Kokeshi Dolls

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Yosuke Jikuhara

    Main guest

    A designer of products including toys and posters, in 2010 Jikuhara published a book on Kokeshi that is considered by some to have sparked the kokeshi boom of recent years. Jikuhara continues to promote the appeal of kokeshi through events and other activities.

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October 10, 2017

Kokeshi Dolls

*You will leave the NHK website.

Kokeshi dolls, a Japanese design icon synonymous with the country’s northern Tohoku region, are simple wooden figures reminiscent at first glance of Russian matryoshka or Western peg dolls.

Lathe-carved, often from pale-hued mizuki (dogwood), and typically decorated in a limited palette of reds and blacks, with an understated smile that almost recalls the Mona Lisa, at first glance it is easy to conclude that there is not much variation in kokeshi. But take the time to look a little closer, and a rich world of diversity reveals itself.

From the distinctive curves and tapers of the body and head, to designs that range from floral patterns to parallel stripes applied as the dolls spin on the lathe, to painted-on kimonos or other garments, every detail bears the hallmarks not only of the region in which a doll was produced, but even the very village or household.

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Though superficially similar, kokeshi dolls display incredible diversity.

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It is possible to infer a range of emotions from the inscrutable expressions of kokeshi dolls.

Though readers familiar with Japan are likely to have seen these traditional toys before, you may not have paid them much heed.

But, stopping to examine kokeshi in more detail, one cannot help but be taken by their mysterious expressions: each unique yet somehow identically inscrutable, their demure half smiles a blank canvas onto which a viewer might project any number of emotions.

Many consider the roots of Japan’s monozukuri, or crafts, to lay in the country’s forests and mountains, and the native woodturning heritage that gave rise to kokeshi dolls is a fine example of a craft supported by woodland.

According to legend, Japan’s first lathe was invented by a medieval royal, Prince Koretaka (844–897), eldest son of Emperor Montoku (827–858). Koretaka is revered as a deity at Yajiro, Miyagi Prefecture’s Kokeshi Shrine (officially named Onomiya Koretaka Shinno Shrine), visited in the show.

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Minoru Niiyama shows how it's done in his workshop in Miyagi Prefecture, northern Japan.

As well as kokeshi, the output of Japan’s woodturners includes cups, bowls and ornaments. Kokeshi dolls are thought to have originated around 200 years ago, using wood scraps to fashion children’s toys.

As host Peter Barakan discovers at the workshop of fourth-generation craftsman Minoru Niiyama, those who make kokeshi tend to fashion their own chisels and other tools, while the dolls are often carved and decorated in line with an artisan's own family tradition.

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Chisels are used to shape the wood as it turns on the lathe.

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The design details are often unique to individual villages or households.

In times past, as long-distance pilgrimages started to give rise to other forms of tourism, kokeshi became a popular souvenir from the onsen hot spring resorts of northern Japan. 

This trend became even more pronounced in the mid-twentieth century when the expansion of rail travel and the advent of the Shinkansen bullet train made it much easier to visit far-flung corners of Japan.

And as an interest in traditional crafts as a driver for regional revitalization begins to gain momentum in Japan, and some artisans put their own modern twist on this design classic, the popularity of kokeshi shows few signs of letting up.

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Shoppers in Tokyo flock to a showcase of modern kokeshi dolls made by craftspeople from across Japan.

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Modern variations on the kokeshi doll have broadened the design and color palette.

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Collector Hiroshi Kasuga shows Matt Alt his immense collection of kokeshi.

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Designer Yosuke Jikuhara has helped to popularize kokeshi in recent years.


Also appearing

Minoru Niiyama

Niiyama has been making Yajiro Kokeshi dolls for more than 40 years. Born into a family that has treasured its own unique tradition of kokeshi-making that dates back to his grandfather, in this edition of Japanology Plus, Niiyama shows Peter Barakan the basics of the craft.

Hiroshi Kasuga

A collector of kokeshi since the boom of the 1960s, Kasuga now owns over 10,000 individual pieces.

Maiko Watanabe

An avid kokeshi collector, in only five years Watanabe has amassed a collection of some 500 dolls. She carries a kokeshi with her to insert into the travel and food snaps that she posts on social media.

Yukinori Jinnohara

A kokeshi maker from Tsuchiyu in Fukushima Prefecture, since the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 2011, Jinnohara has poured his hope for the region’s recovery into his own kokeshi dolls.

*You will leave the NHK website.