The origins of Japanese Kokeshi Dolls date back over 400 years but the shapes we recognise today started 150 years ago. The exact origin of Kokeshi is somewhat unknown. Several stories are told about their beginnings, including one of farmers returning from the hot springs in Northern Japan with handcrafted Kokeshi dolls for their children. Many people believe the dolls hold spiritual significance and even have the power to prevent fire! The latter most likely came about due to the moist wood used to make Kokeshi. Whatever their true beginnings, they have certainly started to capture the attention of collectors and interior lovers.
Handcrafted by Artists
In the 1960’s and 70’s they had a boost in popularity in Japan and production of them increased but Kokeshi have never been churned out en mass in large factories. That’s not what they’re about. They have always been individually handcrafted by a few selected artists. These artists hand their skills down through generations and develop their own signature shapes and painting styles. Kokeshi crafting is a serious business in Japan. Competitions are held regularly to determine the finest artists and designs. The highest honour is the Prime Ministers Award which has been won by artists such as Sansaku Sekiguchi and Sadao Kishi.
What to Look for When Buying Japanese Kokeshi Dolls
Knowing a few keywords and shapes will help you identify the age, style and sometimes even the artist.
Traditional (Dento) shapes are basically a body and head, some with thin bodies so that children can more easily hold them to play and shake them if they have a rattle inside the head (Gara Iri).
The wood used is usually from the Cherry or Mizuki tree (light dogwood). Mizuki is literally translated as “water tree” and this is thought to be the reason why Kokeshi protect your home against fires. This is also used for the heads of many Kokeshi because it better matches the Japanese pale skin complexion. The wood is left outside for several seasons to dry, then shaped into the head and body of the Kokeshi (mostly as separate pieces but some are made with one solid piece). Some Kokeshi made traditionally for children have tight-fitting heads that rotate and squeak (Hamekomi), designed to imitate the cries of a baby.
Over time 12 distinct styles of traditional doll emerged from different areas
Hijiori, Kijiyama, Nakanosawa (most recently considered a distinct style), Nanbu, Naruko, Sakunami, Togatta, Tsuchiyu, Tsugaru, Yajiro, Yamagata, Zao. Browse our Kokeshi page to see the different styles
But even within these 12 styles, patterns and shapes differ according to different artists take on the design. It can be quite addictive to collect different styles, sizes and artists.
In the 1940s the Creative (Sosuka) style emerged as a more unrestricted take on the Kokeshi Doll with more lifelike figures, limbs and complicated features such as protruding hair. These are created more in cities rather than rural communities (as Dento still are). Creative Kokeshi also sometimes feature events, ideas, stories or areas where they are sold (Souvenir Kokeshi).
Kokeshi had a resurgence in Japan in the 1960/70s when many of the vintage Dento dolls now available were made. They have become trendy and collectible in the UK. In Japan they are still given as gifts for special occasions, births etc and exported and collected the world over.
Many Japanese Kokeshi dolls are painted with floral symbols, mostly Chrystanthemums and other types of blossom and some have painted clothing such as Kimonos. Some are mostly painted with bold stripes whilst they are still on the lathe. Red and green colours are often faded with vintage pieces as these are from vegetable dyes, black inks often remain because Indian/Sumi ink was used which doesn’t fade as much.
There are many stories and myths about the origins and uses of Kokeshi ranging from childrens’ toys, massaging tools, gifts, good luck charms, to ward off evil and vessels for souls of ancestors. One company does create bespoke Kokeshi to the exact height and weight of a chosen newborn baby so you can create a bespoke gift for new parents!
These sought-after folk-art objects are still being made by artists in Japan, taught with knowledge and skills handed down through generations.
The Kokeshi that we have for sale are mostly made during the most recent resurgence of popularity since the 1960/70s.
If you want to see a Kokeshi being hand-made you can see the fascinating process in this video: