When were kaleidoscopes introduced into Japan?
How did kaleidoscopes travel from Europe to a Far East country?
The first kaleidoscope appeared in the historical writing of the Edo period and it was said to be brought by western people of the East India Company who visited Japan for trade and imitations were made in Osaka. It was 1819, only 3 years after Sir David Brewster invented the kaleidoscope. Due to the national isolation policy of the Edo Shogunate ( feudal government ), Japanese people were not exposed to many foreign things and they were very interested in items brought by those merchants. These items included telescopes, microscopes, prisms, glasses, glassware, projectors, watches, scissors, knives, toys and kaleidoscopes.

  The Japanese began making kaleidoscopes although only a few were kept until now.
This one is called °»Sarasa-Megane°… made in ca.1860. It has an equilateral 3 mirror system inside. The body was wrapped with Sarasa cloth ( Cotton cloth with flowery patterns, originally introduced from India and Java at that time )


Also the Dragonfly is mentioned as a tool for entertainment in the old encyclopedia published in this period.
There is a drawing that shows children looking through Dragonflies at an octopus shaped figure at a local festival.
Photos from the book Omocha Hakubutsukan
( Kyoto Shoin )



The feudal age ended after the Meiji Restoration ( 1868 ), and the social system of Japan was drastically changed. There were no more Samurai. In this period kaleidoscopes were known as °»Hyaku-iro Megane°… which literally meant °»Mirror tube with hundred colors°…. They were trendy items at first and then got quite familiar as toys for children. Since then kaleidoscopes have been enjoyed as toys that are sold at local fairs and shops along with cheap sweets.
In 1907 °»Sekai Yuugihou Taizen°…, a very interesting and comprehensive book on plays and games all over the world, was published by a teacher and in this book kaleidoscopes were introduced as scientific toys which were recommended for educational use.
It is interesting to know that there were people who acknowledged the educational use of kaleidoscopes at that time.
The first half of the 1900s was an era of wars in Japan. The kaleidoscopes did not survive these hard times and there are not many left from this period.

These two photos show items made in Japan before World War II ( 1920s-1930s ) and exported to the US. The owner got them at a US auction site.  

After Japan was defeated and occupied by the US, one of the first industries that revived was the toy industry. Many kaleidoscopes were produced in °»occupied Japan°… to export to the US. Some of them are still found in the US auction market or antique shops.


Postwar generations know kaleidoscopes just as toys and some of them have experience making them at school. Like many people in the US, Japanese grown-ups have nostalgic feelings for them. Paper tubes with reflecting materials set into them are the most popular type. Most Japanese people visualize this type when they hear the word °»Man-ge-kyou°…, the Japanese word for kaleidoscopes. This photo shows a typical example of this kind.



The kaleidoscope renaissance was on the move in the 1980s in the United States.
It took several more years for some Japanese people to find modern kaleidoscopes and try to introduce them into Japan.
There are many interesting stories about the first kaleidoscope of each person who got involved in this world at the early stage. It was around 1990 that some lucky Japanese people found kaleidoscopes in the US mainland, in Hawaii and in Japan. At first it was a casual individual experience for each of them. They were very shocked with the new style of kaleidoscopes and it was quite natural for them to try to introduce their discovery to the Japanese people.
The first store that sold American kaleidoscopes in Tokyo became the meeting spot of these people and later it has developed into the biggest group of kaleidoscope enthusiasts. In 1994 a kaleidoscope-only shop made an impressive debut.
Kaleidoscopes were introduced through the mass media and got the attention of the Japanese people, which provided opportunities for kaleidoscope artists and enthusiasts to get know each other.
Other opportunities to promote kaleidoscopes were exhibitions and shows at museums and department stores. There were eager people who have made every endeavor to organize kaleidoscope exhibitions at public museums. The first kaleidoscope museum in the world was opened in Japan.
More and more people started to enjoy looking into and making scopes. Some of them have attended the Brewster conventions to represent Japanese kaleidoscopes. Several groups of kaleidoscope enthusiasts were organized for the purpose of promoting kaleidoscopes. They are very active in many ways and became a big power in lifting the Japanese people°«s interest in kaleidoscopes.
There are many kaleidoscope making classes held in various places in Japan, which provide people with the joy of making scopes of their own. Several books on kaleidoscopes have been published, which give detailed information on every aspect of kaleidoscopes as well as an introduction of artistic works.
Finally I have to add one very important factor to the promotion of kaleidoscopes in Japan. We should know that at every stage of kaleidoscope history in Japan, Cozy Baker, the founder of the Brewster Society, always offered kind and generous support and help. We would like to thank her for her great achievement.

At the Aichi Expo in 2005, the biggest kaleidoscope in the world was being exhibited and enjoyed by many visitors from all over the world.

It is exciting to amaze and delight people with the power of kaleidoscopes. I hope this movement will spread all over the world and I would be glad if this website gives you a rough idea of Japanese kaleidoscopes.

Information and photos: Courtesy of Akinori Nakamura and Shinichi Ohkuma. Used with permission.