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    

An Antique Kokeshi Doll Tsugaru(nuruyu) Mitsuo Mori Signed 24cm R06005An Antique Kokeshi Doll Yamadera Kazuo Ishiyama Signed 14cm R06001A Pair Antique Kokeshi Dolls Togatta Morimasa Sato Signed Daruma 29-32cm J05004Hello Kitty Wooden Doll Figurine Collection Rare Set Of 3 Yunomi Sanrio KokeshiAn Antique Daruma Kokeshi Doll Tsugaru Fumio Muramoto Signed 14.5cm R06007A Pair Of Antique Kokeshi Dolls Tsugaru Fumio Muramoto Daruma Paint Signed 37cmA Pair Of Antique Kokeshi Dolls Yanadera Kazuo Ishiyama Signed 24.5-31cm P06001Momiji Kokeshi Friendship Doll Blanche Kimono YukataAn Antique Kokeshi Doll Yamagata Signed 30cm R060023pair Antique Kokeshi Dolls Nanbu Tadao Sato Signed 13-25cm N060015pcs Antique Kokeshi Dolls Kawatsura Yuji Takahashi Signed 15cm M06001Usaburo Kokeshi Japanese Wooden Doll 4-12 Haruyokoi (spring Has Come) HtrFine Old Japanese Carved Kokeshi Girl Flower Doll Wooden Art Nice Wood Grain NrAn Antique Kokeshi Doll Atsumi Tsunekichi Abe Signed 30cm P06002Momiji Kokeshi Friendship Doll Little Star Singer MicrophoneMomiji Kokeshi Friendship Doll Party Girl BoomboxMomiji Kokeshi Friendship Doll Ruby Red Riding HoodKissako 2426 Japanese Antique Wooden Doll Tsuchiyu Kokeshi Vintage Signed FigureKissako 2427 Japanese Antique Wooden Doll Tsugaru Kokeshi Vintage Signed FigureKissako 2423 Japanese Antique Wooden Doll Yajiro Kokeshi Vintage Signed FigureKissako 3761 Japanese Antique Wooden Doll Kokeshi Vintage Figure PairKissako 2414 Japanese Antique Wooden Doll Kokeshi Vintage Signed FigureKissako 2420 Japanese Antique Wooden Doll Kokeshi Vintage FigureTwo Pcs Of Very Rare Antique Japanese Wood Daruma Doll Kokeshi Figure H 1.6inch An Antique Kokeshi Doll Sendai Syoji Sakurai Signed 25cm N06002An Antique Kokeshi Doll Zao-takayu Khozo Endo Signed 30.5cm P06003Momiji Kokeshi Friendship Lucky Ladybug Doll FigureBook Kokeshi Traditional Japanese Wood Doll Design Culture Folk Art History 2010An Antique Kokeshi Doll Nuruyu Khohei-style Zenji Sato Signed 30cm M06010Set Of 3 Vintage Japanese Kokeshi Wooden Dolls Kawaii Cute Japan CollectibleVery Rare Antique Japanese Wood Sangi-bori Daruma Kokeshi Doll Figure H 4inch An Antique Kokeshi Doll Yamagata Eizo Kobayashi Signed 31.5cm P06009Kokeshi 13.6cm Zao Snow Shoes And Takeuma Japan Antique Wooden Doll Mz6Japan: Kokeshi - Bamboo Princess Big Vintage Made In Japan Kokeshi Doll 393Very Small Wooden Kokeshi Type Figure / Set Of 2 / Japanese / VintageKissako 3689 Japanese Antique Wooden Daruma Doll Vintage Signed Kokeshi FigureKokeshi Japanese Doll Carved Wood Yellow Daffodil Flowers Kimono 5 1/2" W/box Hand Painted Oriental Japanese Wooden Kokeshi Cute Girl Doll 3pcs - White Very Cute Kokeshi 10.1cm Bunbukuchagama Japanese Antique Wooden Item Mpr6Cosmo Kokeshi Japanese Cotton Fabric 3 Colors Purple Peach Green (3 Yards Total)An Antique Kokeshi Doll Yonezawa Eichiro Takasaki Signed 30.5cm Q06004Big Vintage Made In Japan Kokeshi Doll 390Big Vintage Made In Japan Kokeshi Doll 392