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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8 wonderful and interesting things you can do in Gunma, JapanInquirer.net, November 22nd
If you're feeling the need to unleash your creative flair in Gunma, visit the Kokeshi Doll Factory and create your own Kokeshi dolls! These dolls are made from wood from four different trees, namely: Keyaki (Zelkova), Sakura (Wild Cherry Tree), Mizuki...Read more
Csonka's NJPW World Tag League (Day Two) Review 11.22.15411mania.com, November 22nd
The match had some really good stretches, Honma used a lot of Kokeshi variations as always, but in the end he ate the backdrop driver and that was that Makabe and Honma go to an early 0-2, and the children of Japan weep as HonMania failed to run wild ...Read more
World Tag League 2015, Day 1 Results And ReviewInside Pulse, November 22nd
Interestingly, Sakuraba had Honma well scouted out and used his MMA style offense to keep him grounded and prevent him from using his kokeshi's, so that was a touch that I liked. Not great but fun as most of Yano's and Honma's matches tend to be. A...Read more
Asia's first Roller Derby Tournament: The Japan OpenStripes Korea, November 19th
The Kokeshi Roller Dolls (KRD) and the Japan Roller Derby Association (JRDA) are proud to announce the inaugural Japan Open Roller Derby Tournament, Asia's first roller derby tournament that includes teams from the Asia-Pacific area. The 2-day ...Read more
Ripe for tradition: Monastery creche festival showcases a world of nativity scenesThe Gazette, November 16th
Father Guerric Heckel stands next to The Night Visitors by Janet McKenzie, the centerpiece of this year's crèche festival. PHOTOS BY JAKE LUCAS/SPECIAL TO INDEPENDENT. Photos. ×. Photo. A wooden Kokeshi doll set from Japan, made by artist Hajime ...Read more
New Star Wars home collection from Japanese manufacturer brings the Force to ...RocketNews24, November 12th
If you've ever wanted to fill your house with Star Wars furnishings, now you can, thanks to the Star Wars/Premium Home Collection from Japanese furniture manufacturer IDC Otsuka. The 150-piece plus collection includes cushions, rugs, tableware, ukiyo-e ...Read more
Un video mostra come vengono realizzate le bambole giapponesi KokeshiFrizzifrizzi.it, October 28th
Non ha la poesia del video di cui ho parlato qualche giorno fa—quello sulla carta washi—ma anche questo filmato, che mostra tutte le fasi della lavorazione delle Kokeshi, le tradizionali bamboline in legno giapponesi, può essere considerato come...Read more
Miyagi's hot-spring valley of the dollsThe Japan Times, August 22nd
Kokeshi are simple hand-crafted dolls that are traditionally made in the Tohoku region's hot-spring villages. Carved out of local wood varieties — maple, cherry and dogwood — they are characterized by their limbless cylindrical shape, delicate hand...Read more