A nation without toys is a nation doomed to ruin.
- Old Adage
Kokeshi originated from the north of Japan, in the mountainous Tohoku region, a popular hot springs area. Histories tell us that the local wood workers used excess pieces of timber to craft simple toys and teething aids for the local children. During the 1800's, many people started to visit the onsen (hot spring inns) in Tohoku and the toys became popular souvenirs to take home.
Kokeshi can be broadly divided into two types: traditional (dento) and creative (sosaku). The traditional kokeshi were first made during the Edo period, some sources suggest, as early as the 1600's. Certainly by the late 19th century they had gained popularity throughout Japan and are still made to this day. Sosaku kokeshi production began at the end of the Second World War.
The craftsmanship and artistry of making kokeshi is passed down from master to apprentice, often within a family. Each apprentice in their turn making their version of the master's doll, while keeping the trademark style and characteristics of the original.
Thus, each kokeshi is as a signature, a unique expression of both artist and regional family. While kokeshi remain the only style of Japanese doll to be signed by the artist, many collectors and avid enthusiasts can identify the maker through the features of their kokeshi.
Nowadays, kokeshi are one of the most celebrated folk arts in Japan, with a number of competition festivals around Japan, including Tokyo. The highest accolade a kokeshi artist can be honoured with is the Prime Minister's Prize in the all-Japan Kokeshi doll competition. Many kokeshi have become highly collectable and will fetch thousands of dollars per piece.
Made of various types of timber, kokeshi are frequently associated with the mountainside, nature and childhood and these seasonal themes are often reflected in their decoration and adornment. While they almost certainly began as rudimentary toys, and gained popularity as souvenirs, one of the other early theories about kokeshi dolls was that they were made and given as a celebration of the milestones in life: birthdays, graduations and other special occasions.
Other theories speak of kokeshi as an instrument for use in Japanese massage, as offerings to ensure a good harvest or fertility or as a talisman to protect a house against fire.
Traditional kokeshi are also referred to as dento kokeshi. They are often made from cherry wood or the wood from the mizuki tree (a kind of dogwood), but examples using cedar, birch, elm, camellia and maple wood can also be found. With a column-like trunk and over-sized head kokeshi are minimalist forms, usually carved out of a single block. With no arms, the hand-painted decorations indicate their clothes, hair and facial features which are usually limited to a simple palette including red, black, yellow and green water-based paints that are sealed with wax.
Kokeshi can be bought as gifts, collectors items or household ornaments and their definitive style is known and celebrated worldwide. Different types of these wooden kokeshi are associated with various regions in the Tohoku area. Each individual traditional family has it's own unique and distinguished style. Dento kokeshi are frequently categorised into between ten and twelve distinct styles. The ten families or strains are Hijiori, Kijiyama, Nanbu-Hanamaki, Naruko, Togatta, Tsugaru, Yajirou, Yamagata-Sakunami and Zao-Takayu.
Here are the traditional types of vintage kokeshi:
Aside from Naruko being easy to find in antique stores, Kijiyama are a beautiful dignified traditional doll, known for being carved from a single piece of wood.
Creative kokeshi, often referred to as sosaku kokeshi, date from 1945 onwards. Some of these modern dolls are a hybrid, featuring a traditional body and creative face, or vice versa, where a craftsman has studied to be a traditional artist, and then expressed themselves with contemporary freedom, without the constraints of the tradition.
Although traditional kokeshi feature a straight column-like body, modern dolls vary in trunk shape and even occasionally have hair carved from the wood instead of being painted on. Creative kokeshi artists have often been pioneers in reinventing the craft, willing to experiment in alternative methods of carving and embellishment. In a contemporary context, creative kokeshi have been an inspiration for the animated avatars used for Nintendo as well as the popular Momiji doll.
Surrounded by many rumours of origin and sparking collectors’ interest worldwide, kokeshi dolls are a lynch pin of Japanese ornamental craftsmanship. Finding high quality examples will become easier the more private curators educate themselves on Japanese art, history and antiques. Due to their unique details and sought-after master craftsmanship, kokeshi dolls will continue to be in high demand by collectors of Japanese arts and antiques for years to come. At this point in time, it's believed that we are about to enter into kokeshis' third wave of popularity.
The team at Kazari specialise in kokeshi, among other Japanese antiques and collectables, and will be happy to provide education on kokeshi and guide you through beginning a collection of your own, or in finding a gift for another.
As a general rule, it is best to start collecting thematically. Groupings of odd numbers, such as three, five, seven and nine are traditional. When choosing a kokeshi for a grouping such as this, consider how they work together, it may be the same family, but different sizes, or all creative. If there is a mix, maybe they all have a similar colour, age or style that ties them together. Also, try looking into the eyes of the doll to see if it's face speaks to you, or if you get a sense of the presence of the artist who created the doll, or maybe the feel of the timber itself will be an inspiration.
For someone just starting out, it can be lovely to collect some of the original traditional 12 families. Naruko is the easiest kokeshi you can collect. They are easy to find and collectors can get them in every size, so they are recommended as one of the first choices to begin a collection. The chirping sparrow sound that their heads make when turned are an entertaining feature. Another suitable starting point is a classic and traditional Kijiyama kokeshi.
Wherever you choose to begin, if you choose that which you find most appealing, your choice will bring delight and further appreciation of this very collectible art form. Collecting speaks to the infinite variety of artistic interpretations available in the one object. It is a celebration and appreciation of craftsmanship and artistry.
Robert Joyce and Jo Maindonald of Kazari + Ziguzagu have been importing Japanese antiquities and art for forty years. Kokeshi are just one of their specialties and we are now seeing a growing number of collectors who have a deepening interest in the craftsmanship, artistry and history of kokeshi. This was the inspiration behind us making the video with kokeshi connoisseur and friend, Kirsten Albrecht and in providing this information for you.