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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Online il bando per il Kokeshi Rebel Fest '15
Romanotizie, January 22nd

E' online il bando per partecipare al Kokeshi Rebel Fest 2015, l'appuntamento internazionale dedicato al mondo delle Arti e della Cultura giapponese, quest'anno alla sua seconda edizione. Tema per il 2015 uno die più cari alla cultura orientale: Ying...Read more

Kokeshi Rebel Fest 2015 – di Beatrice Boero
Italia chiama Italia, January 21st

Alla scoperta dello Ying e Yang. Arriva il Kokeshi Rebel Fest 2015. La partecipazione è aperta a tutti, il bando è online. Si tratta dell'appuntamento internazionale dedicato al mondo delle Arti e della Cultura giapponese, quest'anno alla sua seconda...Read more

The Best Wrestling Show of 2015 Already Happened and It Was Wrestle ...
Panels on Pages, January 6th

The second notable thing was the fact that HONMA PICKED UP THE WIN WITH THE KOKESHI HEADBUTT. If you're not familiar with NJPW all you need to know about this is that Honma very rarely wins and he hits that headbutt just as often. The crowd went ...Read more

We grab a bargain with the Muji Fortune Can, because Lucky Bags are so 2014
RocketNews24, January 2nd

Oh. Another fugu! “Um…I'll take good care of this one too, Muji!” The third can contained a cute little kokeshi doll, a kind of traditional Japanese wooden doll. The booklet told Sachi this one was a Yajiro Kokeshi, from Fukushima Prefecture. It even...Read more

Video: Kokeshi Dolls Hand Turned by Yasuo Okazaki (blog), November 17th

For anyone who knows the serenity of woodworking, this video hailing from northern Japan of mastercraftsman Yasuo Ozakazaki at work in his shop, could be the most relaxing thing you're likely to see today. Kokeshi dolls are a traditional of Japanese ...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