At first glance, these matchbox labels may transport the inexperienced phillumenist instantly to childhood memories of Roald Dahl’s ‘James and the giant peach’. On further inspection, however, the characters illustrated in these Japanese wood blocks reveal a more obscure origin.
The story of Momotarō, although largely unfamiliar in the West, is a well known and loved Japanese folk-tale. Momotarō (often directly translated as ‘Peach Boy’) was the miracle child of an elderly couple who had not been favoured with the good fortune of having their own children.
Whilst washing clothes in the river one day, the old woman heard muffled cries coming from inside a giant peach which she had found floating downstream. She had pulled the peach out of the water with the idea of sharing it with her husband for lunch. On breaking open the peach, she found Momotarō in the middle and claimed him as her own son. The old couple was very happy finally to have a child of their own and lavished upon the boy love, attention, and a good education.
When Momotarō reached the age of about 15, filled with a love of his country, and desirous of an adventure, he set off on a quest to rid Japan of the ogres which had been plaguing the Japanese people for a number of years. On his travels he befriended a monkey, a dog, and a pheasant, all of which joined him on his quest. When the party reached the Island of Ogres, between them, Momotarō and his friends managed to outwit and destroy each and every ogre. They returned home triumphant, carrying many riches and precious jewels. By ridding the land of ogres, Momotarō and his animal companions not only released the Japanese people from the terror of ogres, but also became very rich and famous. Momotarō and his parents lived happily ever after.
Matchbox labels are eminently collectible today, and there are numerous websites and exhibitions which display fabulous collections ranging in subject from World War II propaganda to portraits of famous actors and actresses. The Japanese matchbox industry started somewhat slowly, as the local market was hindered by suspicions that matches were Christian magic. Once established, however, Japan soon became one of the leading manufacturers of matches, and arguably amongst the most interesting in terms of design and production of the labels. Those illustrated here were produced in Japan from 1876 to about 1890, using traditional woodblock printing techniques. – Elizabeth Mathew
Reference: Japanese prints: Japanese matchbox labels: Ramat-Gan, The Yechiel Nahari Museum of Far Eastern Art, 2005.
Carrying the peach. John Johnson Shelfmark: Labels 12 (83a) Proquest durable URL
Emerging from the peach. John Johnson Shelfmark: Labels 12 (83c) Proquest durable URL
Lifting the peach. John Johnson Shelfmark: Labels 12 (83b) Proquest durable URL
Copyright © 2009 Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Reproduced with the permission of ProQuest. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
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