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Japanese Wooden Kokeshi Dolls Explained

Japanese Kokeshi Dolls — All You Need to Know

Japanese culture is a famously artistic one and boasts of various kinds of artistic traditions. Through the different dynasties and ages that the Japanese civilization has been through, different practices and styles of art have emerged, whether in painting, textiles, calligraphy and most importantly, dolls. Japanese dolls can be divided into several different categories and each category of dolls have a significance of their own. The style of making these dolls are different, the material used is usually not the same for one as it is for the other, neither are the designs of the paintwork. The following is a short primer on a few different kinds of Japanese dolls, including kokeshi dolls.

What Is the Significance of Kokeshi Dolls?

Kokeshi dolls are Japanese wooden dolls that have a simple design without arms or legs. For centuries they have been handcrafted and are often used as toys for children. The dolls typically only have a simple torso, usually, a cylindrical shape, and a head — though modern designs are slightly more elaborate and may add a layer of hair. They sometimes have floral designs on the body made with thin, painted lines. 

Popular history traces kokeshi dolls to the Edo period (17th-19th century) where they were crafted as souvenirs for people visiting the hot springs in Tōhoku, in the north-eastern region of the country. Since Japan is volcanically active, it is not hard to find natural hot springs all over the island nation. Today, they are popular souvenirs for tourists to take back from Japan and make for great toys for the children as well.

What Does Kokeshi Mean in English?

It is difficult to find an exact translation for kokeshi in English. There are a few different ways that kokeshi is spelled — the traditional ateji spelling and the more widely accepted hiragana spelling. Kokeshi may be derived from wooden ( ki, ko) or small ( ko). ‘Keshi’ may mean dolls (芥子). Of course, it is difficult to arrive at a direct translation into English.

There is also a darker, more sordid theory attached with kokeshi dolls. It is that the suffix ‘keshi’ may have been derived from the word ‘kesu’, which means to erase or remove. ‘Ko’ means either ‘small’ or ‘child’. When the two are symbols are put together, it points to practices of infanticide which has been found to be common during bouts of extreme poverty during the Edo period. The kokeshi doll would come to represent the child who has passed away in the household and would be placed in the shrine in his or her honor. There is no way to historically validate this but it is still a popular theory that has been going around for a while.

Are Kokeshi Dolls the Same as Daruma Dolls?

Not quite. While both kokeshi and daruma dolls are wooden dolls that are built without arms and legs, the ritual significance of daruma dolls is different. Daruma dolls are hollow, wooden dolls that depict the face of a bearded man. The doll is usually presented as a gift for encouragement. The two eyes of the figure are left blank. When you set out to do something, you paint into the left eye. Once that goal has been achieved, the right eye is painted. The completed doll is then a souvenir of that achievement. Daruma dolls are a popular symbol of Japanese folk art and can frequently be seen in tattoos. Since the doll is a symbol of good luck, by having the doll tattooed on your body, you can carry the talisman with you at all times. 

What Does Daruma-San Mean?

Daruma-san is a popular children’s game which is similar to what is called ‘Statues’ and ‘Red Light, Green Light’ in some cultures. There is a den identified as ‘it’. The ‘it’ is supposed to shut their eyes and turn their back towards the other players. The ‘it’ then says Daruma-san ga koronda, which roughly translates to — “the Daruma doll fell over”. The objective of the game is that all the other players have to come as close to the den without being seen. 

Now, What Is a Kimmidoll?

Kimmidolls are the dolls you may have seen outside of Japan, most commonly. They can be confused for traditional Japanese dolls, but they are actually a contemporary take on various kinds of traditional dolls. They are inspired closely by Japanese kokeshi dolls and embody the simplicity of these traditional dolls. They can be purchased easily online and come in a variety of colors and designs. The Kimmidolls also do not have arms or legs, but there is an element of hair that is attached to the doll, which is usually not seen in the traditional dolls. 

About the Japanese Doll Festival

The doll festival or hina-matsuri is held annually in Japan. It is also known as Girls’ Day where families get together to celebrate the future and prosperity of their young daughters. It is held on March 3rd every year and cities and towns in Japan witness hina dolls dressed in costumes from the Heian Era. The tradition is said to have started in the Heian period when dolls were said to be able to ward off evil spirits. The dolls were placed into a river that flows into the sea and as it floated away, it was said that the dolls would take evil spirits away with them and cast them in the open seas. 

Today, the festival is celebrated in several parts of Japan but a common tradition, after releasing the dolls in the water, is to retrieve them later and then burn them collectively at a temple.

Conclusion

Japanese dolls are an important part of Japanese culture and traditions. Over the years, their ritual significance may have evolved and many of them, today, are more souvenirs for tourists than dolls with everyday significance. But they have strong symbolic value and denote different periods of Japanese history and culture. The beauty of the time we live in is that you can purchase Japanese geisha dolls, hina dolls and various other kinds of dolls online, even without visiting Japan.