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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Explore Japan, Hawaii, China and more through Asian Pacific Dream Festival
Las Vegas Review-Journal, April 17th

The district also plans displays featuring Japanese kimonos and kokeshi dolls, Hawaiian quilts, Thai dolls, Balinese shadow puppets, Hawaiian feather work and Kahiki feathers. Traditional games, such as chunca from the Philippines, ulumaika from Hawaii ...Read more

Real Japanese Fare, Down to the Salt, at Iseya Robatayaki
Jakarta Globe, April 13th

A grand aquarium at the entrance, an eye-catching kimono and smaller decoration pieces like kokeshi dolls and fans throughout the whole space underline the authenticity of the restaurant. Due to its limited space, it is recommended to make reservations...Read more

Japanese Writers Make Fun of America's Ninja Obsession in Ninja Slayer Trailer
Geekosystem, April 11th

The red ninja glanced up to reveal decadent neon signs in an entertainment district. Beyond the violent, vivid colored signs that read: ????? (Onashiyasu),??? (Kobosu), ??? (Yoku Inu), and ??????(Kokeshi Maat), a blimp traversed the skies...Read more

World's Highest-Ranking Roller Derby Teams to Compete at "Big O" Tournament ...
PR Web (press release), April 9th

Eureka's Redwood Saplings, and Boise's Capital City Skullcrushers), national (Texas Rollergirls, Philly Roller Girls, Kansas City Roller Warriors), and international (Scotland's Auld Reekie Roller Girls and Japan's Kokeshi Roller Dolls). Please see...Read more

Japanese toy story takes over SFO
KSPR, April 1st

With dozens of colorful items, the exhibit presents the evolution of Japanese toys, from kokeshi (wooden dolls dating at least to the 1800s) to Godzilla to everyone's favorite mouthless cat. Popular items also include vinyl kaiju (monster) figures and...Read more

Iida's keeps Japanese traditions alive
Honolulu Star-Advertiser, March 30th

Koinobori (“flying carp streamers”) adorn the walls of Iida's, located at 1202 Kona St., and on the shelves are wooden kokeshi dolls, happi pants and chanchanko apparel. A history buff when it comes to Japanese traditions and culture, Robert explained...Read more

Eden in Love's Gifts That Give donates to charities, March 28th

Emi Ink cards for Lanakila Meals on Wheels, Happy Town Hawaii totes for the Hawaii Foodbank, Kiki Beach bangles for the Surfrider Foundation, Shop Toast kokeshi dogs for Hawaii Fi-Do Service Dogs, Twiss wraps for the American Cancer Society and ...Read more

Woodworking exhibit, 'Craft at Play,' at Maloof Foundation in Alta Loma
San Gabriel Valley Tribune, March 28th

Visitors will also see a dalecarlian horse from Sweden, matryoshka (nesting) dolls from Russia and Japanese Kokeshi dolls in hand-sewn costumes representing a range of ethnicities. There are Kachina dolls, hobby horses and a collection of pull and ...Read more