The Complete Guide to Japanese Dolls

Japanese Dolls

Japanese dolls are a traditional craft that Japan takes great pride in. From charmingly simple “kokeshi dolls” to intricate “hina dolls,” there are various types of Japanese dolls that can be found across the country. There are even dolls specific to certain locations, such as the “Hakata dolls” from Hakata, Fukuoka that have a dedicated fan base thanks to their delicate beauty. In this article, we will delve deep into the world of Japanese dolls, introducing and giving explanations for each one.

Hakata Dolls

501room / Shutterstock

The Characteristics of Hakata Dolls

501room / Shutterstock

Hakata dolls are a type of traditional, unglazed clay figure that is classified as a traditional Japanese craft. However, you wouldn’t think that they were unglazed due to their beautiful, curvy shapes and fine details. The characteristic delicate features of the dolls are enough to captivate anyone.

The most famous Hakata dolls are those of beautiful women whose realistic expressions, skin, and curvy kimono lines have perfectly captured the beauty of Japanese women through the ages.

Hakata dolls are known for being some of the most delicately-made Japanese clay figurines. In contrast to most clay dolls in Japan, which are made using a single, two-part mold, Hakata dolls’ hands, fingers, and other fine parts are sculpted separately and then attached to the figures. This is what allows them to be so intricately expressive.

Hakata dolls are made from white clay and are mainly produced in the Hakata area of Fukuoka in northern Kyushu. After creating a clay model of the doll, the artist uses plaster to create a mold which is then filled with clay and biscuit-fired (without glaze). Next, the artist paints the doll using gofun (a whitewash powder made from fired seashells, used in traditional Japanese paintings), distemper (powdery paint mixed with gofun), and natural mineral pigments. Even today, the painting process, including the painting of the facial expressions, is done by hand.

Another characteristic of Hakata dolls is that they come in many different varieties, depicting everything from beautiful women (bijin mono), to the subject matters of traditional Japanese kabuki and noh theater (kabuki mono and noh mono), to the figures of children (wappa mono).

Particularly popular Hakata dolls include those of Fukusuke (seen above), a man with a big head kneeling “seiza” style, as well as those of Fukujo (a female version of Fukusuke), both of which are said to bring good luck.

The History of Hakata Dolls

The Hakata area has long had contact with the Asian mainland thanks to their relative proximity. Because of this, many parts of the continent’s culture made their way to Hakata, including a love for unglazed clay dolls, which have existed in Japan for over 800 years (arriving around the year 1200).

In the year 1600, Nagamasa Kuroda was appointed the new feudal lord of Fukuoka Prefecture (then known as Chikuzen Province), which includes Hakata. He gathered many craftsmen to build his new residence, the Fukuoka Maizuru Castle. Among them was the person said to have created the first Hakata dolls: Soshichi Masaki III, a clay roof tile craftsman.

He used the roof tile clay to create Noh theater masks (called omen) and dolls (called Soshichi-yaki), the best of which were presented to Nagamasa Kuroda as gifts and were considered the first Hakata dolls. At the time, Hakata dolls were high-quality items, beyond the reach of commoners. But around 1818 to 1830, a craftsman named Kichibe Nakanoko started producing painted, unglazed dolls made especially for commoners. They became the model for the Hakata dolls that we know today. Thanks to the later efforts of Nakanoko and his contemporary Buhei Shirouzu, Hakata dolls became known all over Japan.

Bronze statue of the Three Maiko (geisha apprentices)

In the second half of the 19th century, Japan finally opened itself to the world after years of no contact with all but a few countries. Thanks to this, in 1900, Japan was able to take part in the Paris World Expo, where many Japanese antiques and traditional crafts were displayed, including Hakata dolls. They were very well received, and Hakata dolls later appeared at other international exhibitions as well, such as the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris, where Hakata doll craftsman Yoichi Kojima won a silver medal for his Three Maiko*. After that, Hakata dolls became world-famous.    
* The picture above shows a bronze statue inspired by the Three Maiko dolls that won a silver medal at the Paris exhibition.

On a side note, people only started calling these dolls “Hakata dolls” around 1890. Before, when they had been presented at National Industrial Exhibitions held across Japan, they were identified as “Hakata Biscuit-Fired Dolls.” At the third National Industrial Exhibition, however, the “biscuit-fired” part was dropped and the figurines have been known as Hakata dolls ever since.

Hakata Dolls Today

Until 50 years ago or so, it wasn’t common for Japanese people to travel abroad. Even most newlyweds tended to choose somewhere in Japan for their honeymoon. It was also a time when many people lived in traditional Japanese-style houses which had “tokonoma” alcoves (the dark stand seen above) and “kazaridana,” cabinets for displaying ornaments. Many of them used to display Hakata dolls which Japanese people got for each other as souvenirs or as gifts to celebrate the birth of a child.

However, nowadays, many people travel abroad for their holidays and most live in apartments and other Western-style homes instead of Japanese-style houses. Many lack spaces for displaying traditional decorations, leading to a decline in demand for items like the relatively large Japanese dolls. That’s not to say that Hakata dolls have disappeared completely from Japanese homes, however. To be better suited to modern needs, the dolls have begun to evolve without losing their traditional value.

Amabie

In the past, Hakata dolls used to be quite large but now they tend to come in much smaller sizes so that they can be displayed in modern homes. The designs are no longer limited to traditional figures, either. Nowadays, you can find Hakata dolls of all sorts of characters, foreign and domestic, including popular anime characters. Hakata dolls have also started to regain popularity in Japan. In 2020, in the middle of the COVID pandemic, Hakata dolls in the form of the yokai (spirit from Japanese folklore) known as Amabie were even created after the character went viral on social media (it is said the by showing an image of Amabie to a sick person, they will be cured).

Conclusion

Hakata dolls captivate people with their delicate expressions and their beautiful, curvy shapes. They’ve continued to change with each new era without ever losing their traditional value. Going forward, they will continue to capture the hearts of not just the people of Japan, but the entire world.

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Hina Dolls

hina dolls on display

In Japan, March 3rd is called “Momo no Sekku,” meaning “Festival of Peaches.” This day, often called “Hinamatsuri,” is a day to pray for the happiness and healthy upbringing of young girls. An indispensable part of this tradition is the gorgeous dolls, called “hina dolls,” which are stunning examples of traditional Japanese crafts.

Types of Hina Dolls

Hina dolls are displayed in a pair, with a male doll called the “obina” and a female doll called the “mebina.” Together, they are called the “dairibina” or “odairisama,” and represent the Emperor and Empress. The dolls are divided into two main categories: “kimekomi-ningyo” and “ishogi-hina-ningyo.” These types of hina dolls will be explained below.

Kimekomi-Ningyo

Mokumekomi dolls
Mokumekomi dolls

These dolls are made by creating a shape out of wood or clay, carving the folds and wrinkles of the kimono into the mold, and then tucking the edges of the cloth into the grooves. This type of manufacturing process produces dolls that are known for their round shape. A famous example of the kimekomi-ningyo is the “Edo-kimekomi-ningyo” (Edo wooden doll). The eyes of the doll are handpainted, so the doll’s expressions can vary from artisan to artisan.

Ishogi-Hina-Ningyo

Ishogi-Hina Dolls
Ishogi-Hina Dolls

This type of doll is widely popular nationwide and is made by layering kimono to build up the shape over a base of wood or straw. These hina dolls are known for their mature, realistic faces that highly resemble a real human face. In this article, we will delve deeper into the world of these popular ishogi-hina-ningyo.

Arrangement of the Hina Dolls and the Meanings Behind It

hina doll nanadan kazari display

The arrangement as seen in the above picture is often called “nanadan kazari” (seven-level display) or “jugonin kazari” (fifteen-person display) and is the most extravagant way to display the dolls.

A red cloth called a “himosen” is laid over the staircase-like platform, and the obina and mebina sit on pedestals called “shinnodai” atop the highest level. “Bonbori” (paper-covered lanterns used as lighting fixtures for candles) are set on each side, and a golden “byobu” (folding screens that are used as partitions or decorations) is placed behind the dairibina.

close up of the upper level of hina dolls

On the second level are the “sannin-kanjo,” the three court ladies that attend the odairisama. The third level hosts the “gonin-bayashi,” the three male musicians who play traditional Japanese music called “gagaku.” On the fourth level are the martial arts specialists, the imperial guard major general (on the left side of the photo; commonly called “udaijin”) and the imperial guard lieutenant general (on the right side of the photo; commonly called “sadaijin”). The fifth level holds three male local workers called the “shicho.”

close up of the yome-iri-dogu

The sixth and seventh levels are not decorated by any dolls, but instead by “yome-iri-dogu,” which are tools and furniture such as dressers that the daughter will need when she marries and moves away. One of the most famous of these decorations is a craft called”suruga-bina-gu.”All these decorations are made in the same way the real items are made, down to the smallest detail.

close up of the obina

The obina holds a sword, the mebina holds a fan, and each of the other dolls holds an exquisite miniature-sized prop that is related to its profession. The tiny swords can even be removed from their sheaths. The clothing that the dolls wear is an accurate recreation of aristocrats’ formal wear during the Heian period (794 – 1192). The gorgeous, vividly-colored 12-layer robe that adorns the mebina is called “itsutsuginu-karaginumo” (commonly known as “juni-hitoe”) and weighed between 10 – 20 kilograms in real life.

History of the Hina Doll Shape

katashiro
Katashiro

The origins of the hina doll date far back in history, with its exact beginnings unknown. Around 11,000 years ago, however, the first human-shaped doll figures were made out of clay, and these are believed to have gradually developed into the prototype for hina dolls. It is unclear exactly what these clay figurines were used for, but it is thought that they were likely used for occultic purposes.

This changed during the Heian period (794 – 1192) when the aristocratic culture of Japan flourished and the aristocracy began using human-shaped paper dolls called “hitokata” and “katashiro.”

Nagashi-bina
Nagashi-bina

By breathing on or touching the hitokata and katashiro dolls, it was believed that the doll would take one’s place and all the bad energy would be transferred to the doll. There was an occult ritual where the dolls would then be sent away in the rivers or oceans, washing away your misfortunes such as disease or calamities with it. The custom of washing away the doll in water was called “nagashi-bina,” and at some point the dolls would no longer be sent away but instead decorated alongside a river or ocean, becoming a protective charm in order to avoid disaster. This is considered to be one of the origins of the hina doll.

However, during the same era, there were two other dolls called “amagatsu” and “hoko” that would also make an appearance.

Amagatsu
Amagatsu
Hoko
Hoko

These dolls had the same use as the katashiro and hitokata, but served as substitutions for young children. By placing the dolls next to the children, any impending disaster awaiting the child would be transferred to the doll instead. During the Heian period, this occult custom was mainly practiced among the aristocrats, but it also spread to the common people in the 265 years between 1603 and 1867. Amagatsu were decorated to represent boys, and hoko were decorated to represent girls. These were some of the prototypes for the current obina and mebina.

Hina Dolls in the Current Day

young girls in front of hina dolls
young girl playing with mebina doll

Even today, the tradition to gift hina dolls when a baby girl is born remains, and due to this, the dolls can be bought at a relatively inexpensive price. However, because these are products that are meant to be used for an entire lifetime, many people buy dolls made by craftsmen from specialty doll stores.

Additionally, many people pay special attention to the mebina’s face when ordering hina dolls, for even if the shape of the doll a craftsman makes is from the same mold, the minute details such as the eye shape can be adjusted by hand with a chisel. Even the eyelashes, eyebrows, and the growth of the hair from the roots to the nape of the neck are drawn on one strand at a time with a brush. That is why it is said no two hina dolls look the same, and there are many people who order hina dolls to resemble the newborn baby girl for whom the dolls are for.

There is a superstition that if you leave the hina dolls on display later than March 3rd, your daughter will not be able to get married for a long time. Because of this, “shinno-kazari” hina dolls are very popular as they consist of just the obina and mebina in a clear case, making them easy to buy and easy to clean up. Another reason for their popularity is the size of current apartments and houses, with some households not having enough room to display an entire set.

Conclusion

Hina dolls are one of Japan’s foremost traditional crafts, with their shape gradually changing over time. Current hina dolls contain the essence of the craftsmen’s skills that they have honed over time, as well as the wishes of the families hoping for the happiness and healthy upbringing of their newborn daughters.

Kokeshi Dolls

Kijiyama Kokeshi

The History of Kokeshi Dolls (*1)

Kokeshi are traditional Japanese wooden dolls. They usually have round heads and cylindrical bodies painted in a variety of patterns, which differ depending on the region.

The origin of the word “kokeshi” is not certain, and it’s not made easier by different regions calling the dolls by different names over the years. Some called them “kogesu,” which comes from “keshi-ningyo” (literally “poppy dolls”), which referred to small wooden dolls wearing cloth costumes. Others called them “kideko,” which comes from “deku,” another form of wooden doll. They were also known by the name “kiboko,” which references “hoko” dolls of crawling babies. (In each case, the “ki” prefix means wooden.) However, in 1940, lovers of these dolls got together and decided that they shall all be known as “kokeshi dolls,” and that name stuck.

There are also a lot of theories about the origin of the dolls themselves, but it’s widely accepted that they first appeared in the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), and can be traced back to around the 1850s when kijishi (woodworkers) started moving to hot spring towns that people visited to convalesce and relax. Kijishi specialized in lathe work, making wooden bowls and plates, and the theory goes that when they were left with some unused wood, they would fashion it into simple toys, and those became the first kokeshi dolls. The dolls caught the eye of farmers visiting the hot spring spas and quickly became popular souvenirs. With time, the dolls’ popularity grew and grew until they eventually became beloved children’s toys and good luck charms.

But then came the Taisho Period (1912 – 1926) and with it an influx of foreign toys that displaced the kokeshi. And yet, as the demand for the Japan-made dolls fell, a small group of enthusiasts appreciated them aesthetically.

In 1928, one Tomiya Amae published the Kokeshi Hoko no Hanashi, the first magazine dedicated entirely to kokeshi dolls. This helped Japan rediscover the traditional beauty and value of the dolls, and revitalized their popularity.
After Japan entered its postwar economic boom (1954 – 1970), more Japanese people started traveling around the country, including to the hot spring towns in the Tohoku region where kokeshi were still available as souvenirs. Once again, the dolls returned to the spotlight.

In 1981, the so-called “Miyagi traditional kokeshi,” which includes the five styles of Naruko, Hijiori, Sakunami, Togatta, and Yajiro, were designated as traditional Japanese crafts by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Characteristics of Kokeshi Dolls

●How Are Kokeshi Dolls Made (*2)

Every kokeshi doll is different depending on the region, from how they look to how they are made. There is the tsukuritsuke style, where the head and the torso are shaped out of one piece of wood. Then there’s the sashikomi style, where the head and torso are shaped separately and then connected with a peg. Finally, there is the hamekomi style, where the head and torso are made separately but one of them has a hole which the other, protruding part is hammered into. The hamekome-style dolls have rotatable heads and make noises.

Painted maple

Most kokeshi dolls are made from wood, mainly from painted maple or dogwood. Painted maple is especially prized for its lustrous, pale orange flesh color, as well as for its hardness and durability. Dogwood, on the other hand, has more of a white color and a much finer grain. It’s also softer and therefore less durable than Japanese maple, but that makes it easier to shape.

All kokeshi doll-making starts with the “kitori” (wood conversion), where a dried tree is cut to pieces roughly the size of the final product. Then, the piece of wood is placed inside a lathe, and the woodworker uses a planer to shape it into a kokeshi doll. If the craftsman is working in the sashikomi or hamekomi styles, they will shape the head and torso separately, but in the tsukuritsuke style, the entire doll is shaped out of one piece of wood.

Finally, the shaped doll is smoothed out with sandpaper. In the past, plants like horsetail or loofah were used to smooth it out.

Once the doll is fully shaped, the craftsman will paint designs and patterns on its head and torso using a brush. “Rokuro-sen” stripes are a kokeshi doll characteristic, and they are made while spinning the lathe (the “rokuro”) around.

●Types of Kokeshi Dolls

There are two main types of kokeshi dolls: traditional “dento kokeshi” that were developed in the Tohoku region centuries ago, and the “sosaku kokeshi” featuring more modern designs. Traditional kokeshi dolls are further divided into 11 unique types, each one with a different shape and design depending on the region.

・Kijiyama (Akita Prefecture) (*3)

It’s generally accepted that migrating kijishi woodworkers in search of better materials first started making kokeshi dolls as children’s toys and hot spring resort souvenirs near the end of the Edo Period (1850s). These crafts were made in the tsukuritsuke style where the head and the body are all made from one block of wood. They had a red ribbon-like ornament painted on their heads, while their torsos were adorned with painted kimonos featuring chrysanthemum flowers or vertical stripes. The dolls are easily identified by being quite slender with thicker torsos and smaller heads.

・Naruko (Miyagi Prefecture)

This style developed around Naruko Onsen in Osaki, Miyagi Prefecture, which is also the place of origin of two other major kokeshi doll styles: Tsuchiyu and Togatta. These dolls are made in the hamekomi style where the head produces a distinct sound when turned. Many crafts in this style have torsos adorned in chrysanthemum patterns. The Naruko style is easily recognizable by the torso being a little narrower in the middle.

・Sakunami (Miyagi Prefecture)

This style developed around Sakunami in the Aoba Ward of Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture. Sakunami dolls are made in the sashikomi style, and are recognizable by their torsos being narrower near the bottom and their flat head tops. The reason why these dolls have such narrow torsos is to make it easier for children to hold them. A lot of Sakunami-style crafts are decorated in chrysanthemum flower patterns (left on the above picture) that somewhat resemble crabs, hence why the design is called kanigiku (crab chrysanthemum).

・Yajiro (Miyagi Prefecture)

This style developed around Kamasaki Onsen in Shiroishi, Miyagi Prefecture. Made in the sashikomi style, the heads of these dolls are relatively large and decorated with colorful lines resembling painted-on berets.

・Togatta (Miyagi Prefecture)

Made in the sashikomi style, Togatta dolls have long, vertical bodies and are recognizable by their large, crescent moon-shaped eyes. The tops of their heads are decorated with pictures of radiant, red flowers, while their bodies are usually adorned with chrysanthemum or plum flower designs.

・Zao (Yamagata Prefecture)

This style developed around Zao Onsen in Yamagata, Yamagata Prefecture. Made in the sashikomi style, Zao dolls have thick bodies and heads decorated with pictures of radiant, red-hair ornaments. Their bodies are adorned with chrysanthemum or sakura cherry flower designs.

・Hijiori (Yamagata Prefecture)

This style developed around Hijiori Onsen in the village of Okura, Mogami District, Yamagata Prefecture. It’s derived from the Naruko and Togatta dolls and is made in the sashikomi style. The larger Hijiori kokeshi dolls make a distinct sound once adzuki beans are placed inside their heads. The style is easily recognizable by the dolls’ well-defined lips and crescent moon-shaped eyes.

・Yamagata (Yamagata Prefecture)

This style developed around the city of Yamagata, Yamagata Prefecture. Made in the sashikomi style, Yamagata style dolls have slender, straight bodies decorated in sakura cherry or plum flower patterns.

・Nambu (Iwate Prefecture)

Made in the hamekomi style, it’s said that these dolls were modeled after a child’s pacifier. Because of that, the dolls feature no color or designs, and their heads wobble.

・Tsuchiyu (Fukushima Prefecture)

Made in the hamekomi style, these dolls have snake-eye designs painted on the tops of their heads. Their bodies are painted while spinning the dolls on a lathe. To achieve a different effect, some Tsuchiyu dolls are also painted using a “reverse lathe” technique where the lathe is spun in the opposite direction.

・Tsugaru (Aomori Prefecture) 

Made in the tsukuritsuke style, Tsugaru dolls have the shortest history out of all the 11 types of kokeshi dolls. They are recognizable by their various shapes and designs.

Kokeshi Dolls Today (*4)

In recent years we’ve seen the creation of sosaku kokeshi dolls which are not limited by tradition, allowing for a wider range of expressions and sometimes actually being made in the likeness of popular manga and anime characters. In 2010, Japan even came up with the term “Kokeshi Joshi” (Kokeshi Girls) to describe young women with a passion for these dolls. You can also buy things like the very useful “Akari Kokeshi” (Light Kokeshi) which light up when they topple, like during an earthquake or other natural disasters.


For the ultimate kokeshi doll experience, visit the annual All Japan Kokeshi Festival which has been held in Naruko since 1948. It’s always a lively event with people exhibiting and selling the kokeshi dolls, doll-painting experiences, parades, and more!

Conclusion

The various types of kokeshi dolls have waned and gained in popularity, but for more than 200 years now, they’ve remained a beloved part of Japanese culture. Now, they’re even becoming popular abroad where they’ve captured the hearts of many as souvenirs or interior design objects.

(*1) – (*4) Supervised by:
Fumio Miharu, chairman of the Akita Prefecture Kokeshi Craftsmen Association
Takahiko Numakura, vice-chairman of the Akita Prefecture Kokeshi Craftsmen Association

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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