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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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

As the Gods Will - Recensione (Festival di Roma 2014 - Gala), October 21st

Il gioco fa parte di una battaglia ad eliminazione che vedrà in seguito altre prove letali con un gattino porta fortuna gigantesco, quattro bambole Kokeshi letali e un orso bianco enorme che sembra pietrificato e che ha come scopo quello di selezionare...Read more

Kokeshi, un toque de perfume francés para la vida diaria
Terra España, October 21st

En el siglo XIX nació en Japón una muñeca de madera llamada Kokeshi que se caracterizaba por representar un sentimiento, este 2014 Kokeshi Parfums y la artista Valeria Attinelli unieron fuerzas para crear la fragancia perfecta: atractiva por su diseño...Read more

Z Gliwic prosto do serca Azji
Nowiny Gliwickie, October 20th

Tajemnice japo?skiego alfabetu, smakowite potrawy jedzone pa?eczkami, taniec z wachlarzem i warsztaty tworzenia laleczek kokeshi – to tylko niektóre z niespodzianek, jakie dla najm?odszych go?ci przygotowa?a 25 i 26 pa?dziernika Europa Centralna...Read more

El kimono vuelve a las pasarelas
El Observador, October 18th

La tradicional prenda japonesa se fundió con las últimas tendencias en la Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week de Tokio, de la mano de los diseñadores japoneses Jotaro Saito y Sansai Saito, quienes demostraron que modernidad y tradición no están reñidas...Read more

Morikami's Lantern Festival
Palm Beach, October 15th

The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens is once again celebrating obon, the traditional Japanese Buddhist festival to honor the spirits of the ancestors. Traditionally tied to the summer lunar calendar that marks a three-day stretch when it is...Read more

Live-Action Kami-sama no Iu Toori Film's New Teaser Samples Voice Talent
Anime News Network, October 11th

Kokeshi: All right! When you're talking about games, it just has to be "Kagome kagome!" Shunta: Stop it! Text: 4th period - I hate liars. Bear: Who's the liar!? Text: 5th period - Can you play Kick the Can? Nesting Dolls: Game, start! Girl: No!! Text...Read more

Dwell Magazine's Amanda Dameron at Home
New York Times, October 10th

The bookshelves are punctuated with things that remind her and Mr. Matsuzaka (who is half Japanese) of their childhoods in Cincinnati, such as wooden kokeshi dolls that belonged to his paternal grandmother and the Kodak Brownie Fun Saver movie ...Read more