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Iconic souvenir, Kokeshi dolls from Japan
December 19, 2011 1:32 PM   Subscribe

Kokeshi Dolls originated in North-East Japan as wooden toys for children. They began being produced towards the end of the Edo period (1603~1868) by woodwork artisans, called Kiji-shi, who normally made bowls, trays and other tableware by using a lathe. They began to make small dolls in the winter to sell to visitors who came to bathe in the many hot springs near their villages, which was believed to be a cure for the demands of a strenuous agricultural lifestyle.

Kokeshi dolls are one of those iconic Japanese souvenirs, now considered folk art, bought both by the Japanese and by foreigners. They are considered to be mementos and talismans, protection symbols.

> The Mizuki wood often used to make the kokeshi doll's head, translates as "water tree". It is a very moist wood and some Japanese believe that having a kokeshi in their home helps prevent fire.

They come in a variety of designs as well as regional looks.

The Tohoku Region, where the Kokeshi dolls originated is also where this year's terrible earthquake and tsunami had the most terrible impact.

History of the name

More about the making of Kokeshi dolls

Collections of vintage Kokeshi dolls and on Collectors Weekly

Vintage Kokeshi doll on Etsy

At the Kokeshi Museum (video)
posted by nickyskye (20 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Heh, I love these things. I bought a bunch of them from a cool shop in Hakone as souvenirs for people back home.
posted by Hoopo at 1:46 PM on December 19, 2011


Awesome post. I collect kokeshi and have some pretty unusual ones. Lately I've seen them a lot in kind of the same way Russian matryoshka dolls have popped up, printed on teeshirts or in tiny form on jewelry. Not quite the new owl, but just common enough to make me smile.
posted by padraigin at 1:51 PM on December 19, 2011


Is there such a thing as a fetish for watching people work on wood lathes? Because I think I have that. I could do it for hours.
posted by Think_Long at 1:52 PM on December 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


My wife got started collecting these as a girl, receiving one as a gift from her grandmother. She bought more as an exchange student visiting Japan. Then when we met (my hobby was ukiyo-e) we were a very bad influence on each other.

Two shelves of Kokeshi in our living room, a smattering of other small ones around the house, and a box with carefully wrapped seasonal dolls in storage.

She is going to flip over this video. Thank you very much for the post!
posted by somnambulist at 1:52 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


A friend of mine has hundreds, if not thousands of these. She picks them up mostly from flea markets. But the one that that really shows the depth of her collecting obsession is the life-sized kokeshi costume that she built for halloween a few years back (and which now towers over her collection).
posted by p3t3 at 2:01 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Brought home several really beautiful ones (most of them "non-traditional" [eg] but different areas seem to be producing their own distinctive style which may at this point be new traditions) for gifts and had no idea what an impact on my family it would have. I returned the following year to find they'd been scooping more up on ebay, and now have little collections of them.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 2:03 PM on December 19, 2011


The liked video is great for the soundtrack alone, wow. Great music.
posted by stinkycheese at 2:22 PM on December 19, 2011


It's amazing how easy they make the painting seem, although i'm sure it's anything but.
posted by codacorolla at 3:01 PM on December 19, 2011


There's also the suggestion that kokeshi dolls represent aborted or still-born infants, so-called mizu-ko. Infanticide (typically by drowning in a river) was a common practice in rural Japan (particularly the impoverished northeast) in the past, and naturally people felt bad about doing it - the dolls provide some sort of spiritual or emotional relief.

The dolls have the same general physical features as a new-born - large head, with no limbs, thanks to swaddling.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:10 PM on December 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


There's also the suggestion that kokeshi dolls represent aborted or still-born infants, so-called mizu-ko.

Thanks for the link -- I'd only heard this as rumour, before.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 3:34 PM on December 19, 2011


I don't see the link between mizu-ko and kokeshi. The statues of Jizo have only a superficial resemblance to kokeshi.

I never could quite understand kokeshi, they seem too simple to be an interesting toy. Kids must have lived an impoverished life to think it was desirable. Even ancient haniwa have a more expressive shape, even though they are notorious for being reduced to the simplest of forms. But we could probably go into the history of sculptural forms in Japanese culture and never come to any conclusion.

Anyway, you'd be surprised where these things turn up. When I lived in Hakodate, a friend gave me some little senbei crackers. They were a little cylinder and a little sphere of rice cracker inside a cellophane wrapper with the kokeshi face and costume imprinted on it. Looked just like a little kokeshi about 1 inch long.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:05 PM on December 19, 2011


Is there such a thing as a fetish for watching people work on wood lathes? Because I think I have that. I could do it for hours.

Oh.. I'll give you a little more, a self-link to a video of a guy who makes traditional tops. Some of the tops are built around figurines that resemble kokeshi somewhat. My favorite part of this video is when he paints a top spinning on the lathe, he slides the brush down the spindle and makes a perfect spiral. You can just see from the effortless gesture, he has done that thousands of times.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:14 PM on December 19, 2011


Naruko Onsen village, where they make several kinds of wooden dolls, has a water tower painted like a giant kokeshi. It is quite the sight.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:47 PM on December 19, 2011


Thank you MetaFilter community for making this a fun and informative thread.
posted by nickyskye at 6:48 PM on December 19, 2011


I don't see the link between mizu-ko and kokeshi. The statues of Jizo have only a superficial resemblance to kokeshi.

The statues of Jizo resemble Jizo, and have nothing to do with kokeshi. If you don't see the link between kokeshi and mizuko, it means you haven't read enough Japanese books!
posted by KokuRyu at 8:33 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is something incredibly soothing about watching someone work at a lathe like that. I picked up a kokeshi when I was in Japan the first time but didn't know the style. Now I do - and now that I know about the museum, we've got a new destination on our list for our next trip. Thank you!
posted by belissaith at 11:16 PM on December 19, 2011


Love the video and seconding the kick-ass music. Would love to get my own shed and put a woodworking shop in there.
posted by arcticseal at 5:53 AM on December 20, 2011


Oh.. I'll give you a little more, a self-link to a video of a guy who makes traditional tops. Some of the tops are built around figurines that resemble kokeshi somewhat

That's pretty cool and worthy of an fpp on its own I should think. Although McAfee antivirus absolutely hates quicktime for some reason.
posted by Think_Long at 6:02 AM on December 20, 2011


I always rather wanted a kokeshi bento box. But then the thought of drinking soup from someone's cute little skull rather put me off, even before I read Koko-Ryu's comment about mizu-ko.
posted by tavegyl at 9:22 AM on December 20, 2011


Thank you for this information and history. The dolls are lovely. I have seen umbrella handles made to look like the wooden dolls.
posted by IraMency at 3:03 PM on January 7, 2012


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