8 of The Most Exquisite Traditional Japanese Dolls


8 of The Most Exquisite Traditional Japanese Dolls

by Lucy Dayman | CRAFT 

© Shimada Koen, Gosho Ningyo

Japanese dolls are an essential element of the nation’s culture, there is even festival dedicated to them every spring! Known in Japanese as ningyo, or human form, they come in many shapes and sizes, and have just as many meanings and uses. So how can you tell the difference between them all the different types of Japanese dolls?

Some represent historical figures, while others are more a representation of an ideology, still others are just for fun. The country’s historically diverse and nuanced relationship with dolls is difficult to embody in one single style and figure, so to help you understand the differences between the different types, here are 8 of the most important traditional Japanese dolls.

1. Hinamatsuri – The Doll Festival

Emperor and Empress Dolls, Kyoto National Museum

Hinamatsuri, also known as Doll's Day or Girls' Day, is held on March 3. Recognized throughout the country, Hinamatsuri is a celebration of the nation’s girls, and a time dedicated to celebrating them and wishing for a bright future. During the celebrations many people display a set of ornamental dolls, known as hina dolls on red cloth covered platforms. The dolls are said to represent the Emperor, Empress and other royal representatives dressed in clothing from the Heian period.

The event is also celebrated at many of the nation’s shrines, one of the most noteworthy being Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto. Shimogamo hosts an event known as Nagashi Bina. During Nagashi Bina a couple dressed in classic Heian period clothing place small hina dolls into the nearby stream, shortly after many spectators do the same. It is believed that by sending these dolls into the stream they will protect children from evil spirits. Check out the spectacle in the video below!


2. Kyoto Doll 

© Menya Shoho, Kyo Ningyo

Also known as Kyo Ningyo, Kyoto dolls were created to play a more sophisticated, decorative role in Japanese society. Crafted using classic Japanese techniques pass down through artisans from the region, Kyoto Dolls are actually in the traditional sense a collaborative effort between some of the area’s most skilled artisans. Often each part of the doll is created by a separate expert: limbs by one person, head and hair by another, and clothing by a textile master. Because of all the work that goes into crafting these dolls, they’re rather expensive, but created to last, often becoming a cherished family heirloom. This example is somewhat of an exception, as it's the work of renowned doll maker Menya Shoho.


3. Kokeshi Doll 

© Usaburo, Kokeshi Doll

© Usaburo, Kokeshi Doll

Originating from north-eastern Japan Kokeshi dolls find beauty in their understated simplicity. Thanks to their popular design and durable shape these dolls make for excellent souvenirs and Japanese decoration. In fact you can purchase this handmade example online from Amazon.

Although their specific origin remains a mystery, it’s estimated that the first incarnation of this type of traditional Japanese doll was crafted somewhere in the Tohoku region during the Edo-period. An embodiment of the Japanese appreciation for minimalist aesthetics, the handmade wooden dolls are typically painted with red and black ink, occasionally featuring flourishes of yellow, purple, blue, and green. There are a huge variations of kokeshi dolls, some featuring hair created from a separate piece of wood for hair like you see above, and some more simplistic ones simply featuring painted hair. One uniting feature however is that they’re all limbless. An interesting fact about these dolls are that they’re the inspiration behind Miis, Nintendo's digital avatars.


4. Daruma 

Daruma, Takasaki

Of all the traditional dolls from Japan, this is perhaps the most well-known type. Daruma are iconic good luck style charms bought during the New Year. Modeled in the supposed likeness of Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, it’s often difficult to figure out what they are from first glance. Their strange image is due to the fact that new these dolls are missing pupils. A small reminder of the importance of perseverance, when an owner purchases a doll, they’re meant to select their goal, (like a new year’s resolution in some way) then color one of the pupils. Once the goal has been achieved they can then fill in the second eye.


5. Kimekomi Doll 

Dressed in classic, although almost scrap-like Japanese style clothing, Kimekomi Dolls are most typically found in Japanese gift stores and craft outlets. The term kimekomi refers to the clothing the doll is wearing. It is a craft technique that was created in Kyoto during the first half of the 18th century. The technique consists of patterns being cut into hard foam or soft wood, then layers of fabric are tucked into the cuts. 


6. Gosho Doll 

© Shimada Koen, Gosho Ningyo

A little more unique looking, Gosho Dolls, also known in Japanese as Gosho Ningyo, these distinctive, cherub like figures have a history that goes back around 400 years. Historically they were gifted to Daimyo (Japanese feudal lords) who visited Kyoto. They are recreations of children in play, said to bring good luck. Some claim their distinctive style is reminiscent of marks worn during Noh theatre performances. Often posing with different objects, each doll carries with it a different meaning. This delightful example is by skilled doll-maker Shimada Koen. You can check out more of his work over at his website.

7. Karakuri Doll

The Karakuri, or in Japanese Karakuri Ningyo, could be seen as the beginning of Japan’s love of robotics. These mechanical doll were first created during the 17th to 19th centuries. In Japanese the term karakuri means trick, basically it’s a term used to describe the hidden ability to do something. At first glance these look like regular decorative dolls, however after a closer inspection, you’ll realize they have a secret mechanism or karakuri. Their movements are created through small levers and other types of mechanisms. Made simply for entertainment, many people believe that this form of traditional Japanese doll played some sort of influential role on the development of Noh and Kabuki, two types of classic Japanese theatre that relay on strict, almost machine-like movements.


8. Oiran Doll 

Oiran Doll

As covered in our recent piece on Japanese geta, the oiran, is an important (albeit often overlooked) figure of historical Japanese culture. Similar to a geisha in looks and style, traditionally oiran had more adult duties, that it to say they were sex workers, but they also had entertainment talents outside of the bedroom. This doll represents an oiran in classic styles of the time.

Do you own any traditional Japanese dolls yourself? Tell us their story in the comments below!


May 8 | Craft

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