Since World War II, Japanese kokeshi dolls have become tremendously popular with American tourists—so much so, they’re now produced almost exclusively for Westerners. Kokeshi dolls are characterized by their lack of arms and legs, as well as their brightly painted garb in floral designs and geometric patterns. The process used for making these cylindrical wooden dolls is not unlike that employed to make legs for chairs or tables.

It’s likely that kokeshi originated in rural Tohoku, in northeast Japan, during the Bunka-Bunsei eras (1804-29) of the Edo Period. The farmers there, coping with long, snowbound winter nights, probably made the dolls from scraps of maple, dogwood, or magnolia using a pulley lathe. These dolls were possibly intended as good luck talisman, designed to bring fertility or bountiful harvests. Later, they were sold to tourists at Tohoku spas, and also given to console mothers who had lost a child through miscarriage or other misfortune.

Eventually, the kokeshi—made in 5-, 7-, and 10-inch sizes—became a toy for children’s play. It wasn’t until the 1920s that adults began to value these Japanese dolls as collector’s items. This renewed interest in kokeshi encouraged artisans to produce them in a much wider variety of sizes, from itty-bitty to huge.

After the war, when the U.S. occupied Japan, the wives and girlfriends of U.S. soldiers were particularly attracted to the cuteness of the kokeshi. Wood turners near Tokyo, having moved from kick lathes to mechanical ones, began churning them out for Westerners visiting tourist sites all over the island nation. These turners got creative with the form, making kokeshi in non-traditional shapes. They made “tochigi,” or kokeshi-headed toothpicks, and replicas of the Seven Lucky Gods clad in wild get-ups.

These later variations are of no interest to most Japanese, who prefer the handmade antique dolls with their distinct characteristics particular to their region of origin—Tsuchiyu, Yajiro, Togatta, Narugo, Hijiori, Sakunami, Zao, Kijiyama, Nambu, and Tsugaru. Some of the most esteemed kokeshi artisans include Sakurai Shoji and Ito Shoichi in Naruko; Ni'iyama Hisashi and the late Sato Yoshizo and his son Fumio in Yahiro; and Suzuki Shoji and Satomi Matsuhiro at Yamagata.

When looking for an antique kokeshi doll, keep in mind the balance of the body—a good doll is not too top-heavy. Collectors also favor dolls with expressive facial features applied with a calligraphy brush and an eye-pleasing balance of color that doesn’t appear too faded.

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Recent News: Kokeshi Dolls

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Inside the leaning tower of Hirosaki
Herald Sun, August 30th

One is making wooden kokeshi dolls now considered collector's items. A seamstress is embroidering beautiful patterns on the simple cotton or hemp garments traditionally worn by local farmers, while a potter demonstrates the range of vessels decorated...Read more

Hello Kitty is not a cat?
CNET, August 28th

cartoon character we thought we knew. Mickey Mouse is still a rodent, right? Update, 3:15 p.m. PT: to add clarification from Sanrio. hellokittydress.jpg Hello Kitty dress on display in the "Japanese Toys! From Kokeshi to Kaiju" SFO exhibit. Bonnie...Read more

Cuban-American Writer Carlos Aleman, Latecomer to Fiction, Talks Storytelling ...
Latin Post, August 27th

When Aleman writes, he begins with questions...questions regarding narrative, confusion, disillusionment, frustration intention, influence, experience, and theme -which often is longing for love, the ethereal quality of the human heart and men who...Read more

'Members Collections' showcases local, national history, August 26th

Other displays featured in the exhibit include artwork by David Camele, Laura Pettigrew and a Kokeshi doll display lent by Mary Ellen Camele. The museum is open Saturday and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. or Monday through Friday by appointment. Contact ...Read more

A sampling of fine arts on television for the week of Aug. 24 - 30
Washington Post, August 23rd

Rebounding”explores how the people of Japan's Tohoku region are rebuilding in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accidents, including a farmer attempting to farm without soil and young mothers who have formed a Kokeshi puppet ...Read more

Indian designers gear up for Lakme Fashion Week A/W 14, August 19th

at the much awaited Indian fashion revelry Lakme Fashion Week. The event will see a menswear and womenswear range, inspired from the traditional handmade wooden Kokeshi dolls of Northern Japan, designed by the Kolkata native Sayantan Sarkar...Read more

6 Things You Must Buy at a Hawaii Bon Dance Festival, August 5th

Cute geisha keychains. You can't leave without a cute trinket from the shops and booths! We fell in love with these too-cute keychains of Japanese kokeshi-style girls, complete with flowery charms and tiny kimonos. The perfect gift for the little (and...Read more

Sayantan Sarkar to showcase doll-inspired line at LFW
India Today, August 5th

Designer Sayantan Sarkar will showcase a collection inspired by the Kokeshi dolls of northern Japan at the forthcoming winter-festive edition of Lakme Fashion Week (LFW). "This collection brings together an interplay of cultures and traditional techniques...Read more