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”)

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]

Jan-Erik Nilsson's extensive reference on antique Chinese porcelain. Jam-packed with information (e.g. on porcelain… [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]

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    

"cute Girl " Japanese Vintage Kokeshi DollCf2 Sosaku Kokeshi Lady 5"Beautiful Black Oriental Japanese Kokeshi Small Wood Dolls"cute Girl " Japanese Vintage Kokeshi Doll By KisakuJapanese Vintage Cute Kokeshi Doll By IssetsuJapan Design Memo Post-it & 3-color Pen Sumo Mt. Fuji Kokeshi Sushi Maneki Neko"cute Girl " Japanese Vintage Kokeshi DollJapanese Vintage Kokeshi Doll (about 14.4 Inch)Vintage Japanese Wood Lacquer Kokeshi Doll In Red Kimono Bowl ContainerNesting Kokeshi DollsWholesale 10 Pcs Japanese Oriental Kokeshi Doll Handbag CharmJapanese Asian Kokeshi Doll Beautiful Spring Flowers Kimono By Genji Yamada !Antique Handmade Japanese 100% Wooden Kokeshi Doll Vintage Height 8 In" Vintage Cute Kokeshi Nodder Pair 3"Vintage Kokeshi Dolls Japanese Wood Carved Geisha Small To JapanVintage Miniature Bobble Head Japanese Nodder Kokeshi Wood Dolls 7 In Box"cute Girl Set" Japanese Vintage Kokeshi Doll By Hahjime & Usaburo97605# Japanese / Vintage Figurine / KokeshiVintage Japanese Kokeshi Wooden Wood Carved Doll Bobble Head Japan Miniature OldF/s Japan Japanese Vintage Wood Kokeshi Doll Nanny Baby Kimono Kanji 6cm NrDolls Japanese KokeshiKokeshi Eau De Toilette Perfume Collection 4minis 5ml (set)Vintage Japanese Kokeshi Nodder Pair 6 Pc--3.25"Kokeshi Doll Piero Vintage Erasers Man & Woman~made In Japan~misprint~orig PkgF/s Japan Japanese Vintage Kokeshi Wood Doll Sakazuki Sake Kanji 3pc 6cmF/s Japan Japanese Vintage Kokeshi Wood Doll Kimono Long Hair 16cm NrKokeshi Parfums Litchee (5ml/0.17 Fl Oz) Edt Miniature Perfume Bottle - BnibVintage Set Large Woooden Japanese Kokeshi Dolls 9 1/2" Tall Pair Boy / Girl2 Japanese Asian Wood Nodder Kokeshi Dolls W/ Maiko Geisha & Bamboo On Kimono !Vintage Kokeshi Made In Japan Toothpick Holder W 6 Toothpick Dolls In Orig PkgCharm 10pcs Japanese Kokeshi Wood Girl Handbag&cellpho​ne

Recent News: Kokeshi Dolls

Source: Google News

Bambole Kokeshi | Shopping | Italia (Blog), October 30th

Le Kokeshi, bambole made in Japan realizzate amano da attenti artigiani hanno una storia antica alle spallle. Prodotte nel Nord-Est del Giappone a partire dal periodo che intercorre tra 1603 e il 1868, sono di legno, piccole, deliziose, curate nei...Read more

ronan + erwan bouroullec make kokeshi dolls for east japan & kengo kuma
Designboom, 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

Kokeshi, un toque de perfume francés para la vida diaria
Terra Chile, October 21st

En el siglo XIX nació en Japón una muñeca de madera llamada Kokeshi que se caracterizaba por representar un sentimiento, este 2014 Kokeshi Parfums y la artista Valeria Attinelli unieron fuerzas para crear la fragancia perfecta: atractiva por su diseño...Read more

Z Gliwic prosto do serca Azji
Nowiny Gliwickie, October 20th

Tajemnice japo?skiego alfabetu, smakowite potrawy jedzone pa?eczkami, taniec z wachlarzem i warsztaty tworzenia laleczek kokeshi – to tylko niektóre z niespodzianek, jakie dla najm?odszych go?ci przygotowa?a 25 i 26 pa?dziernika Europa Centralna...Read more

Tokio: explosión de brillo y color
Los Andes (Argentina), October 19th

Las modelos niponas lucieron los kimonos sobre el escenario, cual 'kokeshi' (muñeca tradicional japonesa), deslizando sus pies suavemente y agitando con delicadeza las mangas de la prenda como si se trataran de las alas de una mariposa. Toda una ...Read more

El kimono vuelve a las pasarelas
El Observador, October 18th

La tradicional prenda japonesa se fundió con las últimas tendencias en la Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week de Tokio, de la mano de los diseñadores japoneses Jotaro Saito y Sansai Saito, quienes demostraron que modernidad y tradición no están reñidas...Read more

Live-Action Kami-sama no Iu Toori Film's New Teaser Samples Voice Talent
Anime News Network, October 11th

Kokeshi: All right! When you're talking about games, it just has to be "Kagome kagome!" Shunta: Stop it! Text: 4th period - I hate liars. Bear: Who's the liar!? Text: 5th period - Can you play Kick the Can? Nesting Dolls: Game, start! Girl: No!! Text...Read more

Dwell Magazine's Amanda Dameron at Home
New York Times, October 10th

The bookshelves are punctuated with things that remind her and Mr. Matsuzaka (who is half Japanese) of their childhoods in Cincinnati, such as wooden kokeshi dolls that belonged to his paternal grandmother and the Kodak Brownie Fun Saver movie ...Read more