By Jean Clark
In Pleasant Hill resides an expert puppeteer and “spintastics” expert, Janell Landis. On Tuesday, Nov. 5, at 3 p.m. in Adshead Hall on the lower level of Fletcher House for Assisted Living in Uplands Village, she will demonstrate some of her Japanese tops. Many other intricate, beautiful tops will be on display at that time.
After Heidelberg College in Tiffin, OH, and studying Christian education at Eden Seminary in St. Louis, Landis received an opportunity to go to Japan in 1953. She learned that it would be possible for her to go to Japan to teach English for three years without learning the Japanese language or making a lifetime commitment. Forty-two years later, her life’s work in Japan was obviously meant to be. Although most of her career was teaching English in Sendai, Japan, at a Japanese Christian school, she did spend two years learning Japanese in Tokyo.
In the beginning years, because she couldn’t speak the language of her girls, they had to find other ways to communicate. They interacted in many ways through recreation, hikes, sharing food and visits to each others’ homes. Jan first worked with puppets at a church in Ohio in 1950. As a child she loved to do imitations and impersonations. She brought some puppets to Japan. A Japanese friend, Michi Sato, made many of her Japanese puppets.
Puppets have a way of making everyone less inhibited. She soon discovered that her puppets could help her teach English to her Japanese students. They have been useful tools in classes as well as helping her share her Christian faith both in Japan and here in Cumberland County. She even used them on a Japanese television series to teach English to homemakers. Presently, she has more than 30 puppets made from a variety of substances.
In 1982, Landis began studying with Michiaki Hiroi, who was one of the surviving craftsmen making Edo tops and toys. Edo is the old name for Tokyo. He made the tools and prepared the wood that she used on her own lathe in her “top shop.” In countries such as Japan and China, top-spinners are respected adult public entertainers. Jan has created countless tops of many types both in Japan and here in Pleasant Hill.
There are twirlers, cord spinners, “tippee” tops (they flip over), unique sets of tops sporting a particular theme both Japanese and American. For several years a large department store in Sendai featured the tops made by her and other apprentices of Hiroi for sale after the Japanese New Year. An avid Lady Vols fan here in Tennessee, she made tops for Pat Summit and the team. They always look for her and her puppet, Darling, dressed in orange at the basketball games.
Landis retired as a missionary with the United Church of Christ Board for World Ministries and has been in in Pleasant Hill since 1995. Not only does her cousin live in Uplands, but several former Japanese missionaries she met while serving in Japan, retired here as well. Landis was invited back to Japan for the dedication of a junior and high school special activities building named in her honor – Landis Kan — in Sendai.
She enjoys visiting churches and nursing homes in Cumberland County and has appeared at Fair Park Senior Center and the Cumberland County Community Complex. She has served as a volunteer and board member for Avalon, working in fundraisers and the Second Chance Store. She also volunteers at many other places in Pleasant Hill.
This week in Pleasant Hill:
• Charles McCollough sculptor — Friday, Oct. 25, at 10 a.m. and Sunday, Oct. 27, at 9 a.m., in the Pleasant Hill Community House across from the Pleasant Hill Post Office.
• Scenic City Chorale from Chattanooga — Sunday, Oct. 27, at 3:30 p.m. in Pleasant Hill Community Church across from the Pleasant Hill Elementary School.