Dolls & Toys – Ningyo & Omocha


When we are moved by a “handmade” artifact, it is perhaps because we are on the same wavelength as the object, and through it, with its maker. The Japanese are well known for doll and toy making using a wide diversity of materials. We see paper, ceramic and cloth dolls, and those made also from natural materials such as bamboo, wood, clay, ivory and bone. They are painted, lacquered, adorned with other materials, or left natural to celebrate the material from which they were made. There are a wide variety of dolls made by the Japanese craftsmen, ranging from the elegant and lavishly costumed Ningyo “court” dolls, Kokeshi (dento & sosaku), to the charming Gosho Boy Dolls, Friendship, Izumeko, Ichimatsu, Jizo, Mitsuore to name a few. There is a more descriptive list of dolls and folk toys found in many books on this subject, leading to a vivid view of the human shape. All of which were of interest to children and adults from all walks of life throughout the different periods of Japanese history and folklore. The Japanese have created objects to depict their culture and precious heritage, and which are mirrored by the artist’s creative impressions of life.

Dento (Traditional Kokeshi | Eleven Families)

Sosaku (Creative Kokeshi)

Dento Omocha (Traditional Interactive Toys)

If you wish detailed cultural information and research on the subject of Kokeshi, read an an exceptional dissertation by Jennifer E. McDowell, 2011, entitled: KOKESHI: CONTINUED AND CREATED TRADITIONS (MOTIVATIONS FOR A JAPANESE FOLK ART DOLL) @

We additionally wanted to include in our discovery section excerpts from an article published in Discover Nikkei in November, 2010. As retired educators, authors and collectors of Kokeshi, we felt the following historical summary supports the basis for the worlds passion for this creative doll. The author of this article is 90 year old, Ed Moreno, a researcher and writer, who has accumulated nearly seventy years of service in media- broadcast, newsprint and magazines, and author of this succinctly written overview of the “birth of Kokeshi”.

“In Japan, where even the origin of the country is legendary, the myths about kokeshi are abundant. The most believable story is that the craft began in the mountainous areas of Tohoku, midway in the Edo period, when Shogunate’s rules limited the use of wood exclusively to carpentry, crafting house wares, and providing fuel. Perchance, a monkutare kijiyasan convinced that his wood scraps deserved better fate than the kitchen fire, began whittling them into toys for his kids, thus giving birth to the art of kokeshi making.

Whittling is time-consuming, so, the honorable kiji-shi (woodworker) may have decided to improve his rough creation with a primitive foot-driven lathe. He taught himself and his minarai (apprentices) to select the woods most appropriate for the new art: cherry, cypress, dogwood, persimmon, pear, mizuki (water-tree) even bamboo. Next, master developed the best ways to turn, polish and finish each piece of stock, and minarai learned by observing and doing; but the master reserved for himself the privilege of styling the dolls which because of the lathe process had no arms or legs. Other masters saw, other masters did; and soon new kokeshi artists emerged. Some were followers of the original doll-making families; others were competing kijishi from neighboring prefectures, but all of them became creators of new styles and regional motifs used to ornament their Kokeshi creations.

There are eleven (11) recognized “strains” represent the dento (traditional dolls), the noblest kokeshi aristocracy. Named by the regions where they were developed, they are: the Yajiro-kei; Togatta; Narugo; Tsuchiyu; Nanbu; Kijiyama; Sakunami; Yamagata; Hijiori; Zao; and Tsugaru. Though Sendai is known as “the Kokeshi Capital of the World,” its lovely dolls never made it to the Kiboko Imperial Court.

A newer Oshin doll is simply a parvenu from our modern times. Here is the way she came to life. On April 4, 1983, NHK TV launched a tear-jerking drama, on the life of Shin Tanokura, archetype of the Gambare spirit. It ran to March 31, 1984. The plot included a story about a kokeshi doll Oshin once told. The series became one of the most popular ever, and reached fantastic audience appeal. An anime movie, based on the early chapters of the series followed. Naturally, the fans bawled for a memorial doll like the one in the story; so artists Mamoru Iizu and Toru Iizu, buckled to the manga mania and rushed to create a “kokeshi” which made the fans run amok for it. Tourists also use the word kokeshi to identify other carved dolls and objects, some really exquisite; and label them: sosaku, kindai or creative kokeshi.

Here are some of the curious legends claiming the purposes for creating kokeshi:
• they were to be used as a fertility fetish (Funin chiryō fechi)
• they represented “solace” for women who lost a child through death (zetsomei)
• they were tools to teach young girls the maternal arts of onba (nursing mother)
• they were souvenirs (omiyagi) from onsen owners to their steady customers
• they were talismans warding off fires and other evils

One harsh reality is that every year, the useful and artistic lives of many beautiful kokeshi end in pyres (bonfires used in celebrations and remembrance in services) set at various well-known otera (temples). I asked why, and was assured that it is to “thank the spirits of the dolls for their lives of service and pleasure, and to free them from the whims, vanities and frolics of their owner“.

Because tourists have always found them irresistible, kokeshi have been migrating en masse to the United States since well before the time of the American Occupation. Then, during the MacArthur shogunate, thousands of GI’s returning home managed to bring at least one of them, either in the original form or in any of its derivatives. By now, you can hardly visit any Nikkei (children of original Japanese Immigrants) home without finding at least one of these lovely dolls. If you add the numbers brought to our country by non-Japanese visitors to Japan, you can easily come to the realization that the kokeshi population now outnumbers the total count of human Nikkei in America.”

Our thanks go to Moreno-san for his sensitivities, insights, and for including our illustrative book in his research and writings. Mingeiarts handles many forms of antique and vintage dolls and toys (i.e., our specialty is Sosaku (creative) Kokeshi, kokeshi toys and spinning tops (Koma), representing work from internationally known Japanese artists and craftsmen. If you wish to see the diversity of the Kokeshi please see our book section for an illustrative book entitled, Kokeshi: Wooden Treasures of Japan, and a collectors edition entitled: Sosaku Kokeshi: A New Look At An Old Tradition.

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