In the early 20th century Germany had become one of the leaders in toy production, especially tin toys. This made other countries take notice, with American companies like Chein and Louis Marx & CO creating beautifully delicate, lithographed toys. At the same time Japan was scrambling to get a piece of the market, but the toys that came out of Japan during the 1920s and ‘30s were cheap – cheap prices, weak materials and overall poor quality. Oftentimes their toys were produced from cheap recycled cans, with the original labels and markings still visible.
It wasn’t until after WWII that Japan really stepped into the limelight with its toys. Under the Marshal Plan, Japanese manufacturers were given the go ahead to resume production of tin toys to be imported cheaply into the United States. These postwar tin toys of the 1950s were second to none in terms of lithography and mechanical devices. Many toys were not just wind-up any more – they were being produced with batteries that offered more features to be included like flashing lights and sounds.
The postwar tin toys still included ever-popular circus toys because of the great combination of colors and actions. Clowns were made to roller skate, walk on their hands and play musical instruments. Japanese manufacturers produced a wide-array of small tin-toys, but none were more successful than the American car models. During the 1950s and ‘60s, Japan began producing replica tin toy cars that were incredibly close in detail to the real thing. Manufacturers were pumping out replicas of Ford, Packard, Lincoln, Chevrolet, Belair, Buick, Cadillac and every other big name car company to the delight of American consumers. The realism in these toys didn’t stop at just the aesthetic value – they also included realistic play features. Many cars came equipped with clockwork and friction motors, and later models sometimes featured remote control and battery-powered headlights.
The Japanese tin toy market declined in the 1960s when plastic replaced other toy materials. However, the popularity of Japanese tin toy cars has managed to extend into modern day. In New York this fall there was even a display at the Japan Society Museum called “Buriki: Japanese Tin Toys from the Golden Age of the American Automobile.” The exhibition featured an impressive collection of 70 tin toy cars made by various Japanese Designers including the very rare 1962 Chrysler Imperial and a 1955 Oldsmobile with a camping trailer attached. The exhibit showcases not only the golden age of the American automobile, but also the rapid rebirth of postwar Japan.