• Art

Whimsical Designs Breathe Life into Handmade Paper Balloons

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Isono Kamifusen Seizojo’s paper balloons including rarely seen designs, such as a jellyfish, an octopus and a strawberry.

NIIGATA — Paper balloons are a regional specialty of Izumozaki, Niigata Prefecture, where they have been produced for more than 100 years. Traditionally, fishing is the main industry of this little town facing the Sea of Japan. Yet there are many days during winter when fishermen cannot sail because the sea often becomes rough.

“In 1919, the first president of our company started making paper balloons as a side job during winter,” said Shigeko Isono, 71, the fourth president of paper balloon manufacturer Isono Kamifusen Seizojo.

Today, the company’s paper balloons are made in the same fashion as in that bygone time.

Glassine paper is used. It is cut into boat-shaped pieces, eight of which are glued together to make a sphere. A piece of paper to seal the bottom of the sphere is glued on, as is another piece with an air hole at the top of the sphere.

Of the seven steps to make a paper balloon, three of the steps, including the gluing of the eight pieces of paper to form a spherical shape, are outsourced to artisans mainly in the prefecture. This tradition is a remnant of the days when work was shared in the fishing town during wintertime. This work-sharing system suits the way Izumozaki has been built, where houses are generally along a main street by the sea.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Completed paper balloons can become hanging ornaments.

“When you’ve done your part, you take it to the next house,” Isono said. “In this town, every household knew someone in the family or in the neighborhood who was involved in making paper balloons. It was pretty common to see people gluing paper or drying paper balloons near the entrances of their houses.”

Goldfish as turning point

Isono’s husband, Shinya, was the third president of the company. At the time of their wedding in 1987, children’s entertainment was already dominated by video games and toys manufactured by major companies, and their company only made two types of paper balloons. One was the traditional multicolor type. The other was printed with a poem by Ryokan, a Zen Buddhist monk who was born in the town in 1758.

The Isonos then thought of increasing the variety of paper balloons, hoping these objects would then stand out more at shops. One day while cleaning the office, they found a paper balloon shaped like a goldfish. This type of balloon with fins was made for export before World War II. The couple thought that they should make these goldfish balloons again.

She vividly remembers the day nearly 30 years ago when they started selling the revived version of the goldfish paper balloons.

“It coincided with the sports day at the school of our son when he was in first grade,” Isono said. “The night before, my husband and I stayed up all night preparing the goldfish balloons. We delivered them to shops and then went to the school. During a break, we received a phone call from our house. I wondered what it was, and the message we received was: ‘All sold out. Bring some more.’”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Shigeko Isono handles a paper balloon depicting a carp.

Excited by the good response, their company went on to produce paper balloons in more designs, such as carp and the Japanese crested ibis, both popular animals in Niigata.

After her husband’s death, Isono has been taking on the responsibility for designing new balloons.

“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and start making designs,” she said. One such item born from her trials and errors is the jellyfish paper balloon.

There are now 50-60 varieties, sold at souvenir shops and other places with prices starting from around ¥150.

Designated traditional craft

Other companies and workshops in the same trade have closed up shop as time goes on.

Isono said that as far as she is aware, “Ours is the last company standing.”

Long seen as just cheap gifts, paper balloons recently are being viewed with more value.

In May last year, handmade paper balloons in Izumozaki were designated as one of the 14 traditional crafts of Niigata Prefecture. The prefecture’s website introduces them as “the only one of its kind produced in the country.”

It was also last year that Isono Kamifusen Seizojo started a paper balloon workshop aboard East Japan Railway Co.’s luxury train Shikishima, which caters to tourists.

There are also athletes who use paper balloons while training. They can effectively train their muscles by trying not to crush a paper balloon in their hands while making certain movements.

“There is freedom in the designs of and how to use paper balloons,” Isono said. “There may come a time when they get used for some unexpected purposes, which I look forward to seeing.”