Japanese Version

Japanese Doll


A Closer Look at Japanese Doll

By Vicky A. De Angelis



In the West, a doll is the very symbol of childhood. It is born to be dressed and undressed, pushed around in a miniature carriage, used and abused and generally enjoyed as a plaything until it is either worn-out or outgrown. In Japan, however, Japanese dolls are made to be admired only from a distance.  In fact, most are safely stored away to be brought out and displayed just at certain times of the year. The Japanese doll is a god, a warrior hero, an emperor, an empress. And if it happens to have been created by a "Ningen Kokuho" ("Living National Treasure"), the Japanese distinction given to those who have masterfully perpetuated ageless skills, the doll has the elevated status of a true "work of art." No other country in the world is as rich in varieties of dolls as Japan. They are a unique expression of Japanese culture.


Kyoto was long the center for doll making, specializing in Kyo ningyo  (Kyoto dolls) and gosho ningyo  (court dolls). To the feudal aristocracy, court dolls became mementos of visits to Kyoto, and they were carried back to the Shogun's city of Edo (later Tokyo) along the Tokaido Road, On their arrival these gosho ningyo were their token gift exchange for their tribute. The charm of these dolls, plump little boys with milky white skin and disproportionate large heads, can be elusive to foreign eyes during the first encounter. Most typically they are made of kiri wood (paulownia tree), which is smoothly carved, coated with layers of gofun (crushed oyster shell paste) and burnished to a soft sheen. Although the dolls have clothes and hair, in most cases the clothing is limited to a strict minimum in order to represent vigorous little boys of 5 years of age.


Kyoto dolls also include costumed dolls for display, with loose clothing attached to a standing body. The most important part of the doll is the head, which is the work of the senior and most talented craftsmen. The faces and bodies have been fashioned after beautiful women as well as famous kabuki actors assuming well known roles and distinguished by their clothing of fine silks with exquisite embroidery.


By far, the most popular Japanese dolls are those made for the Hina Matsuri  (Girls' Day), held every year on March 3rd as a celebration of spring, when ornamental peach trees are in bloom. Traditionally, the dolls have been given to a girl on the occasion of her first Hina Matsuri by relatives and close friends and are often passed from mother to daughter as family heirlooms. The basic hina set consists of 15 dolls which are made of kiri wood and straw, faces and hands covered with gofun and glass inset eyes which give them a realistic appearance with innumerable expressions. The hair is either human hair, silk or horse hair. The dolls' kimono are made of the bes,t silks ana brocades available. Arms and hands are positioned correctly to hola their respective symbols of authority, sake decanters, fans or traditional Japanese musical instruments.


About ten days before the actual festival, a seven tiered stand (seven being considered a iucky number) is set up in the home and is draped with a red cloth (also denoting good luck.) The dolls, which are very carefully wrapped and stored during the year in wooden boxes, are taken out, unwrapped and properly arranged on the stand.


Included among them are an emperor and an empress dressed in imperial wedding ceremony kimono. The outfits are complete with a phoenix coronet with flowering tassels of coral beads for the empress doll and a black lacquered imperial hat sporting a large fanion for the emperor. Ministers of the Left and Right (high government officials who were members of the aristocratic class) are characterized by an old and young man. There are three ladies in waiting to serve sake and five musicians who represent an ensemble for a noh play. Their instruments are hand drums, a floor drum and a flute, with a chanter portrayed by a doll holding a fan. The final box holds three servants of a lower tank carrying the emperor doll's shoes, wrapped hat and parasol.


The Hina Matsuri display is made complete with various items of doll furniture. Such items as a palanquin, ox cart, kimono  and obi  rack, tea sets, serving dishes, chests; trunks, and so on are constructed from wood and elaborately painted in black lacquer and gold. A standing screen is placed on the top step of the arrangement along with the Shinto symbols of the cherry tree and the citron tree, appearing just as they would in front of a real imperial palace. Groups of actors are displayed as entertainment for the imperial couple and include famous figures from kabuki or" noh plays. Festival dolls from many celebrations are added along with the waterbearer dancer, geisha dancers, beautifully dressed dancers of the Toji Temple, sakura dancers, and butterfly dancer dolls. A Japanese hina set is truly a treasure to own!


The heart and soul of these dolls deeply touch any who encounter them. It was this special love that brought together a growing group of dedicated collectors known as J.A.D.E., Japanese American Doll Enthusiasts. Our purpose is friendship and understanding through the collecting and sharing of information. One of the goals of J.A.D.E. is to see this special art take its rightful place among other highly respected art forms, allowing more Eeopie to enjoy these dolls and the history and culture that they represent.


Vicky A. De Angel.is is a long time doll enthusiast from the San Diego, California area. For information about J.A.D.E., please contact Peg Bailey at J.A.D.E., Bay Run Farm,1716 Baker Avenue, Branch: IA 52358.  The cost of Membership is $12.001 which includes a subscription to the Ningyo Journal newsletter.