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Ningyo II – The Poetry of Dolls

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Three years after it happened, I am still grieving about the demise of Ningyo Journal, an ambitious periodical that J.A.D.E. (Japanese Asian Doll Enthusiasts) published from 1993 to 2004. It cost only eighteen dollars per year, but it always packed a wallop as an instrument for learning about Japanese dolls. Its earlier issues were valiant attempts at desk-top publishing, which the editors kept constantly improving. By the time it disappeared, it was being printed on first-rate coated paper, and enriched with excellent black-and-white photos; outstanding line drawings and gorgeous color illustrations. Yet, it was still stapled on the outside, thus maintaining a bit of simplicity.

From their farm in Iowa, co-founders Peggy Bailey, and her husband Larry, designed, produced and administered the journal. Shirley Funk, at the University of Iowa edited the publication; Judy Shoaf, at the University of Florida was the Webmaster; and Rosie Skiles, in Colorado, was in charge of research. Frequent contributor to the Journal was Vice-president, Dr. Marvin Herring, who wrote several articles and created many delightful cartoons. The book was also enriched by other American and Japanese contributors. One wonders how Mmes. Skiles and Funk, the main writers, managed to bring out every issue on time despite the long-distance communications problems between the basic squad and its contributors.

Lea Baten (also known as Batten), a London refugee from the Nazi occupation of Belgium, was a formidable editorial resource for the Ningyo team. An avid doll lover since childhood, she favored Japanese ningyo and toys. Mrs. Baten became an artist; acquired three degrees from Cambridge University; and then followed her interests at the Academie des Beaux Arts in Brussels, in her native country. She organized a number of doll exhibits at the Benedictine Abbey, near her home in Affligen, Belgium, and wrote extensively on many Japanese popular art forms. Her books, JAPANESE DOLLS—Playthings and Pastimes in Japanese Prints; JAPANESE FOLK TOYS—THE PLAYFUL ARTS; and Identifying Japanese dolls. Notes on Ningyo—written before her untimely death—all are treasured by doll lovers.

With its tremendous intellectual base, Ningyo Journal could be deemed the top resource for serious researchers. Each remarkable issue is full of glossaries; references about books, links to other sources, and precious tidbits on the lore of Japan’s lovely dolls. Perusing their pages helps one learn about amagatsu; anesama; Buddhist icons; bunraku; Daruma; dogu; gosho; haniwa; hoko; ichimatsu; karakuri; kimekomi; kokeshi; model dolls; netsuke; O-Jizo; shishi; takasago…and all the other heavenly creatures of the Ningyo Olympus. It would take many pages to review all of the plain, dreadful, beautiful, and fantastic forms which Japanese inventiveness and imagination have managed to produce since the Jomon period. The journal also helps one find the real meaning of ningyo. The Journal’s pages help one understand the Japanese doll, from its spirit to its shapes, colors, costumes, hair and ornaments, footgear, and the objects associated with each character.

Because of its precious contents I tried to get a complete collection of the journal. Alas, many coveted, early issues weren’t available anymore. Yet, what my greedy hands could snatch, two issues short of the entire collection, is a real treasure to which I’ll often refer for wonderment and delight.

Friendship Doll

One of the most touching stories I found in the Journal was on Friendship Dolls. More than 100 years ago Dr. Sidney L. Gulick, a Congregational missionary went to serve in Japan. He wanted to be the “best ever missionary” so he spent there 25 years, and mastered the language to the point of being able to write it professionally. Naturally, he fell in love with the people and their culture. Upon returning to America, in the ‘20s, he became distressed about the rising anti-Japanese sentiment, particularly the blatantly humiliating Immigration Law of 1924. To help promote better understanding between America and Japan, he formed the Committee to Establish Friendship among Children. Its first project was to send American dolls to Japanese school kids, for hinamatsuri. In 1927, nearly thirteen thousand blue-eyed baby dolls left the US for Japan complete with passports, paraphernalia, and a letter professing friendship. Japan returned a treasure of fifty-eight Doll Ambassadors of Goodwill, one for each state, and more for states with larger populations. The ‘Ambassadors’, torei ningyo—or return dolls were created by noted Japanese artists, particularly Goyo Hirata, a most distinguished Living National Treasure.

I have to make a small parenthesis in the ‘Ambassadors’ story for a few words on Mr. Hirata.

Goyo Hirata is considered the most respected ikki ningyo—realistic doll maker of Japan, and possibly the whole world. He founded the Yomonkai, an organization of highly accomplished doll artists. He was selected a Living National Treasure in 1955. Mr. Hirata died at 78, in 1981. Sumie Kobayashi, chief of the reference library of Asakusa’s doll atelier, Yoshitoku, wrote an extensive article on Goyo Hirata, for ROKUSHO, Vol. 19. 2003. And, DARUMA, in its Autumn 2005 issue enhanced that piece, which is profusely illustrated with photos of Mr. Hirata’s marvelous works, courtesy of the Kumamoto Prefectural Museum of Art; Tokyo’s National Museum of Modern Art and the Yokohama Doll Museum. In Vol. 1, # 3, of Ningyo Journal, you’ll also find an interesting article by Shirlee Funk (U. Florida) on Goyo Hirata, with a special reference to his Miss Nippon, an ichimatsu doll, and the most beautiful piece in the entire Friendship Doll group. Miss Nippon resides at the National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C.

The Friendship Dolls represented every Prefecture, and each of the six largest Japanese cities. WWII came, and many of these precious objects were destroyed, stabbed or burnt. However, people with better common sense rescued and protected some of them, and helped them survive the inanity of the war. A few years later, after sanity returned, Sidney L. Gulick, 3rd–grandson of the missionary revived the friendship program. Michiko Takaoka, from the Mokugawa Fort Wright Institute, at Seattle, WA, joined later. In her book Ningyo Taishi (in Japanese only) Ms. Takaoka recounts the entire story about the program, and shows how to participate in it. Both Mr. Gulick and Ms. Takaoka are intent in fully reviving the doll interchange.

You might want to visit the Internet site: wgordon.web.wesleyan.edu/dolls/exch1927/gulick/index..html and read there the article on Dr. Gulick, and “The Friendship Dolls,” by Kunio Nishimura, for more on that moving story.

Wouldn’t it be fun if our Gakku-en system could also become involved in the Friendship Doll Program?

*This article was first appeared in the East San Gabriel Valley’s Japanese Community Center’s “Newsette” in June 2007.


© 2007 Edward Moreno

dolls friendship dolls Japanese dolls ningyo paper dolls