What are Kokeshi?

1 .What are kokeshi?

Kokeshi are dolls made from wood that has been sawn with a lathe.

The production of kokeshi mostly happens in onsen areas. The birthplace of the Tōgatta type, Naruko type, and Tsuchiyu type have all been in onsen areas, which is where the production of kokeshi dolls mostly happen, making kokeshi a distinguishing trait of the Tohoku area.

The people who use a lathe to saw wood are called kijishi, which can be translated to “masters of wood”. It is said that kokeshi originated because kijishi made daily necessities from wood, such as bowls and trays, but used the leftover wood to make toys and dolls for children, which were sold as souvenirs at onsen, and started to spread around the area.

Kokeshi have been valuable part of the cultural heritage of Japan since about 200 years. Since their birth, kokeshi have been passed down from parent to child, and from master to disciple.

2 Why were kokeshi made in Tohoku?

Onsen can be found anywhere in Japan. The same goes for the trees that grow abundantly not only in Tohoku, but in other areas as well. Around the year 770, during the Nara period, the Hyakumantō (“One Million Pagodas”) was made with a lathe. It wasn’t made in Tohoku, but in Ōmi, close to Nara.

So you may wonder, why were kokeshi made in Tohoku?

First of all, there were a lot of onsen, high quality wood, and lathes in Tohoku. Another reason is stated by Toshio Hirai in his book The Truth of Kokeshi: ‘Kokeshi were born, based on the characteristic culture and natural features of Tohoku, inspired by Jōmon culture that honored nature. It was something special you wouldn’t find anywhere else. They continued to live on and became the “kokeshi” that we know today. Kokeshi don’t have an unnatural over the top look – they carry a modest sense of beauty without too much decorations, something that really characterizes Tohoku.

3 The name “kokeshi”

If you divide kokeshi on a wide scale, you can see that every part of Tohoku used to pronounce their name differently due their dialects. In the center of Tohoku, kokeshi were called kogesu, boko, or kogesuboko. In the south they were called deko, and up north people called them kinakinato. Since kokeshi were recognized as a folk craft, and the amount of collectors increased, the name kokeshi was decided on in 1940 in order to avoid confusion when ordering kokeshi. “Ko” means wood in Tohoku dialect. “Keshi” means carving the surface with a knife.

In regards to the origin of the word kokeshi, there is also a story about the name meaning “erasing children”. I would like to talk a little bit about this. There are many experts writing books on this matter, regardless of the fact that there is no evidence to support this claim. It is said that this explanation of the word happened right at the advent of the second boom of kokeshi around the 1970s, when an author and the media mistakenly interpreted the word this way. It is true that Tohoku is a cold area, and in the past, a severe famine caused families who lived in poverty to have no choice but to let go of their children. One author took that fact, and referred to Japanese characters that are read the same way as the original characters, but mean something completely different – “erase children”. He came up with the explanation of kokeshi being created for the memorial service of the children who had passed away, and because the media collectively picked up on this, the origin of a partly correct history and a mistaken name apparently became widely spread around the country.

Kokeshi often have a red pattern painted on their head called mizuhikite. This is a hairstyle with bangs for dolls used for celebration, meaning that kokeshi don’t have a dark image, but are seen as congratulatory dolls. I can imagine the craftsmen who make kokeshi wishing for the happiness of the people receiving the dolls while creating them one by one.

4 Types of kokeshi

  • Aomori

Tsugaru – You will typically see patterns made by Ainu who lived in Hokkaido and in the northern area of Honshu, and daruma patterns. Flower patterns often consist of tree peonies that show the Tsugaru family crest. Among traditional kokeshi, the family line that the Tsugaru type comes from is the most recent.

  • Iwate

Nanbu –  Called Kinakina, Nanbu is a kokeshi that finds their roots in a pacifier. They are made of wood and they used to not have any patterns painted on them. The origin of their nickname comes from their head moving in a swaying way. From 1897 onwards, the Nanbu kokeshi has become mixed up with the Naruko and Tōgatta type, which is why you’ll see the Nanbu kokeshi with painted patterns now.

  • Miyagi

Naruko – If you think of kokeshi, the Naruko type will come to mind. They are the most created kokeshi. Within the center of a painted chrysanthemum, you will see gorgeous flower patterns such as dianthus and maple leaves. Naruko has a round trunk and is overall very stable. If you turn their head, they will make a squeaky sound.

Sakunami – Recently it’s being said that Sakunami is the place where all kokeshi have been created. They are characterized by their red and black flower patterns, and their chrystantemum flower patterns that look like crabs. It is said that their thin trunk can be traced back to children clasping them with their hands while playing with the Sakunami kokeshi.

Tōgatta – Tōgatta kokeshi have the most variety when it comes to their trunk. They are seen with colourful and gorgeous chrysanthemum and prune patterns, wooden patterns, and patterns made with a lathe. The Tōgatta type is a beautiful doll with a kind smile, and their slim figure with their slightly big head is adorable.

Yajirō – The simple expression that Yajirō kokeshi have finds its origin in farming life, where farming happened between spring and fall, and where kokeshi were made during winter. The Yajirō type is characterized by their hair that is done up, and a pattern made with a lathe that looks like a beret. There are two types of trunks – one that is straight, and one that widens towards the lower half of the Yajirō type, which creates an image of the kokeshi wearing a skirt. As for painting the Yajirō kokeshi, bright colours like purple and yellow are often used. While you can see that the details have its roots in the Tōgatta type, the Yajirō kokeshi has developed its own originality with its paintings and shapes.

  • Fukushima

Tsuchiyu – The Tsuchiyu type is characterized by their striped patterns. The stripes are made by spinning the lathe rotation the opposite way. Through the Tsuchiyu type, other types of kokeshi, such as Dake kokeshi, Sabako kokeshi, and Nakanosawa kokeshi were born.

Nakanosawa – Having their eyes wide open and a red fringe around them, Nakanosawa is a unique type unlike any other kokeshi. They are often called “Takobōzu”. “Tako” means octopus in Japanese, and “bōzu” refers to a bald priest or a person with very short hair. It is a word used to call boys one is familiar with. Nakanosawa have been categorized as a new type that has originated from the Tsuchiyu type.

  • Yamagata

Zaō – Originally,  the Tōgatta type used to be sold in stores, but because the sales were doing so well, the disciples from the craftsmen who made the Tōgatta kokeshi started their own business by selling the Zaō type. Zaō kokeshi are based on the Tōgatta type, but Zaō kokeshi are even more extravagant, and developed an original style, full of abundance. Zaō is also characterized by the pattern on their trunk that look like flowers dancing in the wind. Kokeshi, that are made in an onsen called Atsumi, close to the coast of the Sea of Japan in Yamagata, have a very charming expression on their face, with wide open eyes.

Hijiori – The Hijiori kokeshi is mainly characterized by combining different influences of other kokeshi. They are shaped like the Naruko type and painted like the Tōgatta type. Kokeshi whose heads are filled with peas are sold as rattles. While they are modest, you can really feel that Hijiori kokeshi are communicating with you through their strong gaze.

  • Akita

Kijiyama – The trunks of Kijiyama kokeshi often have chrysanthemum or kimono patterns painted on them, but they can also be seen with an apron pattern. The Kijiyama type looks as if they could appear in an old tale as a female doll. They are made from a single piece of wood, and they can have a thin neck. Kijiyama kokeshi have a serious expression, and they differ from other kokeshi.

5 Choosing your kokeshi

When choosing kokeshi, you can follow your intuition, but if I were to give you some direction, I would recommend looking for a well-balanced shape, face and expression. At first, many people are interested in the beauty and cuteness of kokeshi, but it seems that it is common to gradually become more drawn to the ones with a typical look. If you get into kokeshi even more, you will start noticing their features depending on the family line, the differences between craftsmen, and the shape and change of makeup depending on the year they were made. By looking at kokeshi and getting to know more about them, you will develop your own preferences and find your favourite kokeshi.

6 Maintaining your kokeshi

If your kokeshi comes in contact with water, their makeup can easily get blurred, and the same might happen when they are touched by sweaty hands. When kokeshi are exposed to direct sunlight or a fluorescent lamp for a prolonged time, their colours will fade. The same can happen due to aging. There is also a risk of mold developing when your kokeshi is stored in a moist area. Therefore, it is recommended to store them outside of direct sunlight and in a ventilated place. However, the fact that the wood and makeup of your kokeshi starts to change over time could also be seen as unique characteristic to enjoy. And if you polish them lightly with a dry cloth when you feel like it, they will start shining again and your affection for your kokeshi might even grow.