Kokeshi History

 Traditional Kokeshi (Dento)

Origins of Kokeshi

Traditional Kokeshi began to be made approximately two hundred years ago sometime in the middle of the Edo period. (1603-1867) The dolls emerged out of local life and culture and were first produced in the north east area of Japan known as the Tohoku region. It is commonly thought that woodwork artisans of the time know as Kijiya, (which means woodworker in Japanese) originally specialized in wooden household utensils such as trays and bowls. Then they began to make small dolls in the winter to sell to the tourists who came to bathe in the many onsens (hot springs) near their villages. The few people who could afford the luxury of such a pastime bought the Kokeshi dolls as a souvenir and took the dolls back to their own areas where they were often passed on to the children. This, they thought, would promise a good harvest, as it was believed that it would create a positive impression on the gods if children played with the dolls.

11 Types of Traditional Kokeshi

The wooden dolls were also less expensive than other types of dolls. As Kokeshi continued to be made in various parts of the Tohoku region, their shapes and patterns became particular to a certain area. The style and skill of making the Kokeshi was passed from master to apprentice, from father to son. Traditional dolls made today can be classified under eleven types to include: Tsuchiyu, Togatta, Yajiro, Naruko, Sakunami, Yamagata, Kijiyama, Nanbu, Tsugaru, Zao-takayu, and Hijioro. The traditional Kokeshi dolls are very simple in design, originally made on hand-powered lathes.

Common Kokeshi Characteristics

Traditional Kokeshi dolls have common characteristics that consist of a basic cylindrical limbless body and a round head. Though the first dolls might have been unpainted, today most Kokeshi are painted in bright floral designs, kimonos, and other traditional patterns. Colors used were red, yellow and purple. As all the dolls are hand painted, no two faces are alike. This is perhaps the greatest charm of the Kokeshi. Some dolls are whimsical, happy and smiling, while others are serious. The woods used for Kokeshi vary. Cherry is distinguished by its darkness. Mizuko or dogwood is softer and used extensively. Itaya-kaede, a Japanese maple is also used. The wood is left outdoors to season for one to five years before it can be used to make a doll. Today, Kokeshi is recognized as one of the traditional folk arts of Japan.

Creative Kokeshi (Shingata)

Characteristics of Creative Kokeshi

While the Traditional Kokeshi exhibits a similar recognizable style and character, creative Kokeshi are completely free in terms of shape, design and color. It is the unrestrained imagination of the individual artist that creates these small works of art. Creative Kokeshi are relatively new, having developed after World War II. Their popularity has grown as people recognize their artistry. Creative Kokeshi are not made in one particular region of Japan. In fact, while many traditional Kokeshi artists are located in more rural areas, creative Kokeshi artists are often found in the cities. While traditional Kokeshi use a similar pattern in each doll, creative Kokeshi are more free in their style. Creative Kokeshi use unique techniques in making the dolls, such as engraving and baking. The result of these innovative techniques creates an artistic and beautiful doll. Though the woods used for the creative Kokeshi vary, Mizuko (dogwood) and cherry are the most common. Like the traditional Kokeshi, the wood is left outdoors to season for one to five years before it can be used.

The Craftsmanship of Kokeshi

The beauty of the creative Kokeshi is in the craftsmanship and theme that the artist is trying to express in each doll that they create. Since 1954, the prime minister’s prize has been awarded each year to the best work of Creative Kokeshi. Kokeshi is now recognized as one of the traditional folk arts in Japan. There are many different styles of Kokeshi, but there is one philosophy that all Kokeshi dolls share and that is the pursuit of beauty and artistry through simplicity.

Sharon Larsen