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    

Kokeshi Doll japanese Traditional Wooden Doll  vintage10pcs Antique Nemariko Kokeshi Dolls Naruko Signed 10cm 434Amazing Vintage Japanese Wooden Ejiko Kokeshi 8.26inch By Takahashi Shougo K14110 Inch Vintage Kokeshi Doll Created By Onodeara Koraku, Very Pretty! (ok01)Amazing Vintage Japanese Wooden Kokeshi 4dolls Made In Japan20pcs Antique Kokeshi Dolls Togatta Signed 10.5-18.5cm 5627" Wood Geisha Kokeshi Japanese Doll -yellow Flower-artist Signed- Free ShippingVintage Japanese Kokeshi Wooden Woman Girl Doll Hand Painted FlowersSigned Japanese Kokeshi Doll See Hear & Speak No Evil Monkeys From Nikko Japan !Oriental Japanese Kokeshi Dolls Girls Wooden - Black Nice Vintage 9p Asian Wood Doll Lot Signed Mushin Japan Japanese Kokeshi Beaded+Vintage Japanese Small Lovely Nodder Kokeshi Doll 4 Pieces With Kimono 1706043Traditional Naruko Vintage Kokeshi Signed, Make Sound When Turn The Head (take2)Amazing Vintage Japanese Wooden Kokeshi 9.44inch Made In Japan K128Amazing Vintage Japanese Wooden Kokeshi 11.4inch Made In Japan K161Amazing Vintage Japanese Wooden Kokeshi 2dolls Made In Japan K170Amazing Vintage Japanese Wooden Kokeshi 2dolls Made In Japan K135Amazing Vintage Japanese Wooden Kokeshi Made In Japan By Sato Takeshi K148Amazing Vintage Japanese Wooden Kokeshi 1dolls Made In JapanJapanese Vintage Kokeshi Doll Japanese Kokeshi Doll Wooden Carved, Hand Painted And Lacquered7pcs Antique Kokeshi Dolls Yamagata Hiraga/hayasaka Signed 10-19cm 414Vintage Japanese Pair Of Lovely Nodder Kokeshi Doll With Kimono 17060423pcs Antique Kokeshi Dolls Yajiro/hijiori Signed 13-15.5cm 1068Wooden Kokeshi-type Figure / Daruma Home Safety / Japanese / Vintage4pcs Antique Kokeshi Dolls Kawatsura Signed 4-18.5cm 1067Please Look! Tropical Island 9cm 1980's Old Kokeshi Japanese Wooden Doll Nq617Japanese Asian Kokeshi Doll Porcelain Trinket Pill Box Girl W/ Gorgeous Kimono !Vintage Japanese Early Showa Era Signed Wood Kokeshi Doll Scenic CalligraphyKokeshi & Children "hide & Seek"drawing Handwriting By Shuz-saya 14.4cm*9.2cmSuwari Kokeshi And Baby Drawing Handwriting By Shuz-saya Japan 14cm*9cmBlue Wood Doll Collectibles Oriental Japanese Wooden Kokeshi Dolls Cute GirlYellow Wood Doll Collectibles Oriental Japanese Wooden Kokeshi Dolls Cute GirlPink Wood Doll Collectibles Oriental Japanese Wooden Kokeshi Dolls Cute Girl