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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Grand Theft Pantsu-style romance game set for June 4 release on PS3 and PS4RocketNews24, May 27th
all over Japan have been anxiously awaiting a new virtual outing by D3 Publisher which combines the open-world freedom of titles like Grand Theft Auto and Skyrim with the dating sim fun and frivolity of titles like Kokeshi and Kikenna Kare ni...Read more
Valley of the dollsThe Nation, May 24th
Hand-made from wood, they have simple bodies and enlarged heads with a few painted lines to depict faces. Kokeshi dolls painted in red, blue and white and made by Takatoshi Hayashi in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, smile gently at visitors. When the...Read more
Charming, heart-warming kokeshi dollsThe Japan News, May 17th
The Yomiuri ShimbunSENDAI — Handmade from wood, they have simple bodies and enlarged heads with a few painted lines to depict faces. Kokeshi dolls painted in red, blue and white and made by Takatoshi Hayashi in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, smile ...Read more
We love Star Wars: Checking out the awesome “Star Wars Visions” exhibit at ...RocketNews24, May 13th
A huge selection of merchandise is available including T-shirts, stationary, figures, mugs, tote bags, plushies and even Japanese style wooden kokeshi dolls, all of them looking highly attractive, so fans will definitely be facing some serious shopping ...Read more
Chiêm ng??ng quá trình làm búp bê g? "hút h?n" c?a ngh? nhân Nh?tKênh 14 (s? ??ng ký), May 5th
Trong th?i ??i mà nh?ng chi?c máy in 3D ngày càng tr? nên ph? bi?n h?n, th?t d? dàng ?? quên ?i ni?m vui và v? ??p c?a nh?ng ngh? th? công. M?t trong nh?ng ví d? "tiêu bi?u" cho ?i?u ?ó chính là môn th? công nh?m t?o ra nh?ng con búp bê kokeshi ?ã ...Read more
Rethinking, updating traditional craftsThe Japan Times, May 3rd
To date, 219 items have been chosen from all over Japan, ranging from different types of textiles, lacquerware, bamboo, woodcraft and metalwork to Buddhist altars, wooden kokeshi dolls, and washi paper. At the expo, a variety of densan will be on...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
ronan + erwan bouroullec make kokeshi dolls for east japan & kengo kumaDesignboom, 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