As you know, here at VE, we are always interested in the unexpected, the curious and the quirky. And the cute Japanese dolls known as Kokeshi turn out to be more unexpected, curious and quirky than you might have imagined. So gather round and let me tell you a story...
These turned-wood characters with no arms or legs, but big, sometimes bobbing, heads first started appearing around the early 1800s in the Tohoku region of northern Japan.
What they were originally meant to be is disputed. One school of thought is that they were simply souvenirs made for bathers in the hot springs of Northern Japan – good luck charms thought to bring a good harvest or ward off fire or simple children’s teething toys – or even, in their original unpainted form, for use as massage tools in the spas.
However, other theories suggest a more haunting origin. It’s easy to see these simple shapes as relating to babies. Some say that they were talismans to ensure the birth of a healthy child, others that the Kokeshi doll was kept as a memory of the child that had miscarried or died in a famine, and that the soul of the child was somehow stored in the doll.
But an even darker version relates them to feudal Japan in the late 1800s. During this time, desperately impoverished families sometimes had no choice but to commit infanticide. The simple shape is said to reflect their little bodies, tightly wrapped in rags... Brrr!
This last theory, you may be pleased to know, may be no more than a linguistic misunderstanding. It rests on the name being derived from ko keshi (child, extinguished) rather than the more scholarly explanation of ko kezuru (tree, planed down).
It wasn’t until after the Second World War that Kokeshi became more widely known, as US soldiers in Occupied Japan started to buy them as souvenirs for the folks back home. Coming in 11 traditional designs depending on the area where they were made, but all with unique faces, they soon became a target for collectors, with the dolls signed underneath by the artisan the most sought-after. Today there are many collectors of vintage Kokeshi dolls, mostly in the USA, particularly in Hawaii.
Interestingly, in Japan, where they are still very much in production today, collecting the older Kokeshi dolls is not as popular because of their haunted reputation.
Leaving aside the modern, mass-produced imitations, proper hand-made, hand-painted Kokeshi are unique, their expressions all individual, and they are incredibly decorative. After learning about them I am certainly tempted to start a collection of my own. If you do too, the easiest way to start is among the American sellers on eBay where wooden dolls can range from costing hundreds of dollars down to just a couple (though don’t forget to check the postal charges and possible customs fees before you bid!). I actually picked up my first one at Shepton Flea from a seller who had bought a collection back from Japan.
But - beware - you can’t assume that everything that’s called vintage in the description means you’re actually going to get genuine vintage. So unless you really know what you’re doing, stick to what you like and keep to modest prices for dolls that really appeal to you, and it won’t be hard to build up a small group of conversation-starters. And then it’s up to you whether or not you want to make your listeners’ blood run cold! - Woo Gilchrist