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Everybody has a favorite Japanese doll, but the luxurious kimekomi seem the most popular, with the Hakata not far behind. My passion is kokeshi, substantiated by a hoard of over four-hundred pieces. Oh, that’s nothing! In Dallas, Texas, two wonderful friends have already exceeded the TWENTY-FIVE HUNDRED count, and they just keep acquiring. One of their latest finds is a doll, tall as a seven-year old child, and twice as heavy. As if that weren’t enough, my friends are now also starting to collect gosho, those ‘cute’ baby dolls that have become real treasures of antiquity.

This is how my romance with kokeshi began. Wandering around the alleys of Sendai, many years ago, I came across an old kokeshi workshop. I stopped there, in front of the shop, simply to snoop. The artist had removed the front wheel from an old bike, and the tire from its rear wheel. Inside the rim, he’d set a long leather band extending to his work bench, and secured it to a lathe. Perched on the ghostly bike, an apprentice pedaled on cue to activate the strange rig, as the master tooled the doll’s body and the head, separately. After turning the wood, the master smoothed each piece with three different grades of sandpaper, and finished them with a handful of horsetail grass. Next he forced the head into the body’s top, twisted it a bit…and the doll squeaked gleefully. He carefully painted the doll’s delicate facial features, and then, the simple dress, and protected them with a coat of wax. After caressing his exquisite mix of wood and creative genius, he finally noticed me. I’d been standing there for hours. He turned around, bowed, and gently suggested “irasshai mase”-Please, come in. For an instant never to recur-Ichigo ichie- he raised the doll to assess his work; both of us looked at it and then at each other, silently. Selling or buying then would’ve been an unforgivable blunder.

Various Kokeshi (Wikipedia.com)

In Japan, where even the origin of the country is legendary, the myths about kokeshi are abundant. Some people swear that the ancestor of the kiboko—wooden child in Tohoku-ben (dialect)—is the Ainu nusa, a forked willow stick with its top whittled to resemble a mane, and the split made to look like a doll’s limbs. Maybe… But easier to believe is the story of how the craft began in the mountainous areas of Tohoku, midway in the Edo period, when Shogunate’s rules limited the use of wood exclusively to carpentry, crafting house wares, and providing fuel. Perchance, a monkutare kijiyasan1 convinced that his wood scraps deserved better fate than the kitchen fire, began whittling them into toys for his kids, thus giving birth to the art of dento or traditional kokeshi.

Painting a kokeshi (Wikipedia.com)

Whittling is time-consuming, so, the honorable kiji-shi may have decided to improve his rough creation with a primitive lathe. He taught himself and his minarai (apprentices) to select the woods most appropriate for the new art: cherry, cypress, dogwood, persimmon, pear, even bamboo. Next, master developed the best ways to turn, polish and finish each piece of stock, and minarai learned by observing and doing; but the master reserved for himself the privilege of styling the dolls. Other masters saw, other masters did; and soon new kokeshi artists emerged. Some were chips from an original doll-making family; others were competing kijishi from neighboring areas, but all of them became creators of new styles.

Presently, eleven recognized “strains” represent the dento, the noblest kokeshi aristocracy. Named by the regions where they were developed, they are: the Yajiro-kei; Togatta; Narugo; Tsuchiyu; Nanbu; Kijiyama; Sakunami; Yamagata; Hijiori; Zao; and Tsugaru. Though Sendai is known as “the Kokeshi Capital of the World,” its lovely dolls never made it to the kiboko Imperial Court.

Kokeshi from various areas (Wikipedia.com)

A newer Oshin doll is simply a parvenu from our modern times. Here is the way she came to life. On April 4, 1983, NHK TV launched a tear-jerking drama, on the life of Shin Tanokura2, archetype of the Gambare spirit. It ran to March 31, 1984. The plot included a story about a kokeshi doll O-Shin once told. The series became one of the most popular ever, and reached fantastic audience ratings3. An anime movie, based on the early chapters of the series followed. Naturally, the fans bawled for a memorial doll like the one in the story; so artists Mamoru Iizu and Toru Iizu, buckled to the manga mania and rushed to create a “kokeshi” which made the fans run amok for it.

Tourists also use the word kokeshi to identify other carved dolls and objects, some really exquisite; but haughty connoisseurs wrinkle their noses at those wannabes, and label them: sosaku, kindai …or more humiliatingly, “ordinary souvenirs.”

Here are some of the curious legends claiming the real purposes for creating kokeshi:

  • obviously, they were to be used as fertility fetishes
  • they represented “consolation prizes” for women who lost children through deliberate or unplanned abortions4
  • they were tools to teach young girls the maternal arts of ombu5
  • onsen owners used them as omiyagi-souvenirs, to reward their steady clients


Kokeshi were talismans against fires and other evils, since many dolls are made of mizuki (water-tree), or fire resistant dogwood. You have an ample assortment of choice myths from which to pick your favorite.

One harsh reality is that every year, the useful and artistic lives of many beautiful kokeshi end in pyres set at various well-known otera (temple). I asked why, and was assured that it is to thank the spirits of the dolls for their lives of service and pleasure, and to free them from the whims, vanities and frolics of their owners. A young Californian friend, Jennifer McDowell who spent a long period in Japan studying kokeshi as a popular art form, assured me that most of the dolls ending in the pyre are really trashy. It may be an accepted practice to burn them, but couldn’t there be a cooler way to say “Thanks and goodbye?”

To start you on the road of appreciating the lovely Japanese art/craft of the kokeshi, here are some choice references you might want to consult:

DARUMA MAGAZINE, (23) and (38) has two exceptionally researched, well-written and illustrated pieces by Mrs. Itske Stern, who knows everybody in the trade, often lectures on the topic, and has shared with me tons of information.

To view kokeshis from the extensive private collection of Itske and Anthony Stern >>

An Invitation To Kokeshi Dolls by Chizuko Takeuchi, (1982) very scarce and expensive, is the kokeshi “bible.” Ask your public library if it has a copy.
Ningyo Journal, 3(3), carries a beautiful article by Isabella Gallaon-Aoki, and 10(3), a masterful piece by Shirlee Funk, another ningyo expert. The Journal ended its life several years ago, so again you’ll have to go to the library to look at it.

Lea Baten’s Japanese Dolls (1986) and Identifying Japanese Dolls: Notes on Ningyo, (1990) both deal amply with the art. Michael Evans and Robert Wolf recently published Kokeshi: Wooden Treasures of Japan. It is a strangely produced book but very well illustrated. Alan Pate’s encyclopedic works: Ningyo: The Art of the Japanese Doll, (2005) and Japanese Dolls (2008) each has a lush section on kokeshi.

On the Internet, visit the website, which Professor Judy Shoaf, (U. Florida) designed and carefully maintains. There you will have lots of fun with lore, not just about kokeshi but also other Japanese doll forms.

Kokeshi, particularly the dento are real collectible treasures, and their lore will entertain you forever. Yet, know that the first doll you own will soon possess your heart, never to let go.


Now, what does all this have to do with us, Nikkei, one might say? Plenty, I tell you. Please, consider the following:

Because tourists have always found them irresistible, kokeshi have been migrating en masse to the United States since well before the time of the American Occupation. Then, during the MacArthur shogunate, thousands of GI’s returning home managed to bring at least one of them, either in the original form or in any of its derivatives. The kiboko immigration has continued unabated through the years under the realization that They are so cute… and inexpensive!

By now, you can hardly visit any Nikkei home without finding at least one of these lovely dolls there. If you add the numbers brought to our country by non-Japanese visitors to Japan, you can easily come to the realization that the kokeshi population now outnumbers the total count of human Nikkei in America.
It may get even worse, now that the traditional Japanese art of carving has invaded the field, producing pieces worth a special place in our living rooms, and even our museums. No kidding!


1. Easily translated as: “ornery honorable woodworker.”
2. It is a biographic novel based on the life of Kazuo Wada’s mother. Mr. Wada, in turn is the founder of the Yaohan supermarket chain.
3. For the entire story of O-Shin, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oshin
4. That looks like taking ko and kesu together, and coming up with “child” and “extinguish” a rather splintery interpretation.
5. Carrying a child in one’s back.

*This is an expanded version of the article written for Discover Nikkei by the author. The original version was published in the East San Gabriel Valley’s Japanese Community Center’s “Newsette” in June 2009.

© 2009 Edward Moreno

crafts culture doll kokeshi tradition