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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Csonka's 2015 Midyear Awards411mania.com, June 30th
It's not a style that everyone loves, but the layout was excellent and the work from both was amazing. The near falls were so good because the crowd was biting on everything, and Honma hitting the Kokeshi on the floor was insane. I was simply locked...Read more
Sneak in some learning: Summer exhibits for kidsAsheville Citizen-Times, June 27th
Each day, there's an open art studio where kids can make art: kawaii-inspired projects in July and kokeshi dolls in August. There's also an art exhibit called “Ai: Love Artist Exhibit,” featuring the sumi-e paintings and steel sculptures of Yuri...Read more
Akira Suzuki, le maître des poupées kokeshiLa Croix, June 18th
Derrière lui, son épouse sourit et acquiesce, tout en époussetant les dizaines de poupées exposées dans l'atelier-magasin où il réside aussi. « Vous verrez des poupées kokeshi dans tous les magasins de souvenirs du Japon, explique Akira, mais la poupée ...Read more
Digital Manga, Inc. to Publish Osamu Tezuka's Shojo Manga, Storm FairyAnime News Network, June 17th
The second short story, “Kokeshi Detective Agency,” has a similar tone and feel to young adult book series, Encyclopedia Brown . Little fearless Paco goes around solving mysteries for she is not afraid of things that go bump in the night while her dog...Read more
Nouveaux vernis so kawai dans la gamme Kokeshi ColorsManga-news, June 9th
Avis aux filles qui aiment se parer de jolies couleurs au bout des doigts, la gamme Kokeshi colors, fête l'arrivée prochaine de l'été avec 6 nouvelles teintes (vitaminée, pailletée ou nude). Fidèle a son concept inspiré de l'univers des poupées...Read more
Claude Joseph SalisburyDaily Herald, June 6th
He was a photographer and a collector of stamps, carved elephants, Kokeshi and music. Joe loved singing with his grandkids fun tunes like Swingin on a Star. Joe never met a stranger and he had no enemies. He will be long remembered for his love, ...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