Little is known of the ancient history of Japanese wooden dolls Kokeshi. One school of thought believes that Kokeshi dolls have their origins in the practice of the spiritualist religion. Wooden dolls were thought to contain the spiritual essence of the dead and were often made for honorary commemoration.
The modern history of Japanese Kokeshi dolls began in the latter part of the Edo era (1603-1867). Originating from the Tohiku region of northern Japan, famous for its hot springs and rejuvenating thermal waters, Kokeshi dolls have acted as an important source of extra income for local artisans known as Kijiya (meaning carpenter in Japanese) , specialized in woodworking and in the production of household utensils such as trays and wooden bowls. In the harsh winters these Kijiya artisans began making “Kokeshi dolls” to sell as souvenirs to visitors who frequented the local hot springs. The dolls served not only as souvenirs, but also as massage tools used by bathers to pat themselves on their backs while enjoying the warming benefits of the hot springs.
Kokeshi dolls were very simple in design, originally made on manual lathes. Traditional Kokeshi dolls had common features which consisted of a basic cylindrical body with no limbs and a round head. Although the earliest dolls may not have been painted, today most Kokeshi are painted with vibrant floral, kimonos, and other traditional motifs. The colors used were red, yellow and purple. Since all dolls are hand painted, no two faces are alike. This is perhaps the greatest charm of Kokeshi. Some dolls are whimsical, happy and smiling, while others are serious.
Their popularity soon spread throughout Japan and they became favorites as wooden toys for those who couldn’t afford porcelain dolls. Additionally, the dolls’ simple, rounded shapes lent themselves as early teething rings for young children.
Kokeshi dolls traditionally represented girls and quickly became popular for their depiction of female beauty. Additionally, their simple charm and association with childhood meant that they were often given as gifts at the birth of a child, as birthday gifts, or as a reminder of a child’s death. Also, Japanese Kokeshi wooden dolls were popular with peasant children as it was widely believed that they would promise a good harvest, as it was believed that it would create a positive impression on the gods if children played with the dolls.
The woods used for Kokeshi vary. Cherry is distinguished by its darkness. Mizuko or dogwood is softer and widely used. Itaya-kaede, a Japanese maple, is also used. The wood is left to mature outdoors for one to five years before it can be used to make a doll. Today, Kokeshi is recognized as one of Japan’s traditional folk arts.
Despite their common characteristics, there are two design schools, Traditional Kokeshi and Creative Kokeshi.
Traditional kokeshi are mostly still produced only in the six prefectures of the Tohoku region. The twelve design schools featured here all display distinctive features that allow experts to tell exactly where they were made and often by whom.
The Kokeshi creatives do not follow the traditional designs originating from the Tohoku region and instead have a deconstructed inspiration that is completely free in terms of form and painting, the only traditional constraint is their manufacture using the lathe. Unlike traditional kokeshi, they do not show any of their characteristic local colors or techniques handed down from generation to generation. They simply represent the creative thinking and skill of the craftsman.
Traditional and creative handcrafted dolls have become a cause for celebration in Tohoku and throughout Japan. Every year, in early September, people gather at Naruko Onsen, where artisans from across the nation gather to honor Kokeshi in a competition where the number one prize is a Prime Minister’s award.
There are many different styles of Kokeshi, but there is a philosophy shared by all Kokeshi dolls, and it is the pursuit of beauty and art through simplicity. This philosophy is enhanced on the website: …dollsofjapan.co.uk
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