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The World of Kokeshi Dolls


Кokeshi dolls are traditional wooden toys, composed of a cylindrical body and a separately fastened head carved on a lathe. Their height can vary from only a few centimeters to an entire meter.

Kokeshi dolls trace their beginning to the northeast regions of Japan, to the forest and agricultural regions of Tohoku on the fringes of Honshu Island. Although the official "birthday" of the dolls is considered to have occurred somewhere during the middle of the Edo period (1603-1897), specialists consider the dolls to be more than a thousand years old. In spite of their basic shape, kokeshi dolls come in many different forms with greatly varying proportions. Experts can determine the prefecture in which they were made just by studying the painting style and body characteristics. Japan has had traditional artistic centers since olden times, with some of these places (Kyoto, Nara, Kagoshima, and etc) preserving these traditions into present day.

There is no easy explanation of how this type of toy was first created. According to one theory, it was based on the shaman figurines used in the rites to summon the spirits- the patrons of the silkworm craft. Another theory states that they were a type of memorial doll. They were placed in peasant houses as a ward against additional children, newborns whom the parents could not afford to feed. The word "kokeshi" itself means 'crossed out, forgotten child." Likewise, traditional kokeshi dolls were always female since sons were prized over daughters.

A more cheerful version of the story, spread by passionate sources, tells of a shogun in the 17th century who had suffered sterility. Miraculously his wife somehow gave birth to a daughter, leading local masters to immortalize the event with a doll.

In contemporary Japan the dolls' popularity is quite great, as they have become a symbol of the viability and attractiveness of traditional national culture, objects of aesthetic contemplation and great cultural value from the distant past.