What is this little wooden bird that stands about 7 inches tall?
His head comes off, and there’s a deep scooped-out area and a hole in its hindquarters.
This is a tobacco pipe holder, and it was made for export in Occupied Japan. Which brings me to a fascinating era of cross fertilization, during the winter of 1947 to the spring of 1952, when American forces occupied the defeated Japanese country and economy. The period is called Occupied Japan.
You will see the following objects from that period, and they are characterized by a kitschy kind of whimsical look made for the American servicemen, at first. Then the products were exported to the American dime store industry as the Japanese economy and industry grew.
The period produced thousands of reproductions of Hummel figurines and thousands of toothpick holders in all shapes. And many of these toothpick holders would be considered politically incorrect today.
The Japanese industry produced figurines that looked a little like Meissen (German 18th-century, porcelain lady figures, and their courtiers), tea sets, demitasse sets, vases, planters, Toby Mugs in the manner of Royal Doulton, cheap ceramic headed dolls, metal lighters, metal toys in thin cardboard boxes, ashtrays, black Americana in ceramic figurines (I said politically incorrect, didn’t I?), kitschy lamps and dinner services with European style flower patterns.
In essence, it was a mass of what we used to call Five and Dime material.
What happened to Japan, once the world leader in the porcelain industry, was that the economy after the war was horrific. The American forces were charged with helping rebuild the Japanese economy, and the American Occupying Force General Headquarters, the administrative arm of the force, specified that American interests would help rebuild the ceramics industry in Japan. Because of this, half of all items produced would be exported to the U.S., with the stamp “Made in Occupied Japan.”
Sometimes these wares were stamped (always under the glaze) simply this: “Occupied Japan.” If you have an export from Japan and it is ceramic or porcelain that is earlier than 1945, it might say “Nippon,” and if it is later than 1952, you will see a foil paper label that says “Japan.”
One of the most fascinating lines of objects to come out of Occupied Japan were objects made to capture the interest and pocketbooks of the GI’s stationed there. This is an area that is collected by those who do collect Occupied Japan material, and it features tobacco-related trinkets, because GI’s tended to smoke.
So we find lighters made of tin with erotic images, and little wooden birds made to hold pipes. Ash trays with all kinds of scenes were also popular, and for a few bucks a GI could collect souvenirs to take home. And boy, did they take these things home — in droves.
This era was fascinating because of the cultural overlay between the ancient artistry of porcelain and ceramic art in Japan through the ages, and what the American administration thought would be purchased by Americans.
Thus, porcelain — a treasure of Japan — was, during the Occupied Japan period, debased to form toothpick holders and ash trays, often with images and scenes that would appeal to the American market.
Thus, after the first wave of souvenir material made for the GI’s, Japanese ceramic factories made objects that flooded Woolworth, Kresge’s and similar dime stores back home.
It’s a little before my time, but I do remember my older cousins collecting little Dutch Girl figurines from the Woolworth’s in Deerfield, Ill. They were marked “Made in Occupied Japan.”
So inexpensive were these little trinkets that the term “Made in Japan” tended to mean that something was cheaply made.
Not anymore. And that is a great thing.
Today, the top designs, the top brands of porcelain and the finest of the fine in ceramics (not to mention technology and automotive design) are from Japan.
But the previous period of Occupied Japan, with its many forms of objects made for American consumption, tells the story of an occupation that was fraught with sad images and forms of a once wonderful art form.
That period was sad, but short-lived. Collectors would pay $150 for the little pipe holder.
And the era for collecting this material, because of the political incorrectness of many of the images and forms, is in the past. The 1980s was the heyday for collecting.
Today materials marked “Occupied Japan” bring half of what they did in the 1980s. Thankfully!
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.