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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Mindful musings: Celebrating niece's big dayMarianas Variety, March 23rd
The fair was held on Saturday, March 21, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Nikko Hotel. Besides exhibiting my filet crochet items, I also displayed some of my collection of modern kokeshi (Japanese wooden dolls) that I've been collecting for over 30 years...Read more
New Japan Pro Wrestling: New Japan Cup Finals Report – March 15, 2015PWMania, March 17th
Honma gets the better of Tonga and (of course) ends up missing the first Kokeshi headbutt he goes for. Outside the ring, Hall and Shibata go at it, but Tonga exits to help out Hall. Tonga tags Hall back in, and Hall works over Honma. A data bar...Read more
Sodatete Nihon Ningyo app lets you raise your own Japanese doll! Results may ...RocketNews24, March 15th
In the art of building an exquisite Japanese doll we first start out with a kokeshi doll. These are simple figures made with a wooden rod for the body and ball for the head. These dolls can still be found in shops all over Japan. But to make a higher...Read more
PHOTO: Leaders to be greeted by miniature doubles at UN conference in SendaiAsahi Shimbun, March 6th
Kokeshi dolls were also made of leaders who will not be visiting Sendai, including U.S. President Barack Obama. All U.N. members will be represented at a doll display to be open March 9-19 at the S-Pal Sendai commercial facility, an annex of JR Sendai ...Read more
The Short ListPortland Tribune, March 5th
The bazaar will feature an array of items — dolls, furniture, fans, kimonos, ikebana, kokeshi, jewelry, books, dishware and more. The Oregon Nikkei Endowment also welcomes a photography exhibit, “Sakura Sakura,” about the trees surrounding the...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
Watch A Gorgeous Japanese Doll Form As If Out Of Thin AirHuffington Post, November 3rd
In it, a traditional Japanese kokeshi doll seems to appear out of thin air. But in fact, there's a skilled craftsman behind it all, one Yasuo Ozakazaki. Currently in his sixties, Ozakazaki learned the Noruko method of doll-making from his father...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