Virág Hársvölgyi
Japanese Traditional kokeshi dolls
Dolls by Réka Tóth-Vásárhelyi

”Sakura’s endless
What’s different? THE BACKGROUND!
Deceptive a game...”
Réka Tóth-Vásárhelyi

Traditionally, many toys and puppets are made in Japan either as components of folk culture and designed for actual play, or as applied art products featuring at different festivals. This latter group includes costumed dolls of the families’ Doll Festival (hinamatsuri) known as the Girls’ Day, and kokeshi dolls, representants of the traditional woodturning techniques. The figures typically have a cylindrical trunk and an enlarged head but lack arms and legs. The painted decoration of the surface, however, compensates for this lack, since it is the simple forms and vivid colours that give character to the dolls. Thus, today the kokeshi dolls represent a special field of applied arts. The history of the kokeshi goes back to the 19th century, their tradition originates from the handicraft production in Japan’s North-Eastern area (Tohoku) and has spread all over the country creating different types across the regions. Local characteristics – decoration, woodturning techniques, row materials – make the kokeshi dolls distinctive and recognisable by their style, which is passed down from master to disciple until today. Due to the post-Second World War economic expansion, the fashionable dolls of the Edo age have appeared in the souvenir shops of Japanese popular holiday resorts. These new kokeshi (shinagata) are distinguished by a different name from the traditional (dento) kokeshi the roots of which go back two hundred years, originally serving ritual purposes. Dolls keep having a special role during the traditional Dolls’ Day festival that is still celebrated today. Each year on 3rd March, Japanese families with girls celebrate the Dolls’ Day – also known as the Girls’s Day – when they put a smaller or larger set of dolls on display at a specific location in their homes. The dolls are placed on a tiered stand along with miniatures of the adult sized furniture and of the imperial couple with their household of musicians, guards, and servants. The figures on the doll stand, however, are not toys but elements of the festival. They embody the compliments given to the girl in the family concerning her future marriage and her growing up strong and healthy. The dolls also manifest the importance of the hierarchical order in Japanese society. Studying the doll set in the context of applied arts makes it clear that today the kokeshi enjoy continuing popularity not only worldwide but in their country of origin where kokeshi craftsmen, who carefully preserve tradition, are considered „living national treasures”. Although few of the craftsmen are still active, their followers continue using the simple techniques that they also enrich to produce creative (sosaku) dolls.

The discovery of the traditional style by applied artists results in the emergence of kokeshi with new functions. Classic forms are further developed, thus, dolls with individial lines, decoration items (led wall lamps), and accessories (jewelry) also show the basic elements of traditional kokeshi design: rounded, chubby cheeks, cylindrical body, smiling eyes, and endless charm. All of these can be found in Réka TóthVásárhelyi ’s works of art, whose individual vision and rich imagination open a new chapter in getting acquainted with kokeshi in Hungary. Her dolls are all individuals, and even if they look similar at first sight, they are still different. This is not only due to the dolls’ different hairstyles – one having a bow, the other a braid –, but also due to their having names. It is when the dolls are born and their faces painted on raw wood come to life that their personalities develop, and a name can be given to them accordingly (for example Harmony or Love). The material of the dolls also shows variety, be it maple, ash, beech, or exotic wenge. Depending on the raw material, the depth of the applied paint appears to be different. Due to this, one can almost feel the different layers of the painted kimono, the metallic glitter of the samurai’s armour, or the aesthetic qualities of the emerging wood texture on the unlacquered waxed surface. Among the dolls appear the emblematic figures of Japanese society (the samurai or the geisha), the figures of everyday scenes (wedding couple, little girl, mother carrying her child), and the characters of Japanese art rich in motives (Daruma, the symbol of good luck and Maneki Neko, the waving cat). Even today the kokeshi are held in the highest esteem in Japan. They have all the qualities – the simple style appreciated in Japanese art combined with the lack of unnecessary details – to express a full range of feelings. Réka Tóth-Vásárhelyi ’s dolls or doll patterned objects can function as toys, decoration, jewelry, and decor: on the whole, they are real works of art with the power of artistic design.

Published:
Ferenc Hopp Museum of Eastern Asiatic Arts:
Tradicional Japanese wear and contemporary Hungarian jewellery
JAPANESE ’ROUGE ET NOIR’
Edited by Györgyi Fajcsák, Budapest-Pécs 2013