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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Street Art, British Punk, Japanese Cute and Black Culture — All in One Artist
LA Weekly, April 7th

“My friend brought me some Kokeshi dolls and they had round heads and looked like Afros. I like to juxtapose things,” says Glenn. She also stands out because she's the only woman artist in the show. “It's a girl,” said one CAAM patron, pointing at her...Read more

Metalhead's thoughts on NJPW's Invasion Attack 2015
Inside Pulse, April 6th

Another bout of harmless fun, Honma made the crowd go wild (as usual) Hall showed some potential (but is still green as hell) before taking the fall after a cool 3D/ top rop Kokeshi sequence. Honma scoring the pin here might be significant but we'll...Read more

Mindful musings: Celebrating niece's big day
Marianas Variety, March 23rd

The fair was held on Saturday, March 21, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Nikko Hotel. Besides exhibiting my filet crochet items, I also displayed some of my collection of modern kokeshi (Japanese wooden dolls) that I've been collecting for over 30 years...Read more

OMIYAGE FROM JAPAN: Traditional 'kokeshi' dolls become popular souvenir ...
Asahi Shimbun, January 30th

In Gunma Prefecture, one of the country's major production areas, doll makers started producing modern-style kokeshi dolls noted for stereoscopic designs for the hair and other parts. Called the "Kindai Kokeshi," modern dolls are now available in...Read more

Beautiful video of master Japanese doll craftsman is equal parts inspiring and ...
RocketNews24, November 6th

You don't even have to go all the way up to Miyagi to buy one, since Kokeshi no Okajin takes orders by email. If you're looking to add a Japanese accent to your home's interior, or just want to be inspired by the end result of someone being really good...Read more

Watch A Gorgeous Japanese Doll Form As If Out Of Thin Air
Huffington Post, November 3rd

In it, a traditional Japanese kokeshi doll seems to appear out of thin air. But in fact, there's a skilled craftsman behind it all, one Yasuo Ozakazaki. Currently in his sixties, Ozakazaki learned the Noruko method of doll-making from his father...Read more

ronan + erwan bouroullec make kokeshi dolls for east japan & kengo kuma
Designboom, October 23rd

typically the japanese kokeshi doll is stick-like with a simple cylindrical shaped trunk, and no ability to move. the bouroullec brother's interpretation sees a form whose head is in more realistic proportions with the body; which is more conical in...Read more

Kokeshi Matches
The Dieline (blog), April 23rd

Kokeshi Match started as a product of pure creativity. In 1994, as a part of a group exhibition, Kumi Hirasaka drew faces of KOKESHI (traditional Japanese wooden dolls) on each match by hand. In 2000, Kokeshi Matches are mass produced and later ...Read more