Japan Culture Lab

I explain questions of Japanese culture easily.

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What is the history and meaning of Kokeshi? Is it true that Kokeshi was derived from ko (child) and keshi (erase)?

      2017/10/19

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Kokeshi dolls are one of traditional wooden crafts that have been made since ancient times in Japan. They are especially popular among young women.

Many people from abroad display these dolls as a home ornament. Therefore, it is said that they will be sold out quickly after being restocked…

However, a little scary theory regarding the derivation of such Kokeshi dolls has been appearing mostly online.

Let’s look into the derivation of Kokeshi including this scary theory this time!

 

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What are Kokeshi?

Kokeshi are one of toy figures mainly made of wood.

They usually have a simple figure with a cylindrical trunk and a spherical head. Facial features, hair, and kimono (Japanese traditional cloth) are painted on them.

Their facial features, patterns, and body structures vary depending on where they were made.


What is the history and meaning of Kokeshi dolls?

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It is said that Kokeshi dolls were originally made around the late Edo period (1603-1868) and were sold as a souvenir to visitors at onsen (hot springs) in the northeastern region.

The oldest one was made at Togatta on the eastern foot of Zao mountain range in Miyagi in the Bunsei period (1804-1830). Around the Tempo period (1830-1844), Kokeshi production began at Tsuchiyu in Fukushima.

Around the late Edo period, many artisans named Kijishi, who were proficient in making wooden crafts such as bowls and plates by using a potter’s wheel, came down the onsen towns from the mountains and frequently met with visitors there.

Before that, they usually made the bowls and plates used for religious purposes. They discovered high demand of those for daily usage among these visitors and started making colored wooden products for them.

Most of these visitors were farmers.

They came to the onsen towns to ease fatigue caused by their daily hard farm work. Kokeshi dolls made by Kijishi were considered to be connected to the mountain gods and to bring fortune such as health recovery and abundant harvest to them. They began to take these dolls home as a souvenir after their onsen visits.

Kokeshi were treasured as a good luck charm as well as a child’ toy.

They are classified into three categories: traditional, modern, and creative ones. Modern Kokeshi began to be produced at tourist places after World War II. Creative Kokeshi have unique and contemporary features different from modern ones.

Traditional Kokeshi are produced by using the production method since its creation. They are further classified into about ten types based on the location, figure, and tradition.

 

 

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●Tsuchiyu Kokeshi (Fukushima)
 


 

-Tsuchiyu is famous for one of three major Kokeshi birthplaces.

-The head of Tsuchiyu Kokeshi is inserted into the trunk and makes squeaking sounds when being turned.

-Stripes are usually adorned the trunk, typically in black and red.

 
●Naruko Kokeshi (Miyagi)
 


 

-Natuko is famous for one of three major Kokeshi birthplaces.

-The head of Naruko Kokeshi is inserted into the trunk and makes squeaking sounds when being turned.

-The trunk usually becomes thinner in the middle and is painted with chrysanthemums.

 
●Togatta Kokeshi(Miyagi)

 

-Togatta is famous for one of three major Kokeshi birthplaces.

-Togatta Kokeshi has long-silted eyes, slopping shoulders, and a long-thin trunk.

-The trunk is usually painted with floral patterns such as chrysanthemums and plum blossoms.

 
●Yajiro Kokeshi (Miyagi)

 

-Yajiro Kokeshi has a colorful wheel-shaped pattern like a beret cap at the top, and a slim waist.

 
●Sakunami Kokeshi (Miyagi & Yamagata)

 

-Sakunami Kokeshi is also known as Yamagata-Sakunami Kokeshi when considering Yamagata’s tradition to be separated from the one of Miyagi.

-It was created by being developed the techniques from Togatta.

 
●Zao Kokeshi (Yamagata)
 


 

-Zao Kokeshi was created under the influence of Togatta.

-The trunk is painted with a variety of floral and plant patterns including chrysanthemums and cherry blossoms.

 
●Hijiori Kokeshi (Yamagata)
 


 

-Hijiori Kokeshi was created with a combination of Naruko and Togatta.

-It has a grin on its face.

 
●Kijiyama Kokeshi (Akita)
 


 

-Kiriyama Kokeshi is made of one piece of wood. This method is called “Tsukuritsuke (literally means built-in)”.

-It usually has a thick trunk and wears a vertical striped kimono with a plum-patterned half-apron in front of it.


●Nanbu Kokeshi (Iwate)
 


 

-Nanbu Kokeshi is said to have been derived from pacifiers called “Kina Kina”.

-Its head is loosely inserted into the trunk, so it can easily be turned.

 
●Tsugaru Kokeshi (Aomori)

 

-Tsugaru Kokeshi is made of one piece of wood. This method is called “Tsukuritsuke”

-The trunk is painted with peony, ainu (complex geometric), nebuta (drawings of the famous festival) patterns. Peony was used in the crest of Tsugaru domain’s former ruling clan.

 


 

Modern Kokeshi are sold as a souvenir at tourist places all over Japan. Creative Kokeshi are uniquely designed.

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Is it true that Kokeshi was derived from ko (child) and keshi (erase)?

Kokeshi dolls used to be called differently depending on the region.

For example, their names “Kideko”, “Dekokoro”, and “Dekunobo” were taken from the term “Deku”, dolls made of wood. “Deboko” and “Kogehoko” was taken from the term “Hoko”, which means a crawling child. “Kogetsu” and “Keshiningyo” were taken from Keshiningyo, miniature wood carved dolls in a dress.

Many ateji (words made from kanji characters chosen primarily for their phonetic value) for Kokeshi, including 木偶子, 木形子, 木芥子, 木削子, and 小笥子, were found before the war period. Three hiragana letters of Kokeshi were standardized as its written form at the All-Japan Kokeshi Exhibition in Naruko on July 27, 1940 (Showa 15 of the Japanese calendar).

 

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However, the theory that Kokeshi was derived from other ateji related to “子(child)”  including 子消し and 子化身 and was made to console children died from abortion due to poverty has been believed since around 1965.

This theory was stated in a children’s story created by the poet Goichi Matsunaga. His story became widely cited and was also featured in media such as TV.

The theory spread widely because his sad story easily attracted people’s attention.

However, in the field of folklore, this theory has not been proved and is considered to be a groundless theory.

 

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In fact, Kokeshi dolls were originally a survivor for onsen visitors.

Although the theory Kokeshi was derived from ko (child) and keshi (erase) is also groundless, it might be that it spread widely among people because they were actually living in such a sad period.

Current Kokeshi dolls are popular not only for a survivor but also for a home ornament. Some people enjoy collecting different Kokeshi from each region.

I think increasing number of Kokeshi dolls with a kind or cute face may drive people to buy more and more.

 

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