Japanese Tin Toys: Star of The 20th Century Japan

The Japanese are extremely popular for being able to create goods of top-notch quality - from electronics to cosmetics, and even clothing. Their quality for producing items is at par, if not even better than their western counterparts. Today’s article tackles the long-lost industry of tin toys, which was not originally of Japanese origin. However, the Japanese created outstanding tin toys that it became an important part of an era that is now long gone.

From Germany to Japan: How Tin Toys Became Part of Japanese History

Toys made from tin called “tinplate” were first made during the 1800’s. These toys were crafted from very thinly cut sheets of steel, that were plated in tin. The rise of tin toys came out of the need to replace wooden toys with an alternative that was more cost-efficient and durable.

The first signs of tin toys in human history were in 18th-century Germany, wherein toys made from tinplate were originally handmade from the cutting of the plates, up to the assembly and design process. The Germans were also responsible for improving tin toy designs through time.

The first development from static tin toys came when the Germans came out with the spring activated toys. These toys were implanted with a spring, which allowed the toy to create movement using the mechanism inside.

While the Germans enjoyed the privilege of pioneering the tin toy industry, it’s downfall coincided at the wake of the First World War. As the popularity of Germany began to waver, along with the increasing anti-German sentiment, German-made tin toys begin to waver in popularity as well. A lot of toy manufacturers in the United States took the opportunity to replace Germany as a viable manufacturer for tin toys. In the 20’s, the American tin toy industry began to boom.

While the late 1800’s up to the early 1900’s saw the rise of German toymaker Ernst Paul Lehmann, the 20’s paved way for the rise of American Louis Marx and Company as the largest manufacturer in the world. However, in the wake of the Second World War, the manufacturing of tin toys was ceased to divert steel into arms production.

It was only after the Second World War when a struggling Japan started to engage in the manufacturing of tin toys. At the time, Japan was struggling to rebuild it’s nation after it had fallen from the Second World War. The nation had just spent a lot on war-efforts alongside Germany and had a lot of structural damage from attacks made by the United States and its allies.

The rise of Japan’s tin toy industry marked the start of a new era in Japan, which later on would not only rebuild its nation after war damages but would rise to become one of the richest and most advanced nations in the world.

High Standards of Japanese Marksmanship Shown in Tin Toy Industry

A few years after the end of the Second World War, tin toys which were once produced by western companies shifted to Japanese manufacturers. A large number of demand for tin toys worldwide was met with a challenge by Japanese toy makers. In line with Japan’s goal to rebuild it’s nation post-war, manufacturers were given the rights to produce large quantities of tin toys.

In partnership with America, who was once Japan’s enemy in the war, the goal was giving Japan the chance to earn low profits by bulk manufacturing of tin toys, which would, in turn, be sold in the American market by US-based companies. Despite the hardships from the previous years, Japan rose to the challenge above what anyone had expected and became a tin toy manufacturing force.

So where are tin toys now? While there are still some tin toys being manufactured at present, the rather small demand is now being met by Chinese manufacturers who have beat the Japanese at reducing production costs. China is now the ultimate go-to place for suppliers who wish to have something mass produced for cheap. The only downside is that the low cost sometimes translates to poor quality, while Japanese quality standards remain unparalleled.

Popular Designs of Japanese Tin Toys:

There are different types of tin toys available in the market, but some designs are more popular than the others. Below is a list of all the types of tin toys ever produced since the beginning of time.

Vehicles: Cars, Trains, Helicopters, and Boats

The first, and undoubtedly the most popular form of tin toys are designed after vehicles. Thanks to the presence of the spring mechanism, the tin toys are able the movement of the vehicle to give make it roll on its wheels, or make it seem like it is flying or floating. It is quite astounding to look back at all the tin toys design ever made as there is an equivalent that could be found for all types of vehicles.

With the popularity of tin toys designed in the form of vehicles, they are sold in different formats. There are stand-alone tin toys which can be played on its own, requiring only the vehicle solo. On the other hand, it was also quite popular back then to sell vehicular tin toys with supplementary scenery and backdrops. For example, a train tin toy would be sold with a backdrop of a train station or railways. Nevertheless, tin toys designed after vehicles became so popular and sought after that any kind from that era would have owned at least one during his or her childhood.


After vehicles, the second most popular form of tin toys is robots. The rise in popularity of this type of tin toys is also, more importantly, tied to human history. As a matter of fact, robotic tin toys peaked in popularity during the 50’s and 90’s. The reason for such is because it was the time when different nations were struggling to be the first to successfully explore space. Everyone was getting carried away with the space race during this time that it also affected media and pop culture. Hence, science fiction movies rose in popularity during this time.

An interesting fact about tin toys designed as robots is that it is the most sought-after collectible as deemed by tin toy collectors. Robotic tin toys are even more popular than vehicular thin toys for collectors nowadays, thus are priced more expensively as well.

Characters: Animals and Characters from Movies or TV Shows

Catering to the younger segment of the market are tin toys designed for animals. These toys are quite popular with younger children. In fact, during this era, it is common for a child’s first toy to be a wind-up or pull string tin toy. 

Aside from animals, other tin toys are made after popular characters in media such as cartoon characters, which are often a hit among the children. These also allowed movies and tv franchises to expand on their marketing through creating collectible toys that fans could either purchase or receive for free. An example of a Japanese company which has taken advantage of creating tin toys from popular media franchises in Bandai.

General Category: Wind-up Toys

Due to the mechanism that controls tin toys, they are perfectly suited for any toy with a wind-up design. While the tin cars show movement with the wheel or the robot and animal tin toys walk and jump when activated, the possibilities of creating wind-up toys are endless. Other examples of tin toys in this category are jewelry boxes, dollhouses, carousels and the like.

Present Value of Japanese Tin Toys

Before anyone gets into the hobby of collecting vintage tin toys, one must always remember that it would require a hefty amount of money. Of course, this goes for collecting any form of rare antique or vintage items as they are now rare and sought after by avid collectors.

By doing a simple research on how much it would cost to buy pieces of tin toys, it was found that the lower end of prices for tin toys is at $100. This is quite expensive, considering how tin toys were deemed to be as cost-efficient and affordable toys back then. Of course, the price takes into consideration the rarity and the condition of the item. On the other spectrum, tin toys can cost up to thousands of dollars. Below is a little guide on how to determine the value of tin toys.

The primary factor that collectors must look out for when buying tin toys is the condition. Like any collectible items, tin toys are preferred when they are in close to perfect condition. This is why Barbie’s that remain boxed sell more than those that have been opened. 

Since most of these toys are at least a couple of decades old, it is rather rare to find one in pristine condition. However, there is only an acceptable level of wear and tear for these toys. Physical wear and tear are acceptable, such as fading of the painted exterior. What isn’t acceptable, on the other hand, is wear and tear on the internal mechanism that comprises the toy.

Authenticity is another factor that must be given a lot of importance. When in doubt, there are experts which provide a service (that comes with a fee) dedicated to authenticating tin toys. The safest route usually would be to look for toys manufactured by popular companies back then to ensure that the tin toys are really from a certain era and not a poorly made China production from only ten years ago.

The last consideration is whether a toy has been restored. In the first point, it was stated how important it is for a toy to be in pristine condition. However, collectors have various reactions towards restored toys. For some, getting a toy in pristine collection makes a worthy display, regardless of whether it has been restored or not. On the other hand, for others collectors, restoring diminishes the value of a collectible as it tampers with the natural aging of the item.