Little is known of the early history of Japanese Kokeshi wooden dolls. One school of thought believes that Kokeshi dolls originate from the practice of spiritualistic religion. Wooden dolls were thought to contain the spiritual essence of the dead and were often made for honorary remembrance.
The modern history of Japanese Kokeshi dolls began in the latter part of the Edo Era (1603-1867). Originating in the Tohiku region of northern Japan, famous for its hot springs and rejuvenating hot springs, Kokeshi dolls acted as an important source of additional income for local artisans known as Kijiya (which means carpenter in Japanese), who They specialized in woodworking and making domestic utensils such as wooden trays and bowls. In harsh winters, these Kijiya artisans began making “Kokeshi Dolls” to sell as souvenirs to visitors who frequented the local hot springs. The dolls acted not only as souvenirs, but also as massage tools used by bathers to tap their shoulders while enjoying the benefits of the warming hot springs.
Kokeshi dolls were very simple in design, originally made on hand lathes. Traditional Kokeshi dolls had common features consisting 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 in bright floral designs, kimonos, and other traditional patterns. The colors used were red, yellow and purple. Since all the dolls are hand painted, no two faces are the same. This is perhaps the greatest charm of the Kokeshi. Some dolls are whimsical, happy and smiling, while others are serious.
Soon their popularity spread throughout Japan and they became the favorite wooden toys for those who could not afford porcelain dolls. In addition, the simple, rounded shapes of the dolls lent themselves as early teethers for small babies.
Kokeshi dolls traditionally represented girls and quickly became popular for their depiction of feminine beauty. Furthermore, their simple charm and association with childhood meant that they were often given as gifts when a child was born, as birthday presents, or as tokens of remembrance when a child died. In addition, Japanese Kokeshi wooden dolls were popular with farmers’ children as they were thought to 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. The cherry is distinguished by its darkness. Mizuko or dogwood is softer and is widely used. Itaya-kaede, a Japanese maple, is also used. The wood is left in the open air to dry 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 schools of design, Traditional Kokeshi and Creative Kokeshi.
Traditional kokeshi are still produced for the most part in the six prefectures of the Tohoku region. The twelve design schools here exhibit distinctive features that allow experts to tell exactly where they have been produced, and often by whom.
Creative Kokeshi does not follow the traditional designs originating from the Tohoku region, but rather has an unstructured and completely free inspiration in terms of shape and painting, the only traditional limitation being its manufacture using the lathe. Unlike traditional kokeshi, they do not display any of their distinctive local colors or techniques that have been passed down through the generations. 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 at the beginning of September, people gather at Naruko Onsen, where artisans from all over the country gather to honor Kokeshi in a competition where the number one prize is an award from the Prime Minister.
There are many different styles of Kokeshi, but there is one philosophy that all Kokeshi dolls share, and that is the pursuit of beauty and art through simplicity. This philosophy is extolled on the web: http://www.dollsofjapan.co.uk