Akabeko (red cow) is a traditional toy from the Aizu region of Japan. The toy is made from two pieces of papier-mâché-covered wood, shaped and painted to look like a red cow or ox. One piece represents the cow's head and neck and the other its body. The head and neck hangs from a string and fits into the hollow body. When the toy is moved, the head thus bobs up and down and side to side.
Aizu legend claims that the toys are based on a real cow that lived in the 9th century and showed its devotion to Buddha by willing its soul away or by refusing to leave the site of a temple it had helped to construct. The earliest akabeko toys were created in the late 16th or early 17th century. Over time, people came to believe that the toys could ward off smallpox and other illnesses. Akabeko has become one of Fukushima Prefecture's most famous crafts and a symbol of the Aizu region.
According to an Aizu-area legend recorded by Thomas Madden, akabeko toys are based on a real cow that lived in AD 807. At that time, a monk named Tokuichi was supervising the construction of Enzoji, a temple in Yanaizu. Upon the temple's completion, a red ox that had been used to haul timber to the site gave its spirit to Buddha, and its flesh immediately turned to stone. Another version of the tale claims that the cow instead refused to leave the temple grounds after construction had been completed and became a permanent fixture there. The red cow was called akabeko (abeko is Aizu dialect for cow) and became a symbol of zealous devotion to the Buddha.
Akabeko toys date to the late 16th or early 17th century. Toyotomi Hideyoshi had solidified his power over Japan, and he sent his representative, Gamo Ujisato, to be the lord of the Aizu region in 1590. At his new post, Ujisato heard the story of akabeko and ordered his court artisans, who had accompanied him from Kyoto, to create a toy based on the red cow. These early papier-mâché akabeko introduced most of the basic elements for which the toy is known.
In the same period, Japan suffered a smallpox outbreak. People in Aizu noticed that children who owned akabeko toys did not seem to catch the illness. The akabeko's red color may have enhanced this association, since red amulets are thought to protect against that illness. Akabeko toys became very popular as charms to ward off sickness, a superstition that persists in modern times. The toy has since become one of the few crafts from Fukushima Prefecture to be known all over Japan and a symbol of the Aizu area.
Akabeko are made by fewer than a dozen family-run workshops, whose members have passed down the technique for generations. The process takes about 10 days to complete. The artisan begins by wrapping wetted washi (Japanese paper) around two blocks of wood, one shaped like the cow's body, and the other shaped like the head and neck. These blocks have often been used for several generations. Once the paper dries, the artisan splits it in two lengthwise and removes the wooden blocks. The craftsperson then rejoins the pieces of molded paper by wrapping more layers of washi around them.
The artisan paints the toy, beginning with black, then adding the characteristic red, and finally the white eyes and other details. The akabeko's markings vary from workshop to workshop. The artisan finishes the toy with a thin coat of lacquer.