Q & A on Kokeshi

Q: What is a Kokeshi?

A: Original Kokeshi was a wooden doll made by turn at hot spring resorts in Tohoku (northeastern Japan) as a toy for girl.

Q: Who made the Kokeshi?

A: The craftsmen who lived around hot spring resorts. Their main products were wooden bowls and round servers. They were known as Kiji-shi or Rokuro-shi (Woodturner).

Q: What does the word "Kokeshi" mean?

A: The name of those wooden dolls varied from place to place. "Kideko" in Fukushima area, means Ki=wooden and Deko=a kind of puppet. "Kibouko" in Miyagi area, means Ki=wooden and Bouko (Houko)= stuffed crawled doll. "Kokeshi" is one of such locutions in Sendai area, would means Ko=wooden (or small) and Keshi=Keshi-ningyo, which Keshi-ningyo was a small doll made by terra cotta in Sendai area. The word of "Kokeshi" was just decided as a representative name of them by the Tokyo Kokeshi Collectors Club in 1940. The common meanings of those names are "Wooden small doll".

Q: I know there were various producers of Kokeshi. But where is the first place to produce "Kokeshi"?

A: It is not clear. Perhaps, Tohgatta, the east side of Zao mountain (Miyagi Prefecture) would be the original place to create Kokeshi, and the starting time would be Bunka-Bunsei (1,804 to 1,830) in Edo Era.

Other places, namely Tsuchiyu in Fukushima Prefecture and Narugo (Naruko) in Miyagi Prefecture also started to produce Kokeshi in Tenpo years (1,830 to 1,844) respectively.

Q: Does Kokeshi have a different form or shape per area of production?

A: Common characteristics are the doll made by woodturner, which doll has spherical head and cylindrical body without any hands and legs. But there are varieties of shapes and drawing patterns per area of production, and those variations are aligned with their phylogenetic history. Those are categorized into 10 or 11 groups. Generally, the categorization of 10 phylogenetic groups, i.e. Tsuchiyu, Yajiro, Tohgatta, Zaotakayu, Hijiori, Sakunami, Naruko, Kijiyama, Nanbu, and Tsugaru, is popular. Some specialists separated Yamagata from Sakunami group as an independent group and categorize into 11 groups. 

Q: Is this 10 or 11 categorization also applicable at the beginning time, I mean at the end of Edo Era?

A: No. Originally it might be 3 groups, i.e. Tsuchiyu, East side of Zao Mountain, and Narugo. The one of technological innovations was essential to accelerate the diversification of shapes and patterns. This innovation was the technology of foot-operated turning, which was brought to Tohoku 1880s. Before this event, only technology was the hand turning, which required two persons for the operation, i.e. the carver and the turner. On one hand, only one craftsman could operate the carving by hand and the turning by foot with foot-operated turning machine.

Tohgatta and Aone (another hot springs located 7 km west from Tohgatta) were the centers of this innovation in Tohoku. And many wood turners went to there to learn this new technology. It was some kind of school, and they learnt not only foot-operated turning but also learn how to use the new chemical dyes. They produced gKokeshih with more attractive colors of yellow, green, purple on top of black and red.

Also, they started to color by using their turning machine, and they produced various spiral or ring patterns. They had never tried to color with the hand turning, since two persons operation of coloring was inefficiency. 

This change encouraged craftsmen to bring out their originalities, and accelerated the diversification of shapes and patterns. They should have spent very exciting time in this school. The craftsmen went back their home hot springs and started to produce their own new style of "Kokeshi". This means that the categorization of 10 or 11 groups was established 1880s. Photos for The 10 Phylogenetic Groups.

Q: What kind of people "Kijishi" who created "Kokeshi" was?

A: The Kokeshi was born at the end of Edo Era, but the history of woodturner called "Kijishi" is much older. The first woodturners in Japan were immigrants from Silla Kingdom in Korea, who came to Japan in 4 or 5 Century as one of retainer group of Hata family with other retainer engineer groups, e.g. sericulturists, weavers, potters and so on. The woodturners of "Kijishi" established their basement in the mountainside of east Lake Biwa, and launched their production activities. One of well-known their activities is that they produced wooden million of stupas (the three-storied pagoda stores Darani sutra) in A.D. 770, and some of which are still existing in Horyuji temple. Even now, some woodturners continue to work in their original place of east Lake Biwa, i.e. Kimigahata and Hirutani, Eigenji Oguradani Kanzaki-gun in Shiga Prefecture, and their group is believed as the origin house of "Kijishi". In this village, there is the Taikokijiso Shrine (or Tsutsui Kumonjo), which covers all "Kijishi" families in Japan with authority

Q: What kind of authority did the Shrine have? 

A: With the passing of the years, many branch families of "Kijishi" spread from Shiga of east Lake Biwa to most of all mountains in Japan which had good materials of wood, and they produced wooden bowls, round servers, and semi products for japan ware. And they were still shrine parishioners of Taikokijiso Shrine and many of them had the same family name of "Ogura".

Taikokijiso Shrine (or Tsutsui Kumonjo) had a very unique system, which was called "Ujiko-gari". This Shrine gave the license of woodturning works to "Kijishi" in return for annual license charge. The license gave the guarantee that "Kijishi" was able to cut any woods from 80% height(8th station) to top of any mountains. Government of each Era also supported to this license. But there was one issue, and it was how to recover the annual charge from such spread "Kijishi"s over all Japan. Actually they moved from mountain to mountain in order to get good raw material of wood.

"Ujiko-gari" was the system to recover the license charge from "Kijishi". The priests of Taikokijiso Shrine (or Tsutsui Kumonjo) went around all Japan periodically and made tracks "Kijishi" to recover the charge. If new branch of family was generated, the priest provided the new letter of license (called "Kijishi Monjo") for this family.

This system was decommissioned at middle of Meiji Era after the operation for several hundred years. The operation documents of "Ujikogari-cho" are still existing and are evaluated as very valuable historical sources to follow "Kijishi" movement.  

 ‚pF"Kijishi Monjo" sounds very important for "Kijishi", isn't it?

sujaku-rinnji A: Actually, the letter of license, which the peripatetic priest gave to "Kijishi" was an only copy. Taikokijiso Shrine (or Tsutsui Kumonjo) had original licenses, which were written as the past emperors, Suzaku (10 Century) and Ogimachi (16 Century), permitted to cut any woods higher than 8th station in any mountain. However, those original documents were fakes.   

However, as interesting matter, the government of each Era, Nobunaga and Hideyoshi (16 Century), endorsed those licenses, and in consequence the copy of license had an effect. This might be a kind of industry protection policy of government of the time.

"Kijishi" might have some conflicts with settled peoples to utilize mountain resources in the area, and the licenses should help "Kijishi" to avoid further troubles.

The attached photo is a copy license of the Suzaku emperor, which document was kept with maximum caution by "Kijishi" family.

Q: Why was the system of "Ujikogari" decommissioned in mid of Meiji Era? Did the "Kijiya Monjo" also become ineffective?

A: Let me explain it a little bit detail, since this might have some relation with the birth of Kokeshi.

"Ujikogari" itself continued to be conducted by mid of Meiji (1880s) as just formality, but the effectiveness was almost disappeared at the end of Edo Era (early 19 Century).

At those years, the series of bad harvests and famines came up, and the conflicts to utilize mountains between settled peoples and "Kijishi" were escalated. In such situation, the government of the time could not keep the protection of woodturning industry anymore. 

Several cases were brought before the court, but adjudicative results were disadvantage for "Kijishi".

"Kijishi" craftsmen who lost their privileges in the mountains, had to go down to near the village of settled people and to accept their rules and practices. The hot springs, which were located in mountainside, were the best place to settle at first for "Kijishi" craftsmen, and they tried to continue their woodturning works in those places. On one hand, some original peoples in hot spring resorts learnt turning skill from the "Kijishi", and started to produce simple toys.

Q: How did the settlement of "Kijishi" relate with the birth of Kokeshi?

A: It is said that the following three conditions should be necessary for the birth of Kokeshi.

  1. "Kijishi" came down from the mountain and settled around hot springs. This means that the direct contact with customers became possible, and "Kijishi" captured the customer's requirements and preferences immediately.
  2. "Kijishi" learnt "Akamono".
  3. Recreation practices in hot springs for peasants are established in Tohoku district. Those practices were a kind of re-birth process to recover the power of good harvest.

Q: What was the "Akamono"?

A: "Akamono" was a kind of toys, colored with red dye. Red color was believed to have magical power to protect smallpox (variola). Many parents purchased "Akamono" toys to expect this effect, and gave them their children to play.

Major places to produce "Akamono" toys were Odawara and Hakone. Spinning top, Daruma, and nested dolls with red color are the good examples of "Akamono" toys. Shichifukujin of 7 layers nested dolls were well known Hakone toys and they were the origin of Russian Matryoshka. "Akamono" toys were transferred to Tohoku at the end of Edo Era (early 19 Century). In this period, some of pilgrimage became the fashion, and many people in Tohoku made their pilgrimage to Ise Shrine or Konpira Shrine. Odawara and Hakone were on the way to the both shrines. And some of pilgrim got "Akamono" toys there and brought them to Tohoku.

Many peasants who went to hot springs liked to get "Akamono" toys there. "Kijishi" started to make them in response to customer's requirements..

Q: Could you explain why "Akamono" was so important?

A: During they, "Kijishi", made only bowls or round servers, they never imagine putting color on them. Of course, they made also semi products for japan ware, but lacquer painting was made by other group of craftsmen. They believed "Kijishi" should curve the wood, and never touch the dye. Therefore, it was the big step change that "Kijishi" colored with dye on their products. And this was the first step to produce Kokeshi.

Q: Do you think that the recreation practices in hot springs were also started at that time?

A: Yes, for peasants or common folks. But for aristocracies or the feudal lords, it was recorded that they enjoyed in hot springs in 8th century onward.

Q: How was the hot springs care for peasants in Tohoku? 

A: In between time of their hard works in rice field, they stayed 3 or 5 weeks in hot springs. They brought pots, pans, futon and other articles of daily use to hop spring resort, and cooked their own meals in self-catering accommodations. Of course, their objectives were the relieving fatigue and hot springs should be effective. But they might felt that their powers for the productiveness of grain were also recovered during the recreation process of their vital energy in bath. They believed the mountain sprits should have such powers for the productiveness of grain, and hot springs in mountainside should be the best place to receive those powers. This means the hot spring care was not only expected physical effects but also expected some effects with folk religion. Therefore, it is said that the hot spring care was very close to the religious ritual of re-birth in the bath as the uterus of mountain.

Q: OK! If so, why did such peasants need the "Kokeshi" as a souvenir?       

A: Japanese word of souvenir is "Miyage" and etymologically "Miya=Shrine" and "Ge=something given by Holy One". So, "Miyage" means a visible symbol of something, e.g. power, good luck, health, long life and so on, received in Shrine or Holy place. "Kokeshi" was the same concept of the "Miyage", and peasants who got the powers for the productiveness of grain, had to bring "Kokeshi" back to their village. "Kokeshi" was a symbol of this power, and also a carrier of this power. "Akamono" toys also had similar characteristics, i.e. symbol of magical power with red color, but the "Kokeshi" was symbolically the best to expect the carrier of the power from mountain spirit.

Q: Could you tell me why the "Kokeshi" was symbolically the best?

A: To answer your question, I have to make a long-long discussion. You can visit on the following 3 pages, but those pages are only Japanese versions. In which pages, I discussed about 1. "Kokeshi" as stick or wand, 2. Symbolism of flower pattern, and 3. Symbolism of spiral pattern. Those symbolisms emphasize the expectation to Kokeshi as a carrier for the power of mountain spirits.

Q: Mainly I was interested in what the "stick" or "wand" might be referring to. I wonder if you could give me the gist of this discussion in your Japanese site? (MK-san)

A: I am often asked why Kokeshi does not have her hands and legs. The discussion for "Kokeshi" as stick or wand could also provide answer of this question. In my Japanese page, I pointed out one important characteristic of the "stick" or "wand", i.e. accouterment of person who come and go beyond the boundary line.

I listed up several examples from the world-wide as follows.

  1. Hermes has Caduceus (Kerykeion) : Hermes can come and go beyond the boundary line to the lower world to the souls of the dead, who were then bidden to depart. And Hermes has a symbolic wand of Caduceus.
  2. Arlecchino has a stick (sceptre) : Arlecchino, comic servant characters from the Italian Commedia dell'Arte, can come and go beyond the boundary line of social class. In some cases, he belong both world, e.g. upper town and down town in Bergamo. (Reference: The Fool and His Sceptre: A Study in Clowns and Jesters and Their Audience. Author: William Willeford)
  3. Itako, Japanese shaman, has Oshira-sama (stick shape of puppet): Itako can act as a medium of the dead, and this means she or her puppet can come and go down to the nether world.
  4. Other examples:
    Orchestra conductor has a leading staff: world of art, may belong to the area of God
    E Witch has a broomstick: magic kingdom
    E Police has a baton: good and evil
As reviewed those examples, the "stick" or "wand" is a symbolical stuff, which give some special power to the possessor.
We can review Kokeshi in the same context of the above.
Hot springs in the mountainside is another world for peasants. They went to the hot springs beyond the boundary and obtained their health and the power of good harvest. They had to bring Kokeshi back to their home village, which Kokeshi was a kind of symbolical "stick" or "wand" to ensure the power of good harvest.
This means Kokeshi never has hands and legs.

Q: I live in NY. My friend showed me wooden doll like a "Kokeshi", which she found at an antique shop. She was interested in the wood material, which is so firm. She asked me what kind of tree "Kokeshi" is made from generally. Could you give me answer for her? (NKL-san)

A: As for the material of "Kokeshi", "Mizuki", a kind of dogwood and relatively soft wood, is the most popular. The name of this tree came from the nature of rich moist, namely "Mizu=water" and "Ki=tree" (When cut branches, water droplets appear.) Another popular material of tree is "Itaya", a kind of maple and more firm, which is also rich moist. Some cultural anthropologist said sappy tree was considered as sacred tree with vital power. "Kokeshi" is made from such a symbolic tree.

By the way, I stayed in Morristown, New Jersey in 1999, and I visited the Waterloo Village, which is along Route 80. This area was the prosperous trading center of iron ore in 19 Century. Iron ore was brought to New York City trough the canal. Many old style houses are still there and are reserved as historical heritages. I also found the wooden doll in one house there. It was not made by using turn, but shape is close to "Kokeshi".

Q: I found some sad information regarding the abortion of many children who were later remembered by Kokeshi dolls. I realize this is one theory or belief that dates back to post war time, but I am curious to know if this has any merit. (MM-san)

A: The theory regarding the abortion is vulgar errors. Pronunciation of "Kokeshi" is just similar of Japanese pronunciation of "Child Elimination or Erase", i.e. "Ko"="Child" and "Kesu"="Elimination or Erase".
Around 1960, pro-life movement(anti-abortion) was actively pursued, then the sense of sin for abortion became emphasized in Japan. So some ladies, who have experience of abortion, needed something to expiate their sins. Some special statue of Buddhism (Mizuko-Jizo) became believed to be effective to expiate. That movement was one of the good subjects of research for the sociology of religion. We can find several papers for them on the web sites. The theory for Kokeshi regarding the abortion must be the same root of Mizuko-Jizo.
I'm not sure what the merit of this belief is. Perhaps, they believe if they take care of Kokeshi dolls as simbolical alternatives of their unborn embryos, their sins would be lessened.

Q: How different is the Sosaku Kokeshi (or Shingata Kokeshi) from the traditional one?

A: Shingata Kokeshi, that is some of the current ways, was started to produce from the latter half of 1940s. Gunma and Kanagawa prefectures are major productive centers. Gunma (Takasaki / Maebashi) was one of the centers to produce furniture, and Kanagawa (Odawara / Hakone) was also famous place to produce wooden tablewares. To this industry, many wood turners were working in both prefectures. In particular, some of traditional Kokeshi craftsmen were working in Gunma as contractors or workers. What kind of influences they gave was not sure, but some new style of wooden dolls were started to be produced there. At the first stage, those dolls were small and cheap souvenir, and were sold in almost all tourist spots in Japan. Gunma was an industrial center to produce such souvenir dolls. Those were called 'Shingata Kokeshi".
In the course of time, some wood turners or some factory owners got idea to produce new interior goods of Kokeshi which should be well matched with modern houses. They might be sensitive for customer needs through their furniture business. They gradually pursued more artistic creativity. Those new trend of Kokeshis are called "Sosaku Kokeshi".

Q: Recently we have been in discussion with an American writer (A.P.) who is writing a book about Japanese doll collecting especially old dolls. He already has published one book about Japanese dolls in general. We have provided information from our collection but he asks the following question which we have tried to answer but we thought you could provide a much better answer, since you know a lot more on the subject than we do.

""Question: Why is it that so few, if any, Edo-period or early-Meiji kokeshi are seen or published? Your oldest group you indicated date from the Taisho period, some 75 years ago. Are you both aware of any early source specifically documenting kokeshi, pre-Meiji? At the kokeshi auctions you spoke of earlier, do you ever see Edo pieces?""

Actually we have never seen a pre-Meiji doll and only one Meiji doll in the Kamei collection in Sendai. Can you provide any help answering his question. (I.S-san)

A: I have discussed with you that Kokeshi doll is a symbol of mountain spirits, which give good harvest to peasants. Peasants gave Kokeshi dolls to their children. It was also believed children should be on the boundary between human beings and spirits. When children grew up, peasants thought Kokeshi dolls should go back to the mountain as home of spirits. As the most simple way to send Kokeshi to the mountain, peasants burned them and believed they went back to mountain with smoke.
I have heard such stories a lot from old peoples in Tohoku district. This is a reason of difficulty to find out old Kokeshi dolls. I have an old kokeshi, which was made at middle Meiji. It was found at old small shop in Hijiori, and it never fell into the hands of child. It was a reason my old Kokeshi has been survived.
I also confirmed the word of "KOKESHI" in old manuscript, which was written in pre-Meiji. Then it is sure that Kokeshi was made in pre-Meiji, but I have never seen the pre-Meiji Kokeshi in existence.
You have attended the "Kokeshi Kuyousai" in Narugo Kokeshi Festival, and you watched that many used Kokeshi dolls were burned ceremonially. This means Japanese peoples still keep some traditional mental structure that used Kokeshi should be sent back to its home of Mountain with its smoke.

Any Question to fwih4396@mb.infoweb.ne.jp@or mhashi@nifty.com