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.


Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Dollreference.com

Dollreference.com

This densely packed index of antique and vintage dolls claims to offer over 10,000 images of dolls from the 1800s … [read review or visit site]

Asian Art Museum

Asian Art Museum

You can get happily lost searching through the 10,000 or so objects on the Asian Art Museum's website. For example,… [read review or visit site]

Vintage Dolls of the 50s

Vintage Dolls of the 50s

Rhonda Wilson's collection of 1950s dolls, organized by name (Ginny and friends, Littlest Angel and friends, etc.) … [read review or visit site]

Gotheborg.com

Gotheborg.com

Jan-Erik Nilsson's extensive reference on antique Chinese porcelain. Jam-packed with information (e.g. on porcelain… [read review or visit site]

Kaylees Korner of Collectible Dolls

Kaylees Korner of Collectible Dolls

Kaylee's extensive collection of vintage dolls from the 1930s to 90s. Click the balloons to browse. Though Kaylee s… [read review or visit site]

Museum of Childhood

Museum of Childhood

Embrace your inner child on this website from the Victoria and Albert Museum, filled with high-quality images and i… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Japanese Lovely Boy Kokeshi Doll With Signature 17030245/6 Yard Cotton Quilting Fabric Alexander Henry "kokeshi" Bright Japanese DollsWine Red Wood Doll Collectibles Oriental Japanese Wooden Kokeshi Dolls Cute GirlRare!! 7th Fleet Japan Kokeshi Japaneese Doll Cpo Chief Mess Challenge CoinChief Cpo Coin - 7th Fleet Japan Kokeshi Design - Limited/rare - Non Nsw NypdNavy 7th Fleet Kokeshi Doll Cpo Chief Coin9 In Shido Shozan Sosaku Kokeshi Titled Samui Asa, Very Cold Morning (shido06)Us Navy Chief Kokeshi Doll. 7th Fleet Special!! Rare1956 Vintage Set 3 Kokeshi Rare Japanese Antique Doll 7" & 6" Tall Hand PaintedLot Of 3 Japanese Asian Wood Kokeshi DollsLot Of 3 Japanese Asian Wood Kokeshi Dolls Japanese Asian Wood Kokeshi Doll Sumo WrestlerKissako 2379 Japanese Antique Wooden Doll Togatta Kokeshi Vintage Signed FigureVintage Japanese Lovely Girl Kokeshi Doll With Kimono 1703034Vintage 10" Japanese Wood Kokeshi Doll Shirokiya Made In Japan Vintage Kokeshi 15 1/2" Slim Wood Doll- StampedVintage Japanese Lovely Nodder Kokeshi Doll Of 4 Pieces 1703023Vintage Japanese Small Lovely Nodder Kokeshi Doll Of 4 Pieces 1703016Japanese Kokeshi Wooden Doll Girl 7.75 " Tall Camellia Dress Was Inside CabinetVintage Japanese Small Lovely Nodder Kokeshi Doll Of 4 Pieces 1703022Vintage Japanese Lovely Girl Kokeshi Doll With Kimono 1703029Vintage Japanese Wooden Kokeshi Geisha Bobble Head Nodding Dolls Boy And Girl Japanese Wood Kokeshi Girl Doll Bob Hair Painted Flower Orange 6"natural Wooden Vintage Japanese Small Lovely Nodder Kokeshi Doll Of 4 Pieces 1703018Vintage Japanese Small Lovely Nodder Kokeshi Doll Of 4 Pieces 1703017Vintage Japanese Pair Of Lovely Nodder Kokeshi Doll With Kimono 1703019Vintage Japanese Mini Lovely Nodder Kokeshi Doll Of 4 Pieces 1703026Vintage Japanese Mini Traditional Kokeshi Doll Of 5 Pieces 1703021Japanese Asian Vintage Wood Nodder Kokeshi Doll W/ Lucky Mallet For Good Luck !Vintage Made In Japan Kokeshi Doll 598Vintage Made In Japan Kokeshi Doll 599Vintage Made In Japan Kokeshi Doll 592 2pcsVintage Made In Japan Kokeshi Doll 600 2pcs ^_^Vintage Made In Japan Kokeshi Doll 597Japan: Kokeshi - Snow Girl - Onsen (hot Springs) - 1970s Japan: Kokeshi - Flower Children - Onsen (hot Springs) - 1970s Japan: Nodder Kokeshi - Samurai - Onsen (hot Springs) - 1970s Green Wood Doll Collectibles Oriental Japanese Wooden Kokeshi Dolls Cute GirlPurple Wood Doll Collectibles Oriental Japanese Wooden Kokeshi Dolls Cute GirlVintage Japanese Early Showa Era Wood Kokeshi Doll In Kimono