Japanese Dolls
Japanese Dolls
Written by
Tokubei Yamada
Published by
Japan Travel Bureau
Copyright 1959, second edition
Total 211 pages

With different kinds of dolls and figurines crafted from various materials, Japan is a doll collector's paradise. There are colored wooden dolls, including gosho-ningyo (dolls representing mostly babies), saga-ningyo (gorgeously colored dolls), and nara-ningyo. There are dolls with costumes, and dolls for the Girls' Festival (known as the Doll Festival) on March 3 and Boys' Festival on May 5. And then there are splendid clay and wood folk crafts, such as kokeshi.

Enjoy these excerpts from “Japanese Dolls”

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Originally the gosho-ningyo was a colored clay doll. Later on, either hariko (papier-mache) or neri-mono, a mixture of sawdust and wheat starch kneaded into a clay-like paste and moulded on a wooden model, was used instead of clay in making this kind of doll. Gosho-ningyo of the best quality, however, have always been made of wood.


A gosho-ningyo representing the “ Emperor ” in the no play entitled “Tsurukame” (ref. page 30). Height: 2.3 feet. Made in the 1790's. From the collection of the Tokyo National Museum.

Gosho-ningyo represent, as a rule, baby boys and boys up to six years of age. A gosho-ningyo boy usually wears no clothing, except for a piece of cloth called haragake which covers the front of the body above the waist. Sometimes the boy is shown wearing some sort of headgear and a coat as well as the haragake. As a rule, gosho-ningyo are from four inches to one foot eight inches in height, although tiny ones from 0.8 inch to 1.2 inches are sometimes seen. The boy dolls are represented in different postures. There are crawling babies, boys with their legs thrown out, boys in a standing posture, holding toys in their hands, with tai (red bream), under their arm, boys riding some kind of animal, and so on.

This type of doll is characterized by its disproportionately large head, its plump form, and the sheen of its polished white body. It is supposed that the idea was suggested by the hoko, a doll made of wadded white silk cloth representing a crawling baby which was used as a child's charm against illness. This supposition is due to the fact that gosho-ningyo were not only prized as art objects, but sometimes, as in the household of a Tokugawa shogun in Edo Castle, they did duty for the aforementioned hoko. Evidently there prevailed among the people the practice of using a talisman gosho-ningyo in order to drive away evil spirits. It is also said that some ladies of the Edo aristocracy used to take with them gosho-ningyo as talismans whenever they went on a journey in a palanquin. Then again there was a custom among the townspeople of making a gift of gosho-ningyo to parents on the birth of a child. It was the fashion until recent years to put one or more gosho-ningyo on display at home as ornaments, and presumably also as charms against misfortune.
Gosho-ningyo were manufactured at Kyoto during the Edo period. The word gosho means a palace, the residence of an emperor. Tradition says that it was the custom for the court members to purchase a number of gosho-ningyo every year from the dollmakers in Kyoto for presents. It appears that the name was derived from the facts that this type of doll appealed to the taste of the Imperial Household. This gosho-ningyo was indeed among the best handicraft art products of Kyoto. The Kyoto nobles in the Edo period were in the habit of presenting the daimyo (feudal lords) and samurai (warriors) with this local product, while visitors to Kyoto usually bought the dolls as souvenirs.


Saga-ningyo are dolls carved in wood and colored richly in those parts which represent the apparel. Besides pigments, gold leaf is sometimes used. Most Saga-ningyo are from three to six inches in height; it is rare to find a Saga-ningyo of a height of one foot or more. This limitation in size is due to the problems of coloring.
Unlike gosho-ningyo, dolls of this kind represent people in various walks of life. Sometimes they represent supernatural beings. Thus we have Saga- ningyo representing public entertainers of the Edo period, handsome, youthful warriors, saru-mawashi, Hotei (god of generosity and wealth), Daikoku (god of wealth), karako (children in the Chinese style), etc., etc. Both Hotei and Daikoku being gods of fortune, they are represented with a smile on their faces. They were worshiped by Edo chonin (townsfolk) as gods of wealth. Naturally enough, they supplied a good motif to painters, dollmakers and other artisans of the time.


This Saga-ningyo made in the Edo period represents a karako with a cock in his hand. This doll nods its head at the slightest breeze, ejecting its tongue at the same time. Height: 7 inches. From the collection of the author.

Tradition tells us that a certain dollmaker at a place called Saga, a scenic district in the western part of Kyoto, was the first to make this kind of doll. Hence, the name of the doll. But nobody knows for certain exactly who this dollmaker was.
It seems probable, however, that some Buddhist sculptor started making this type of doll as a hobby. This may be inferred from the fact that the coloring of Saga-ningyo resembles that of Buddhist images. In the later years of the Edo period Saga-ningyo came to be produced in Edo (the present Tokyo) as well.
One of the characteristics of this doll is the way it is coated,, almost to a visible thickness, with a mixture of gofun (a very finely pulverized oyster- shell powder), and glue called nikawa. The garment part of the doll is so dexterously carved as to convey an impression of fluidity, which serves to make the gorgeously colored parts look still more beautiful.
The art of making this richly colored wooden doll began to wane toward the end of the Edo period (1615-1868). The reason for this decline was perhaps the fact that the colors were too gorgeous to please the taste of the majority of Japanese people.
Over the Meiji and Taisho eras, that is, from the end of the nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century, a dollmaker named Kubo Sashiro acquired a reputation as a reviver of the craft of making Saga- ningyo. But today hardly any are produced in Kyoto or Tokyo.


Here in Japan there are few hotspring resorts, however small, that do not have their souvenir shops stocked, among other things, with an assortment of simple, primitive dolls called kokeshi. This type of folk doll, for such it no doubt is, is made of wheel-turned wood and partially painted.


Some specimens of kokeshi. Height: 2.4-10.7 inches. From the collection of the author.

Originally kokeshi were children's play dolls in the Tohoku region, that is, the northeastern part of Japan. But today they are made almost exclusively as souvenirs for sale at spas. This type of wooden doll is, as has already been said, mass-produced in a lathe. It has only a head and body. It has no limbs. In shape it is not unlike a totem. Although thus primitive in shape, it is not so unattractive as may be imagined ; for besides a loose-jointed head, it has bands painted in two or three primary colors right round its trunk, and sometimes it has flowers, such as chrysanthemums, painted on it.
The etymology of the word kokeshi is unknown. It appears that during the Edo period workers in wood engaged in the manufacture of trays, bowls and other utensils came to make this type of doll as a side line.

Dolls for the Girls' Festival

The term hina-ningyo is the collective name for dolls for display at the Doll Festival of March 3 ; namely, doll representations of dairi-bina, ladies in waiting, attendants, five musicians, servants, etc.

The dolls arranged on an orthodox stand at the Girls' Festival are as follows :
Ladies in waiting are in sets of three. These are usually arranged in the second tier of the stand, one seated in the middle and the other two in a standing posture on either side. Two are represented with an ancient-style hand-table with a sake cup on it, and the other with an ancient-style pot from which to pour the liquor. The idea is to offer sake to the exalted personages represented by the dairi-bina.

Girls' Festival dolls

Girls' Festival dolls arranged on a tiered stand.

As its term indicates, the gonin-bayashi (five musicians) is a set of five dolls. Four of them represent no musicians holding respectively a flute, a small hand-drum, a big hand-drum, and an ordinary drum. The remaining one is a member of the no chorus. This set of dolls is- designed to add a festive mood to the doll stand. From olden times these doll musicians have always been in the form of children. Who first had this idea is not known, but it certainly serves to enliven the otherwise solemn atmosphere ) of the doll-decked stand. The zuishin (attendants) are in a set of two. Representing, as they do, the men who would always attend on court nobles whenever the latter went out, they are represented in a standing posture, arrow on back and bow in hand.
The shicho (servants) are in a set of three. As may be inferred from their garments, they represent attendants of a lower rank.
The dolls, when completely arranged on a tier stand, suggest the sort of scene which court nobles of high rank may have presented when they attended some ceremony or other, accompanied by their regular suite. But it seems more reasonable to suppose from the diminutive furniture representing a bride's outfit, that the dolls on display show a wedding scene.