearts and memories. Knowing that our grandmothers crocheted these by hand from balls of yarn brought from the craft store makes them that much more special.

Spam Musubi Maker

Available in two sizes: the less efficient size (pictured) and the mass-production version.

Kimono, Obi, Yukata, Happi Coat

Representing both Japanese and Japanese American heritage, kimonos have been passed down through generations with its roots in Japan, and a happi coat is passed down with its origins at churches or temples.

Japanese Lacquer Box

Sometimes decorative, sometimes used to hold and display a potluck dish.

Mini Onigiri Maker

Insert rice, mold, and sprinkle with black sesame seeds or furikake.

Japanese Antique Vase

This is one of the most common Japanese household items. Vases come from different prefectures and feature different styles.

Kachi Kachi

Top Photo: Pro Version

Bottom Photo: Novice Version

I'll admit that while my mother can use the elastic-free, top version of the kachi kachi like an obon dancing professional, I still have to default to the children's version below. Actually, scratch that, I usually forget to bring them to obon and instead am left snapping my fingers as I dance.

A Smelly Toolbox

... I'll admit, while I appreciate all the hard work and sweat equity that was put in through these tools over two generations... they smell TERRIBLE (the smell contained within each and every one of these tools is also two generations of dried body odor)... but I'll still keep them.

Japanese Kitchen Knives

If you're lucky enough to have one of these vintage knives passed down, keep it sharp, and keep it in the family.

Interested in adding one of these to your own kitchen? Go here.

Japanese Kottohin

Kottohin means antiques. I suppose this is sort of a miscellaneous category, since these antiques can be found in so many different shapes, sizes, and mediums.

A Stack of Rafu Shimpo

(Often found in a basket just like this)

Technically these can be classified as an heirloom because in many cases, the Rafus are first received by the grandparent and then passed over to the household of the kids.

By the way, if the above is the case for you, you should think about subscribing to the Rafu Shimpo. Subscribe here.

Kobori Kuma

According to Wikipedia, these bear and fish sculptures are traditional Japanese crafts originally produced in Hokkaido; sources say that the bear held spiritual significance to the indigenous population of the island.

The wiki page also states that the kibori kuma has evolved into many variations. Some families claim their sculptures came from Japan, while others cited their original source as Yosemite, Mammoth... and even one from Las Vegas?

Hagoita

This item was brand new to me. My family members taught me that these paddles were used in a game called hanetsuki. Looking online, I discovered that hanetsuki is a game similar to badminton, expect without a net.

Some of my peers told me that these have also been used as fraternity heirlooms, but we'll not get into that here.

Toro Lantern

According to Wikipedia, a tōrō lantern is traditionally made of stone, wood, or metal.

We found a lot of these present in the front and backyards of our houses. A telltale sign that a house is either owned by a Japanese American or has a Japanese American landscape artist is seeing a meticulously groomed Japanese pine tree and this lantern.

Chanchanko

I miss my grandparents... This photo was taken on my grandpa's 88th birthday (it was actually a co-celebration, as he is a twin!) Please excuse the super tacky bubble lettering that I did with fat-tip highlighters in the background. In fact, that poster is masking our location, which is the Panda Inn in Cerritos, perhaps another cultural heirloom, as family-style Chinese food is popular for celebratory occasions.

His red hood and red vest are the chanchanko, which are supposed to be worn on the 60th birthday (according to online sources, he's supposed to be wearing a yellow version on his 88th birthday... but this is what we had).

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Article featured in this issue:
Heritage, Heirlooms, and Hand-me-downs
May 20, 2020

Because May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we wanted to shed light on some distinct "JA" topics that allow us to explore our heritage. From heirlooms to fundraiser dances to Japanese middle names, we're celebrating the things that make us proud to be Japanese American.

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