Throughout its history, Japan, as in many other areas, has created a significant doll making art. This branch of japanese industry and folklore is still churning out a variety of dolls finding their owners in children, collectors and tourists.
Even at the beginning of japanese history dolls have been prepared, obviously not from porcelain and they have not functioned as decoration. That time, they were attributed spiritual strength, so their task was the incarceration and expulsion of bad spirits and the attraction of good fortune and rich harvest.
According to Genji’s novel, a variety of dolls have already been existed around 1000. Mothers have made them with the purpose of protection for their kids, however they have used them as toys, of course. By protectional functions there have been dolls against smallpox, harmful spirits, infant death and other diseases, etc., but of course dolls have been made for the hope of good marriage as well.
In the Heian-era wooden dolls have been in majority, they were carved by parents for their children, dressed in any kind of a piece of rag could be found at home.
Edo-era has brought innovation in this subject as well, doll making and trading has been blossoming. People have had funds, so they have been able to sacrifice money for the most beautiful dolls to decorate their homes. The makers, as they could see the amount of money people have spent on dolls, have endevoured to give more unique and more elaborate pieces out of their hands. The bases and traditions were laid down in this period, since then, more or less the customs remained from these times are still the living ones nowadays. Handmade dolls are invaluable these days, therefore only collectors are able to allow themselves to order them from the masters. However, there are more simple ones requiring less work as well, so any collector who finds themselves in Japan can purchase dolls raising the value of their collections.
Kokeshi dolls are integral part of japanese folk art and nowadays of applied arts as well and they are famous all around the world. These beautiful, colourful works of art have an irresistible charm. Since they are handmade, there are no two identical ones, every doll has its own individuality. They provide us insight into hundreds of years of Japanese culture by combining a rich history with typical modern life force, represented in their bold colors and simplicity.
The dolls turned and carved from wood with their pure shape depict girls and women, embodying the japenese idea of female beauty. Black, tidy hair, lovely, gentle, white face and closed, ornate kimono-clad body. Their ornaments and painted patterns can often be associated to the seasons. In Japan, there is almost no household, where at least one kokeshi doll could not be found. According to their shapes, there are smaller and bigger ones with rounded or cylindrical girl figure, samurais, monks, all with much of the characteristic features of the region of their origins.
The science of history assumes, that the first dolls are originated from the region of Tohoku, made around the late Edo-era (18th century). The most accepted hypothesis about its function is that it was made by craftsmen, who were in charge of turning dishes and rice bowls in the middle of winter in the „onsens” (hot baths), and to sell them as souvenirs for the guests. An other assumption is that the same craftsmen made the kokeshis for children as toys. In whichever house the children played with such a doll, there was a good harvest expected.
Since the first appearance of dolls hundreds of years have passed, and their popularity is still increasing every year. Today we have more clubs established for collectors and investigators worldwide. In six Tohoku-provinces there are 10 different types of kokeshis to be found. In some small villages, like Yahiro, people are half farmers and half craftsmen. From early spring until late autumn they are busy with agriculture, but from autumn to spring they carve dolls. Nowadays not only the traditional way of making dolls exists, the imagination of the artists surpassed the original forms, so from time to time creative kokeshis show up referring to the actual trends.
The meaning of Kokeshi to me
A little sentimental, and of course biased I am in this issue, but please forgive me that!
With many years of experience in making kokeshis and thousands of dolls prepared, I consider them as the gift of nature, because „wood gives soul for the kokeshi, while the kokeshi gives a new life for the wood”, so it extends beyond the concept of a simple „wooden doll”.
The kokeshi is a game of shapes with its infinite possibilities of variation. From a simple geometric form anything can be personalized with just a few brushstroke.
As every wood is different, so are kokeshis different from each other. Each has a unique personality, purpose and message. The „master”, the owner is different, so the doll chooses its own life: some of them travel endlessly, others sit on a desk lifelong as an amulet, others are being carried in a bag or spending their lives in a glass case with their fellow pieces of a collection.
Of course, there are also some who apologize or make declarations of love, celebrating birthday, anniversary, wedding, birth, graduation. Some are offered as prizes or applied as a subject of ethics class. Some are gentle, beautiful, elegant, ingenue, cheeky, shy, boy, girl, geisha, samurai, Hungarian or Japanese. Nevertheless, the only thing they have in common, is the love I give them out of my hands with!