While “ningyo” or human figurines can be traced to ancient Japanese rituals, it wasn’t until the Edo Period (1604-1868) that dolls truly flourished in Japan. In the Heien Period (794-1185), dolls were displayed as talisman to bring good luck or treated as amulets when placed by children’s bedsides to absorb evil spirits and thus protect the kids. In the Edo Period, though, these symbolic figurines became associated with celebrations, were given as treasured gifts, and eventually became adored playthings.

For example, “hina” dolls emerged out of a practice dating from the Heien Period in which straw dolls are sent floating down a river to carry the evil spirits they capture out to the sea. This ritual eventually became Hina Matsuri, also known as the Girls’ Day Festival or the Japanese Doll Festival, held on the third day of the third month. In the modern-day event, dolls are still floated down the Takano and Kamo Rivers, but they are caught to prevent them from tangling fishing nets before being burned at the temple.

In the early Edo Period, boys and girls had their own such evil-absorbing amulet dolls. A boy’s doll called “amagatsu” was made of bamboo or wood configured into a T-shape and then dressed in a doll-scaled kimono or wrapped in a piece of the child’s clothes. This doll was burned when the boy came of age. The girl’s doll, or “hoko,” from this era is a much smaller stuffed-silk doll resembling a crawling baby.

These two dolls likely evolved into the standard male/female hina figurines called “dairi-bina,” intended to represent a visit from the Imperial class. They also served as mute hosts to the gods, who were annually asked to come into a home to purify it for the upcoming year. Antique hina feature straw bodies shaped by neatly tailored silk textiles and carved wood heads and hands that are lacquered in “gofun,” a white material called made of rice paste and crushed oyster shells. Their faces are painted, and after the mid-1800s, they also have inset glass eyes.

Naturally, boys had their own holiday, too. Before the Edo Period, Japan had been plagued with centuries of civil war. With the country forcibly united by the Toku-gawa shogun, the samurai had to adapt to their new roles as bureaucrats in the ruling class. This change fed a romanticization of warfare, and out of this nostalgia the holiday, Tango no Sukku, or Boys’ Day Festival, re-emerged, celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month.

In the 1670s, samurai started tying small human figures depicting warriors of the past to their helmets. As tales of 12th-century clashes between the Taira and Genji clans grew in popularity during the Edo Period, so did free-standing doll heroes, known as “musha.”

Musha come in six basic figures: The legendary Empress Jingu, with her long black hair, bow in hand and full quiver on her back, paired with her minister, the wrinkled-faced Take...

Another type of doll that became important in the Edo Period was known as “gosho ningyo” or “palace dolls.” When the lord or “daimyo” of a particular territory would visit the palace to pay his respect to the emperor, he would receive a gosho as a gift representing the court and conveying the emperor’s wishes for good fortune.

These dolls—the earliest were carved out of paulownia wood and enameled with gofun—are shaped like chubby toddlers with bright white skin and thick black hair, often only wearing a bib. With their tiny facial features on slightly oversize heads, the gosho dolls reveal the long-standing Japanese obsession with the innocence of youth. The dolls given at the palace usually conveyed a message from the emperor, describing the sort of good fortune he wished to pass on. Gosho holding turtles, cranes, or peaches offered longevity, those holding military helmets signified bravery, and those bearing a treasure ship represented wealth.

As gosho evolved, their wardrobes got more complicated—from just a bib to layers of kimonos, a cap, and socks. Later dolls were made of wood composite, papier mâché, and even clay. As the kabuki and noh theaters grew in popularity, gosho were made in the images of beloved characters.

In the early 19th century, a craftsman named Hisashige Tanaka invented puppets called “karakuri” that moved on their own through spring action. These are some of the first automatons—predecessors to modern toy robots—ever made. Outside of the theater, karakuri were designed for the amusement of the aristocrats, who delighted in having dolls that could shoot arrows, serve tea, or even write.

Taking a cue from the karakuri, gosho were made with hollow bodies and pivoting arms and heads. Some gosho had a knob on the back that, when turned, would cause the doll to dance or raise a mask to its face. Late 18th-century goshos had bendable silk crepe arm joints and triple jointed bodies that enabled them to stand, sit, and kneel.

Eventually, Japanese dolls evolved into pure playthings for children. “Isho ningyo,” a generic term for “fashion” or “costume dolls,” covers most dolls not made for specific rituals or imperial purposes. “Bijin ningyo,” or “beautiful woman dolls,” celebrated the pleasure districts and the courtesans of the floating world.

“Takeda ningyo” represent actors and characters from the theater, which were usually captured in half-twisted poses, their faces caught in a dramatic moment of realization. The takeda were made until around 1860 and are tremendously tough to find today. Another popular theater form, “bunraku” featured puppets. The bunraku puppets were different from the karakuri automations—delicately handcrafted by artisans, they featured heads that could swivel, eyes that could open, shut, and move side-to-side, and eyebrows that could be raised and furrowed.

One particularly adored 18th-century kabuki actor named Sanogawa Ichimatsu, who was known for playing women, is thought to have inspired the “ichimatsu ningyo,” which are the cuddly baby dolls that could be boys or girls. Made of molded sawdust with movable arms and legs, ichimatsu were traditionally given to a adult daughter by her parents as the young woman struggled with the drudgery and servitude of being a housewife. They were often sold naked, so the new mother could teach her daughter how to make dresses for them, or so children could dress them during play.

Some dolls continued to serve as amulets. The now-rare “shojo ningyo,” with its red face and long red hair, represents a laughing mythical sea-dwelling creature holding a cup of sake and a ladle. The doll, made of clay or papier mâché, would be placed in a child’s room—red was thought to draw away the demons that brought the measles.

The dolls that have been the most popular with Western tourists, however, are known as kokeshi. Made by lathe-turning, kokeshi have cylindrical wooden bodies and brightly colored painted facial features and clothes. Originating in the rural areas of northeast Japan in the early 19th century, these dolls were probably made by farmers during the long snowbound winters as symbols of fertility or a good harvest. Kokeshi were also sold at the spas in the region, and given as comfort to women who had experienced a miscarriage.

When the U.S. occupied Japan after World War II, soldiers would buy kokeshi dolls for their wives, who thought they were adorable. Mechanical lathe techniques allowed craftsmen to be more creative with the dolls, making them in non-traditional shapes, and even giving them heads that turn or nod. While these sell briskly at tourist traps, the Japanese prefer the traditional antique kokeshi dolls, which are made by hand.

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