More Than Just Toys; The Story Of Kokeshi Dolls

Humans have been fascinated with making models of themselves for art, decoration, and/or play. While many of these decoration pieces are statues, a good number of them are also dolls. Doll designs and styles are many and varied. In some cultures, they are simply something children play with, while other cultures have dolls deeply rooted in traditional observances, folk tales, and inside jokes.

Japan is known to have many kinds of dolls; from life-sized and intricately detailed, to small and wooden, or even paper. These dolls are sometimes made in the likes of infants, children, even heroes, and gods. They are still used as part of special events like “Hinamatsuri” which is a festival that is all about dolls, or their national Children’s Day. Japanese dolls are also placed in shrines in houses, given as gifts and sold as souvenirs.

The Kokeshi Doll; One Among Many Others

Japan has eleven different kinds of traditional dolls. Among them are the Kimekomi Dolls, Hina Ningyo, Daruma, Okiagari Koboshi, and notably, the Kokeshi, just to name a few. Focusing on the Kokeshi dolls, you would notice they are a little, unlike the rest because of their simple shape and design. The Kokeshi doll’s dimension charts are different; they can range from 5, 7, or 10 or so inches tall, basically having a thick wooden stick for a body, with a wooden ball for a head. What separates it from other dolls is that it does not have any protruding limbs that represent arms or legs; just a stump with etched lines.

The wood used to make Kokeshi dolls is are not all alike; many prefer using dogwood or “Mizuko”, while other prefer the dark brown heaviness of cherry wood. Others use wood from the Japanese maple tree, or “itaya-kaede”. Before using the wood, however, it would go through a lengthy process of being dried for approximately a single year, to five years.

As for the design on its surface, its face has very minimal and thin details painted on, with the Kokeshi's eyes usually just being two slits or dots. This makes it less expressive than your usual doll. The body of the kokeshi doll has floral prints on it. The colors traditionally used to paint its body ranges to a singular use or combination of red, black, and/or yellow, though more modern, and commercial versions of kokeshi dolls have different outfits, colors, and designs printed on them.

The Meaning Behind Kokeshi Dolls

The etymology of the word “kokeshi” is not officially documented, leaving people to speculate. The word “kokeshi” was originally written in hiragana, and not kanji, so you can dissect the meanings of the combination of each phonetic syllable. The most one could do is suppose – and that’s exactly what people did. Doing this revealed a possible dark side in the history of kokeshi dolls.

See, the syllable “ko” could mean two things; either “small”, or “child”. The word “keshi” could pertain to “poppy” or “doll". Combine those two and you get “small poppy”, which is a positive way to translate Kokeshi. The word “wooden” could also mean “ki” or “ko”, and “keshi” could also directly mean “dolls”; so, some claim it simply means wooden doll.

The Darker Tale

There is, however, another way to look at it. Instead of taking it literally as “keshi”, the word keshi could also have been taken from the word “kesu”, which technically means to erase. Combine those two definitions; “child”, and “erase”, and you have links to infanticide, which sadly did happen quite a bit among poverty stricken areas of Japan during the Edo period. Sometimes, when a child passes away, they leave a kokeshi doll on the shrine inside the house to represent and honor the soul of the child who departed.

No one can validate for sure which etymology is correct. Others argue that the kokeshi doll has no connections to rampant infanticide; instead, it is known as Kokeshi because one of its manufacturers back at the time labeled his/her company as such.

The Use of Kokeshi Dolls

Kokeshi dolls were indeed used as both souvenirs and toys during the 19th century, and would later turn into a fad to have. Nowadays, they’re still sold as souvenirs and used as collectibles and decorative pieces. They are not as popular among children though, what with more complex technology, games, and toys making their ways to shopping malls. If you were to bring up the idea of a kokeshi doll among Japanese teenagers or adults now, you’ll find out that it is often associated with a sex toy – perhaps because of its shape.

Just because it is comically linked to being a sex toy doesn’t mean that it is seen as such by everyone. Because of its interesting history and ties to Japanese culture, it’s still a great gift to consider giving to loved ones, in case you happen to see them being sold during one of your trips to Japan.

The History of Kokeshi Dolls in Japan

Kokeshi dolls aren’t that old; they emerged from the Tohoku region around the middle of the Edo period. They were made by skilled woodworkers who also had a hand at pottery. This profession was called “kijiya” and the men who practiced this were called “kijishi”. It all began in a place called Shinchi Shuraku, by an Onsen called “Togatta” in the Zao area. They were sold to tourists who came to use the hot springs and became such a hit that craftsmen around other spas in the region started creating their own kokeshi dolls.

They also became favorite toys among children. From toddlers who would use them to teeth on, to older children who would buy them instead of porcelain dolls (wood is cheaper) due to financial constraints, the Kokeshi doll was a great gift for any little Japanese girl. Also, some farmers used to believe that playing with a kokeshi doll attracted good luck for harvesting season, as the gods of harvest would be pleased when they see children enjoying themselves with their toys.

The Meiji period saw many of these dolls being sold and bought, giving those who made them a reason to make more. Kokeshi doll crafters became very passionate about what they were doing and the quality of dolls they were creating. Some of them would be awarded for their meticulous detail and creative skill in manufacturing these dolls. They are now considered one of Japan’s traditional folk arts.

Different Types of Kokeshi Dolls

Sometimes depending on the area where it’s made, the kokeshi doll has a different type. There are eleven different traditional Kokeshi doll types (also known as dento-kokeshi), with the most common type named “Naruko”. The Naruko type of kokeshi doll originates from the Miyagi Prefecture. There is an entire street in Miyagi called Kokeshi Street, in Naruko Onsen Village, full of craftsmen who specialize in carving out these special naruko kokeshi dolls and others.

After the second world war, the kokeshi doll evolved into something more contemporary, being taken by artists from all over Japan (originating from no specific region) and turned into dolls that did not follow any other guidelines in terms of design, yet looked similar to the form of traditional kokeshi dolls.

Under traditional types, each Kokeshi doll is named after the place where it was carved and sold; usually an onsen in the area. There’s the Tsuchiyu type, the Yajiro, the Togatta, Naruko, Sakunami, Zao Takayu, Hijori, Kijyama, Nambu, and Tsugaru/Nuruyu.

How to Make Kokeshi Dolls

It’s easy to make your own kokeshi doll. It doesn’t have to be made from wood; you can use materials from around the house, and even get to recycle something. There are DIY videos available on YouTube that can give you tips on which materials you’ll need. One person used an old deodorant stick that had a rounded head – and you can too.

All you need is an old deodorant roll-on stick with a rounded cap, spray paint, sticker paper, colored and plain markers, scissors, decorative paper, and a ribbon. You can remove the roll-on ball and superglue it to the cap to create the effect of a hair bun. When it’s glued together and dried, use the spray paint on the cap to color your Kokeshi's hair. Create an outline on sticker paper for the Kokeshi's face (also on the rounded cap), and draw in its eyes, nose, mouth, and face shape. Design the layout and drawing of the face to fit the cylindrical shape of the tube, and adhere it to the cap.

For the body, spray paint the color you’d like it to be – you can go with white as a base. Once that’s dry, cut a square of the decorative paper, wrap it around the deodorant stick, and paste it. Add a ribbon around for the impression of a belt. You can make many of these in different designs, and the best part about it is that you have complete control over the design of your kokeshi doll.

Have A Tattoo Done Of Kokeshi Dolls

For that tattoo customer who is looking to have a mixture of both a traditional aspect Japan with a fusion of kawaii, you may want to consider having one done of a kokeshi doll. It’s not too serious, yet at the same time, it has a flair of uniqueness. You can make it even extra special by choosing which flowers to design the kokeshi doll’s kimono with. Perhaps you could even give it some symbolism using “hanakotoba”, or the Japanese language of flowers.

Purchase A Vintage Kokeshi Doll

A kokeshi doll that was made during the Edo period is very difficult to find. You will have more luck finding kokeshi that look vintage but aren’t necessarily authentically are. Depending on the kind of wood/material used to make the kokeshi, who made it, as well as when it was made, your price can fluctuate to a thousand or so dollars.

You may try your luck online, with sites such as eBay, usaburo, saberdesigns, and lasieexotique. You may want to make sure that you’re getting your money's worth in the sense that you look out for the variables found in a prime kokeshi doll, such as being not so top-heavy, having clean and original artwork that hasn’t faded, painted by a calligraphy brush.

Where to Buy A Kokeshi Doll in Tokyo

In case you’re around Tokyo and prefer to purchase the kokeshi doll yourself instead of using the internet to find one, you can always try your luck in different souvenir shops around the metropolis. You can try your luck to find a kokeshi doll stall in tourist havens such as Nakamise Street, Kapabashi Street, Ameyoko Market, Don Quijote, and Oriental Bazaar. If not, just head the online store of Tokyo-smart, and buy this item there to save yourself the trouble.

The Kokeshi Doll In Modern Popular Culture

If you’ve ever played wii sports with a Nintendo wii, you’ll know what a “mii” looks like. A “mii” is an avatar that you get to design to look like yourself so that you can use it to represent yourself when you play the different games. Nintendo drew inspiration from kokeshi dolls when they designed their miis, as they look almost identical – though miis do have protruding limbs for legs and arms.

Because kokeshi are sheepishly attributed to vibrators, you’ll find that quite a few of these massagers are named after kokeshi, and look exactly like kokeshi; one of them being the notorious “kokeshi dancer”. You’d better make sure about what kind of kokeshi doll you’re actually getting.

Be A Collector

Support the industry of Japan and become a collector of these handmade figurines yourself. It’s a lucrative business that could increase in interest over the years, especially if you get your hands on rare and antique dolls. The dolls come in a virtually unlimited amount of designs, and many of them are affordable to collect. Who knows, they might even make you lucky.

Kokeshi dolls have had many links to the rich past of Japan. Whether they truly are as dark as they seem or are lighter than what is thought of them to be, it’s nice to have a piece of history with you in your home as memorabilia of such a great country that is Japan.