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

Source: Google News

Lovely Planet Is a Shooter Made of Sunshine and Rainbows
WIRED, February 9th

The enemies resemble paper snowmen or simple, cartoonish representations of kokeshi dolls. The small stages look like something made with an elementary school class's art supplies. Floating hearts decorate the ground like shrubs. “The art style was ...Read more

What changes can we expect from an official Mother 3 localization?
Destructoid, February 6th

The Octopus and Kokeshi statues changing into Pencil and Eraser statues, since the cultural references would be lost on a young international audience. The Insane Cultists' battle sprites had the letters "HH" removed from their hats and were replaced...Read more

1 La compagnie Kokeshi en suspension dans les airs
Ouest-France, January 31st

L'univers musical de la compagnie Kokeshi est enfantin. Un moment de danse contemporaine suspendu dans les airs avec un joli effet visuel de bulles et ballons. Ce samedi 30, maison de quartier des Hauts-de-Saint-Aubin, à Angers. 2 €/4 €/6 € au choix...Read more

Handmade wooden dolls recapture Japanese women's hearts
AsiaOne, January 12th

JAPAN - Ai Yoda, a company employee in Koto Ward, Tokyo, recently attended a meeting of the Tokyo Kokeshi Tomo no Kai, a friendship organisation of people who like kokeshi dolls. Yoda joined the organisation three years ago and has so far collected ...Read more

Morris library anime club makes kokeshi dolls, new friends
Morris Daily Herald, January 6th

“Spiderman was always my favorite superhero, even before I liked superheroes,” Haish said. Haish invited her friend, Kassi Cook, a fellow sixth-grader at Shabbona, to the club. It was her first time participating in a meeting. She made three kokeshi dolls...Read more

'Kokeshi' doll maker feels the force of demand for 'Star Wars' models
Asahi Shimbun, December 27th

SHINTO, Gunma Prefecture--A traditional “kokeshi” doll maker here is struggling to meet demand for his “Star Wars”-themed models that are riding a new wave of popularity for the space opera movie saga. “I'm so busy making kokeshi dolls and work...Read more

Miyagi's hot-spring valley of the dolls
The Japan Times, August 22nd

Kokeshi are simple hand-crafted dolls that are traditionally made in the Tohoku region's hot-spring villages. Carved out of local wood varieties — maple, cherry and dogwood — they are characterized by their limbless cylindrical shape, delicate hand...Read more

OMIYAGE FROM JAPAN: Traditional 'kokeshi' dolls become popular souvenir after ...
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