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What are Kokeshi Dolls?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 10 September 2016
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Kokeshi dolls are traditional Japanese wooden dolls made out of woods like cherry wood, Japanese maple, and dogwood. They have a very simple body without arms or legs, and a round head. The making of these dolls is considered Japanese folk art, and there are still design schools today that teach people how to make different forms of Kokeshi dolls. There are also cheaper imitations of the dolls, which can be purchased at tourist locations in Japan, or in Japanese tourist areas in cities around the world. The artisan made Kokeshi doll, on the other hand, may be a bit more expensive, since much of the work involved is done by hand, and the dolls have many fine details and exhibit expert craftsmanship.

Historians date the invention of Kokeshi dolls to about the mid 18th to early 19th century. There are several possible explanations for why they were invented. Some say that the dolls were believed to be able to contain the spirits of ancestors and were created in memory of deceased relatives. Others believe that they were a practical way to give less expensive dolls to children, especially for poorer children whose parents could not afford porcelain dolls. Being made of wood, some forms were made as teethers or pacifiers, with especially large heads and short stubby bodies, and they could be given to much younger children because they would last longer and be safer than a more delicate porcelain doll.

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The early versions of Kokeshi dolls were not highly decorated. Today you’ll find versions made in many varieties and sizes, with extensive painting that can decorate kimonos, and with many different expressions on faces. The early bodies of the dolls were cylindrical, but now shapes of the body vary; some have curved areas, are much chubbier, or have oval shapes. In the traditional method there are several schools that produce many different types of dolls, and collectors can identify each school by the features and shape of the doll.

Individual artisans also make what are called creative Kokeshi dolls, where head and body can be very different in shape. These are essentially modern interpretations of the doll, and are considered nontraditional. Nevertheless they are an expansion of the artform. A creative Kokeshi doll is usually a one of a kind piece, and it may be more expensive and retain more value because it is unusual. Such pieces are usually signed, so collecting them is like collecting any other piece of art.

One modern tradition associated with Kokeshi dolls is giving newborn sized dolls to new moms. The dolls are most often female so this tradition is more usual when a girl child is born. Such dolls are also presents at birthdays for children, though many adults collect them too. An interesting interpretation of the Kokeshi doll is the designs for Miis, individual avatars you can create for the Nintendo Wii&reg: system. The artist who designed Miis conceptualized something very similar to a Kokeshi doll and claims they were part of his inspiration, though Miis do have arms and legs.

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