History of Kokeshi Dolls

Kokeshi dolls have been a part of Japanese folk handicraft for several eras. Their origins and the reasons associated with the same are extremely interesting. In this Buzzle article, we will explore the varied factors associated with the history of kokeshi dolls.
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Difference between traditional and creative Kokeshi dolls
Did You Know?
An annual All Japan Kokeshi Competition is held in the Naruko district, and the most creative kokeshi doll receives the Prime Minister's Award.
Kokeshi dolls are a part of the rich heritage of Japan, and their simple, yet unique, wooden, handcrafted designs have put these dolls on the world map. These dolls have a simple, straight trunk with no limbs, and an enlarged head. A few, thin lines painted on the face make up their facial features. Traditionally, these dolls were crafted in only 3 colors―either red, black, or sometimes, yellow. However, modern artists now foray into different designs and colors as well. Interestingly, no two expressions of the kokeshi are ever the same. This is because the faces of the dolls are hand painted.

Believed to have originated from the Tohoku region in northern Japan, these dolls are said to date back to the early 17th century in the middle of the Edo period (1603-1867). The Tohoku district is well-known for its hot spring (onsen) resorts, and it is said that the woodworkers (kijiya) who used to make bowls and trays began making simple dolls in much the same manner. These dolls were meant to be sold as toys and souvenirs for the tourists who visited the springs.

While this is one of the most popular theories of why and how these dolls came into existence, there are several others as well that are associated with the same.

The History and Meaning

While kokeshi dolls continue to be used as mementos and souvenirs, and in that way have continued with their theory of being mainly ornamental in practice, there are several other theories that kokeshi dolls represent as well.

While the kijiya crafted these dolls for the tourists as souvenirs, many believe that given their design, unpainted versions of the dolls were also used as massage apparatus for the visitors to the hot springs, who used these dolls to tap their shoulders while they bathed.

It is also said that these dolls were often handed over by farmers to their children to play with, because they believed this would appease the gods and bring in a good harvest.

During the Edo period, the kokeshi were considered to be the guardians of children and the keepers of their souls. They acted as teething toys and some Naruko-type kokeshi even had a head which could be twisted to make a squeaking sound―much like a child crying. Thus, these dolls were considered images of the children themselves and were expected to watch over them as they grew up, and more importantly, keep them from harm.

These dolls were sometimes associated with mountain spirits because they were made of wood. It was also believed that children existed in a gray area between the human world and the spirit world, and so, kokeshi dolls were sometimes given to them because they were closest to the spiritual realm. Once the children grew up, however, the dolls were burned so that the mountain spirit could return to the mountain. Which is why it is very difficult to find kokeshi dolls from the Edo period.

Another theory also suggests that these dolls were given to those women who had lost a child either through an abortion or through miscarriage. The dolls were then placed along with the photographs of other deceased family members as a sign of remembrance. This theory became highly popular in the 1960s when the means of abortion became more accessible to the public. What fueled this theory further was the fact that it became popular that the word 'kokeshi' was derived from the kanji words 'ko (child) and kesu (erase)' which in combination meant 'erase' and 'child'. However, this theory might not necessarily be true, because, as we now know, there are several traditional words which could be used to make the word kokeshi, like 'small', 'wooden', and 'doll'.

The Traditional and Creative Kokeshi

Traditional Kokeshi

Traditional kokeshi doll Red traditional kokeshi doll Two traditional kokeshi dolls

The traditional kokeshi are produced only in 6 prefectures of Tohoku and are very simple in their designs―consisting of round heads and limbless bodies. The hair is painted on, and sometimes, it only frames the sides of the face. The straight bodies are based on the model of how a kimono-wearing woman would look.

The floral and linear patterns that are painted on the kimono are developed specifically in particular regions and are then passed down through generations. Interestingly, there are only 12 schools of design, and the distinctive features of these dolls allows experts to identify exactly where they have been produced (and often, by whom as well). These are the Tsuchiyu, Yajiro-kei, Togatta, Naruko, Hijiori, Sakunami, Zao, Kijiyama, Nanbu, Yamagata, and Tsugaru.

Creative Kokeshi

Creative kokeshi in red kimono Creative kokeshi in green kimono Creative kokeshi with pink bow Creative kokeshi with brown hair Creative kokeshi with umbrella Smiling creative kokeshi

The creative kokeshi are an addition that came into being after WWII. While the traditional kokeshi dolls have certain distinctive features that set them apart, the growing popularity of these dolls―usually as a collectible―have ensured that they continue to be in production. However, these are not designed to look like the traditional kokeshi, they are re-vamped and modernized to include a whole lot of designs, colors, and styles.

The modern dolls are usually made of wood from the cherry tree (used for its darkness), or mizuki and dogwood (used for its softness). The wood is treated for 1 - 5 years before it is used. Many believe that these dolls help in protecting their homes against a fire because the meaning of mizuki translates to 'water tree' and the wood itself is very moist.

The modern kokeshi are more shapely―in that they are more rounded to make them resemble the female form. A silhouette is often painted to give it the form of a woman's arms. There is an explosion of colors, kimono styles, designs on the kimono, the hairstyles, as well as the shape and size of these dolls. It is the unrestrained imagination of the artist that allows him to create the doll without any set frame.

In the annual competition that is held in the Naruko district, the old kokeshi dolls are burned as an offering for the local shrine. This tradition, it is believed, brings the artists luck so that they can make even more exquisite dolls in the following year. Don't forget to pick a kokeshi doll if you ever happen to visit Japan. It is one collectible that not only looks exquisite, but also has an interesting history behind its making.
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Published: July 18, 2014
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