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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Koto Parfums prepares Hello Kitty for Summer Holiday seasonMoodieReport, June 11th
Koto Parfums has extended its Kimmi fragrance line, inspired by Japanese Kokeshi dolls, with two new scents, called Ella and Holly. And the company has created a new Kimmi miniatures set for the travel retail channel. Five x 5ml individually-packed ...Read more
Canon Solutions America Partners with The Morikami Museum and Gardens to ...Printing Impressions (press release), June 4th
Wood Be Kindred Spirits, an exhibit of Japanese kokeshi dolls from the collection of Robert J. “Bob” Brokop, will be on display at The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, Delray Beach, FL, from June 4 to September 15, 2013. The wood lathe-turned ...Read more
Ces allumettes Kokeshi vont plaire à vos enfantsGizmodo, May 30th
Enfin seulement si vous ne les commandez pas les allumettes Kokeshi sur Amazon. Parce qu'il y en a pour tous les goûts ! Les allumettes représentent des petits lapins, des pandas, des oiseaux, des chiens et aussi des moustachus ou des pattes de chat…...Read more
Morikami Museum Summer ExhibitsPalm Beach, May 29th
On June 4, the Morikami will unveil two new exhibits, "Wood Be Kindred Spirits: The Kokeshi Dolls of Bob Brokop" and "Tanabata: Japan's Star Festival—Views of Tanabata in São Paulo" to run through the summer. Both exhibits celebrate the sentiment of...Read more
Matches Literally Light up FacesTechnabob (blog), May 29th
Japan is one place where you can expect all sorts of novelty stuff to crop up, from fancy shirts and footwear to quirky headpieces and accessories. They've even got matches that are almost too fancy to use, for crying out loud. Kokeshi is the brand...Read more
This 'Lucky Ducky' has found its homeDVIDS, May 29th
Just like the children's story the “Ugly Duckling” by Hans Christen Anderson, one duck on Okinawa has truly lived up to this story and found a home with the Kokeshi Roller Doll Derby League. This duck's name is Lucky Ducky No. 88, a rookie to roller...Read more
MIX OF THE WEEK: COMPAMixmag, May 21st
Following 12" cuts via his own WXWL label as well as Boka and Kokeshi, he's been newly signed to Mala's Deep Medi imprint, perhaps the most revered seal of approval in true-skool dubstep circles. It's testament to Compa's creativity that his Mix Of The ...Read more
Skosh (a little) Japanese:East County Gazette, May 19th
Displays will be staged around campus and will include three-dimensional origami, bonsai, pottery, handmade paper, hariko dolls (washi paper maché) and kokeshi dolls (cylinder sculpture). Activities for children will include kamishibai (paper theater), ...Read more