Kokeshi dolls are Japanese dolls which can be identified through their lack of legs and arms, as well as their beautiful wardrobes that are painted with geometric patterns and floral designs. The process used in making these dolls is not that much different from that utilized in the fabrication legs for tables or chairs.
Since the Second World War, Kokeshi dolls have been a favourite of American tourists.
It’s widely regarded that this Japanese doll originated in Tohoku (which is northeast of Japan) during the early to mid 1800s. Farmers there, who had to find a way to cope with long winters, turned to making dolls out of available materials such as maple, magnolia and dogwood. It is believed that the dolls’ were originally designed to bring good fortune (in the form of bountiful harvests) and/or promote fertility. Later on, these dolls were sold as souvenirs to tourists in Tohoku spas and also given to grieving mothers who lost a child either by accident or through a miscarriage.
The dolls which came in 5, 7, and 10 inch sizes eventually became a children’s toy. The demand for kokeshi only started to really pick up in the 1920s, when people seeing value in them, started collecting the dolls. Artists, encouraged by the rekindled interest in kokeshi, began making dolls in a range of sizes, from very tiny to huge.
During the occupation of Japan by the US, some wives and girlfriends of American soldiers stumbled upon kokeshi dolls and instantly fell in love with their cute designs. Wood workers living near Tokyo, who at the time just started using mechanical lathes, began producing the dolls in records numbers for sale to Western tourists travelling around the country. Soon they began developing other designs and started making dolls that had unique shapes. Popular ones were replicas of the Seven Lucky Gods wearing striking wardrobes and toothpicks that had kokeshi doll heads.
Japanese people though prefer classically designed ones that are made in traditional doll making regions such as Tsugaru, Nambu, Kijiyama, Zao, Sakunami, Hijiori, Narugo, Togatta, Yajiro, Tsuchiyu.
Wood types used in making kokeshi dolls
Many wood varieties are used in creating these Japanese dolls. Cherry is utilized for its darkness while dogwood is prized for its soft qualities. A Japanese maple variety named Itaya-kaede is also used in the making of both creative and traditional kokeshi dolls. The wood is allowed to mature outdoors for one to five years before being used.
Very old kokeshi dolls generally have unique and vivid colours which are caused by the natural weathering of wood.
What to look for when buying a kokeshi doll
When buying an antique kokeshi doll, consider the balance of the entire body. A good doll ideally should have a slim top. Collectors also prefer dolls that were painted using a calligraphy brush and have expressive facial features and well balanced colours. You also would typically find under the base of a genuine kokeshi doll the signature of the artist that created it.
Antique kokeshi dolls that are in great condition can fetch as much as $1,000 a piece.
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