I went to the Edo Tokyo Museum the other day and learned a new Japanese word: “tsurikawa.”
It means “strap” – specifically, the kind of strap that bus and subway riders hold onto when they can’t get a seat. It’s an item so ordinary as to be practically invisible, which makes it an excellent blank slate for artists and designers to try their ideas on. More than 30 creative people recently tried to reimagine or reinvent the tsurikawa, and their results are on display as part of the museum’s special exhibition on the history of Tokyo mass transit.
Here are my five favorites from the show:
The most humorous design was Hiroki Shinmen’s “Napolitan Tsurikawa,” which draws on Japan’s unrivalled prowess in the field of plastic “sample” food. Although it’s a delight to look at, I imagine it might be difficult to clean if it were adopted in practice. But this could easily be dealt with by encasing the spaghetti inside a clear Lucite ring to give it a smooth, wipeable surface.
Osamu Gunji’s design shocked me at first – it looks like a hangman’s noose. But if the form is alarming, it’s function is admirable. As explained on an accompanying sign, this is a tsurikawa that you can carry with you and install anywhere. It might be handy to use when the train is crowded – or if you are worried about picking up germs from straps that strangers have handled.
Miki Kobayashi’s design is also an interesting piece of engineering, but I give it higher points for thinking outside of the box than for practicality of application. An accompanying diagram shows this double-ended tsurikawa on a pulley being used by an adult and a child together. The adult holds his or her end high, allowing the other end to drop low enough for the child to reach. So far, so good. But if the train braked quickly and the tsurikawa suddenly had to support the adult’s full weight, the child would be catapulted into the ceiling. This could be adapted as a piece of playground equipment, but doesn’t appear safe for use aboard a moving vehicle.
Ayako Natsume was one of several designers who created tsurikawa that could be used by several people at once. Of those, her design was the most visually appealing and probably the most practical. She describes it as being jewel-shaped, and suggests that it could be installed in several different colors. I like its compactness and the fact that it includes firm, straight bars divided into clear single-handhold lengths. Other multi-person designs included hula-hoop shapes hung parallel to the ceiling (which has the advantage of easily allowing several riders to hold on at once, but would be an annoyance to tall riders who would have to duck again and again as they walked down the aisle) and a cotton-string fishnet hung just below the ceiling (which has the advantage of being within easy reach no matter where one happened to be standing, but would present even greater cleaning challenges than the spaghetti tsurikawa).
The most revolutionary design was this one by Shinsuke Sakamoto. It takes a whole new approach to the concept of “grip” by replacing the ring or handle of an ordinary tsurikawa with a small segment of a rock-climbing wall. Sakamoto suggests that using this item could be considered a form of “brain training,” but it seems clear that his own brain gets plenty of exercise.
The tsurikawa exhibition is part of a special show on the history of Tokyo mass transit through Sept. 10 at the Edo Tokyo Museum. Admission is 1,300 yen. You can find the show described in English at the museum’s website here, but there is no English signage at the show itself. In addition to the tsurikawa section, the show includes several substantial artefacts (including a vintage trolley car), but most of the items on display are signs, ticket stubs, and other documentary items that are likely to be of interest only to serious specialists.