The Uses of Japanese Dolls

Japanese dolls are woven into Japanese history and culture in many fascinating ways. This page is an attempt at an overview  of this aspect of the dolls. Most of the information comes from  books  by Lea Baten and Alan Pate, though any mistakes are my own. Where only the author & title of a work are mentioned, that book is more fully listed in the Bibliography.

Domestic and personal

These dolls represent two vital gods, Daikoku who presides over rice and Ebisu the fisherman.  In various formats they are important figures to own.
These dolls represent two gods or kami, Daikoku who presides over rice and Ebisu the fisherman. In various formats they are important figures to own, to ensure household prosperity.
Dolls (amagatsu, hoko) were made for children before or at birth, to serve evidently as twins which would confuse and distract evil spirits (such as childhood disease); they were usually destroyed when the child came of age; this is a very old custom, dating to before the Heian era. In the Edo period, young women owned a pair of boxes in the shape of dogs (inu-baku). These were displayed with her hina dolls, and were burned when she married; apparently they were connected with fertility, and possibly with the menses.
     Red or red-haired dolls (like the red good-luck monkey, saru-bobo) were considered particularly useful in warding off illness, and might be placed at the bedside of a sick child.
     Other talismanic ningyo exist–for example, a simple cloth figure (cotton ball in a hanky) tied to a door lintel as a rain-charm (Baten, Identifying Japanese Dolls, 89).
The go-sekku or five festivals
During the Edo period, a set of five festivals was generally celebrated all over Japan; they had been important in Japanese culture for centuries, and in China even earlier, but had previously been observed mostly by the aristocracy. These were: New Year’s (or the slightly later feast of the new herbs), the Doll Festival, the Horse Festival, the Star Festival, and the Chrysanthemum Festival. Dolls are involved in the first three of these (and can be made of flowers to celebrate the Chrysanthemum festival!).
      Hagoita (battledores), decorated with oshi-e-ningyo (padded dolls), and Daruma dolls, used for undertaking new tasks, are associated with the New Year festival.
     The Doll Festival (Hina Matsuri), is Girls’ Day and is celebrated on the third day of the third month. Girls and their mothers unwrap and display a large doll collection (the hina dolls, with the dairi-bina imperial couple presiding) on a tiered red stand, and visit each other’s collections. The formal display of dolls on this festival seems to have originated in the Imperial court in the 1620s, though a century passed before the day began to be called Hina Matsuri, indicating its popularity and spread beyond the court.
     The Horse Festival (Tango no Sekku or Gogatsu) used to be Boys’ Day but is now Children’s Day, Kodomo-no-hi; it falls on the fifth day of the fifth month. It is day for setting up martial displays often including dolls representing the warrior history and virtues of Japan (musha-ningyo). Most distinctive is the practice of flying carp-shaped banners or windsocks representing the children in the family.
This category includes the myriad folk dolls of Japan, each produced in and associated with a particular locality. In their own town, such dolls may have a festival or religious meaning, but they are also sold to travelers to take home, and so they come to have a different meaning for the owner. Kokeshi dolls are the most famous example: they were a handy way for woodworkers near a hot springs to make extra money by putting scrap wood on a lathe and selling the result to tourists, but they became a varied and often extremely artistic genre of collectible.
     Souvenirs may also have religious meaning. Several types of dolls originated as items made by monks to be sold at shrines. The skills used in creating religious sculpture might go into their design, as with the Saga and Nara wooden dolls. The dolls might be made of pottery or plaster, papier-maché, or wood. Such dolls might have a talismanic property, or simply be a pleasant reminder of a pilgrimage.
      A special category would be theatrical dolls, representing the characters of Noh and Kabuki plays and therefore serving as a reminder of favorite stories, scenes, or roles. The carved Nara dolls and others which represent Noh characters, the Takeda dolls of the Edo period which combine complex construction and dramatic poses, the little tableaux recalling scenes from Noh or Kabuki or the myriad dolls representing festival dancers–the “use” of all these dolls would seem to be the recollection of a particular performance.
      Twentieth-century dolls designed with American travelers (in particular) in mind often extend the souvenir quality of the theatrical dolls, evoking the geisha and maiko in Kyoto streets or Kabuki performers seen in the capital. Since foreigners love to collect sets, such dolls might take a wide variety of forms (e.g. the Hakata dolls representing so many different trades, stages of life, etc.).
Personal gift
Gift-giving is important in Japanese culture, and nearly all types of dolls are appropriate gifts. A grandmother or godmother might make a talismanic doll for a baby in olden times, but today she would buy a modern newborn girl a deluxe hina doll display. The aged pair of Jo and Uba, done in hina or kimekomi construction, is appropriate as a wedding or anniversary gift. And so on.
     One type of doll which seems to have originated for gift-giving is the gosho or “palace” doll. In its basic form it represents a chubby, white-skinned baby boy. In the days of the shoguns, these dolls might be given as gifts to important men, since they suggest fertility in the male line. In Edo (Tokyo), dollmakers developed the more mobile ichimatsu doll, an appropriate gift for a child or a beloved courtesan.
Craft, hobby
Dollmaking is a popular craft, something that women in particular seem always to have enjoyed doing. The Japanese skill with folded paper leads to an elaborate array of possible paper dolls, from a few simple folds to complex textured-washi dolls. Kimekomi dollmaking is easily learned, though the process of producing a doll even from a kit is long and requires skill; oshi-e, or the making of dolls or images from padded cloth shapes, is similarly challenging to master. The sakura dolls, made from kits including the mask-face and wired arms, allow full expression of the maker’s sense of color and design.
The tokonoma corner of a Japanese house constitutes a rotating exhibit space for one or two family treasures. Sometimes a doll might be placed there. A very fine hakata or oyama type doll would harmonize with the scroll and flowers of the season.
Heirloom and collectible
Festival dolls (hina, musha-ningyo, and also hagoita) may take many hours of labor to create, and look extremely fine, but they are by their nature and stuffing not durable. As with many other kinds of Japanese art, the artist seems mindful of the transience of material things and does not create “for the ages.” Moreover, the perception that some types of dolls should be burned or put to sea at the end of their “lives” does not encourage thinking of them as permanent objects, and even today many dolls are burned in rituals overseen by priests (search images using the term 人形供養 to see some doll memorial ceremonies). Nevertheless, some of them are passed down in families and become part of a descendent’s collection. Some Japanese began to collect dolls, particularly in the 20th century (see Alan Pate, Japanese Dolls: the Fascinating World).

Religious, civic, corporate

Dolls offered up usually have a function of substituting for or representing the person offering them.The doll takes on the “evil spirits” or sins of a person through touch or rubbing, and when the doll is burned or thrown into moving water, it takes the problems with it. It is possible to see this as part of a continuum with the talismanic dolls made for newborns, which are also destroyed at a certain point. The offering doll, though, has a shorter life, a briefer contact with the person it represents.
      The most obvious such custom is the casting of nagashi-bina on the waters; on the third day of the third month; the doll (probably at first a katashiro, or simple paper doll) is breathed on, and/or rubbed on the body, then thrown into a river or put into a little boat to sail away, carrying the sins with it. This custom is described in the Tale of Genji, where it backfires when a sea-god falls in love with the doll-Genji but decides he wants the real Genji instead.
      Dolls may also be burned to signify the destruction of a year’s sins and follies. Daruma are purchased at the new year and burned at the end of the year; Daruma has the additional function of assisting the owner with crops or undertakings, under pain of not getting his two eyes painted in. Hina dolls and other types are also offered at a shrine or burned ceremonially at temples and shrines. This may be viewed as the release of a doll’s soul or spiritual power when it is no longer needed or wanted.
      Certain dolls or figures are offered as memorials for a dead or otherwise lost child. In at least one location, kokeshi dolls had a memorial function. In contemporary Japan, shrines exist where parents can offer a doll bride or husband to a dead unmarried child, placating the child’s spirit with this companion. Interestingly, the doll appears to the parents to begin to resemble the child. See Ellen Schattschneider, “Buy me a bride: Death and exchange in northern Japanese bride doll marriage,” American Ethnologist 28.4 (2001).
Civic festivals
Since at least the 16th century, many localities have celebrated religious festivals by with huge floats or carts which are pulled through the town by teams of men. These carts often include large figures, images of historical, legendary, or religious persons. Often these are mechanical (karakuri-ningyo), rigged to turn somersaults or enact historic scenes. Although these figures are not technically dolls, their manufacture involved carving and assembling wooden dolls with gofun skin–that is, the same type of construction as the smaller figures displayed in the home on festivals, or used as gifts or toys.
     The Hina Matsuri celebrated on the third day of the third month was traditionally a domestic festival, but in the past twenty years or so it is often celebrated with civic displays, which may include displays of hundreds of dolls contributed by the citizens, nagashi-bina rituals performed in costume, and/or “living” hina displays with children or adults dressed like the dolls and standing or sitting in the traditional hierarchical array.
Commemorative gift
This is a special category, particularly significant in modern business. Dolls are sometimes made to order for a company to give as gifts to its personnel, or for presentation by an official group to an official person or group on a special occasion. For example, in the 1980s the Yamaha company gave dolls every year to its distributors in the U.S.; the dolls were specially created for this purpose and served not only as a token of the relationship but also as part of the special advertising and display in the showrooms.
      Commander Perry arrived in Japan in 1854 to force Japan to enter into commercial and diplomatic relationships with other nations; among the gifts to the nation he brought home from America were several high-quality ichimatsu dolls (now in the Smithsonian Museum). It is not clear whether these were chosen by Perry at the request of American scholars, or offered as an appropriate gift by the Japanese.
      In the great U.S.-Japan Friendship Doll exchange of 1927-29, American children collected blue-eyed American play dolls and sent them to Japanese children to express hopes for peace (despite recent American laws against Japanese immigrants and immigration). This gesture was reciprocated by the creation of 58 very large ichimatsu dolls, the Torei Ningyo or Ambassador Dolls. These dolls toured the U.S. and most of them ended up in museums. A number are still in museums or private hands, where they are treasured as commemorations of international friendship.
Economic aspect
For a long time it seems that most dolls were made at home, by individuals (usually with the intention of giving them to a specific person). Other types of dolls developed in specific communities to sell as souvenirs. However, during the 17th century doll-making was professionalized in Kyoto (and later in Edo, i.e. Tokyo), and dolls became an item of conspicuous consumption; the most important dolls were made to order for important buyers, but others were produced on spec for the seasonal doll markets. The gosho doll, and perhaps other doll forms, developed particularly to be purchased as gifts among the aristocrats and Shogunate officials. Artisans involved in creating human figures, such as religious statues, festival cart figures, and puppets, developed methods for working with wood and gofun which when scaled down became the basis for doll construction. These artisans needed specially woven cloth for small dolls, and in addition the dolls’ bases and furniture (dougu) required participation by workers in wood and lacquer.  During the Edo period, families wanted to own dolls to use in the rituals, a trend which “continued and intensified, even among the ordinary people, but primarily the wealthier classes, reflecting the way the family unit became an important individual unit for consumption activities” (Momo Miyazaki, “Development of the Doll Festival as seen in paintings,” in Images of Familial Intimacy in Eastern and Western Art, ed. Toshiharu Nakamura, Brill 2014, pp. 218-248, at 240).
Political and legal aspects
The doll festivals have long reflected political conditions in Japan. The earliest recorded doll display on the third day of the third month was at the court of the empress Tokugawa Masako (Tofukumon’in; d. 1678), a daughter and sister of Shoguns; it seems that her and her imperial daughter’s relations with the Shogunate in Edo (Tokyo) facilitated the spread of doll play. (For Tofukumon’in, see Elizabeth Lillehoj, Art and Palace Politics in Early Modern Japan, 1580s-1680s, Brill, 2011; for the dolls, p. 147; for her daughter Emperor Meisho’s dolls, see Pate, Ningyo, p. 96.) By the 18th century, the hina dolls were perceived as representing the imperial palace and its denizens to those outside it. The question of who could own dolls, and what kinds of dolls were appropriate outside the Imperial family, continued all through the Edo period, with several proclamations of sumptuary laws limiting doll ownership; some dollmakers were even prosecuted for making dolls that were larger or more outrageously wonderful than the law allowed. Smaller formats were developed to combine luxury materials with legal compliance.
      In the Meiji period, when the Shogunate was dissolved and the Emperor became the official political leader of the nation, dolls could be emblems of new Japanese values. The hina festival was perceived as an occasion for honoring the Emperor (Alan Pate, “Japanese dolls and the Imperial image,” Doll News 2011, 80–99), and the position of the male and female dolls was reversed to reflect the position of the imperial throne in the Tokyo audience hall (Shigeki Kawakami, “Ningyo: An Historical Approach,” In Avitabile, ed., Ningyo, p. 13). All classes were meant to enjoy the festival, and smaller, cheaper, standardized hina formats developed. A set curriculum of folk-tales, which helped to teach Japanese virtues and culture to schoolchildren all over the country, was made visible in doll tableaux.The depiction in doll form of legendary rulers and generals of Japan had been well developed in the Edo period, but it became important to own some of these to display on the fifth of May; if one was not of the samurai class and had not inherited real armor, one could buy a miniature set for display. Dolls of boy heroes, such as Momotaro and Kintaro, reminded children and their parents that the new young nation of Japan could accomplish great things (Klaus Antoni, “Momotaro (The Peach Boy) and the Spirit of Japan: Concerning the Function of a Fairy Tale in Japanese Nationalism of the Early Showa Age.” Asian Folklore Studies 50.1 (1991), 155-88.. Doll artists also occasionally depicted contemporary figures, including the emperor himself, in modern clothes or military uniforms.
      After Japan’s defeat, the flavor of the festivals changed somewhat. The fifth of May, formerly dedicated to the display of armor and masculine heroes in doll form, lost its panache and was re-dedicated to children in general. The notion that the hina display represented the emperor and empress was pronounced un-Japanese (Casal, Five Sacred Festivals, p. 52, e.g.). Traditional dolls were more an invitation to consider the past, rather than to look expectantly at the future.
Two play dolls, meant to encourage nurturing, sewing skills, and imaginative play. Late 19th-early 20th century.
Two play dolls, meant to encourage nurturing, sewing skills, and imaginative play. Late 19th-early 20th century.


What is play? What is a toy? Is there a continuity between the uses of objects in adult culture and their uses by children? Some Japanese, and some Westerners too, have insisted that Japanese dolls (especially the hina festival dolls) are never toys, and that no matter how amusing they may in fact be they are not meant to amuse children, but have a high spiritual value. The 18th-century Japanese scholar Watarai Naokata wrote that “Hina asobi originated as a divine ceremony which we inherited from mythical times, so it is not something which should be treated lightly. If we simply consider it girls’ play, then shouldn’t we fear some divine retribution?” (quoted by Alan Pate, Ningyo: The Art of the Japanese Doll, Tokyo: Tuttle, 2005, p. 100). The American anthropologist Frederick Starr insisted, more than once, that  “Hina are ceremonial dolls; they … are symbolical—so deeply so that few Japanese realize their significance; so deeply so, that no Japanese can think of them as merely toys” (Japanese Collectors and What They Collect, Chicago: 1921).  However, these very protests are a reminder that little girls must have been playing with their hina when they were threatened with divine retribution by the pious scholar, and that even quite sophisticated Americans saw the hina display as more like play than like religious worship. If one defines “play”  to include activities through which one learns about culture and one’s role in it, Japanese dolls offer a wide range of such play. Another approach may be to emphasize the continuity between certain activities which delight children but in which adults may also, playfully, participate. It is possible that play, asobi, is understood by most Japanese as a spiritual activity.

Three dolls in various media showing children playing.  The small baby is 2 inches tall (exclusive of toy).  The boy on a horse is probably 19th century; the boy with a mask dates from the past 30 years or so.
Three dolls in various media showing children playing. The small baby is 2 inches tall (exclusive of toy). The boy on a horse is probably 19th century; the boy with a mask dates from the past 30 years or so.

While most Japanese dolls today are firmly labelled by their creators with legendary or historical characters, or a function in the hina display hierarchy, it seems likely that imaginative doll-play has continued quietly among little girls and boys for the past millennium, or indeed for millennia. The talismanic hoko doll is also a cuddly creature; its descendent is surely the daki, a jointed bent limb baby sold without clothes so that little mothers can enjoy making doll kimono.

Doll play has evidently been a feature of the Japanese girl’s life for over 1,000 years. Murasaki, in the Tale of Genji, is only 10 years old when her nurse tells her it is time to put away her dolls and become a woman, a wife (fortunately Genji allows her a few more years to mature before he makes her his wife). She continues to love dolls anyway, and to make them for Genji’s children and grandchildren. Not only dolls but dollhouses (presumably made by arranging miniature screens) are mentioned. Murasaki’s play is imaginative, of the “this doll is the prince, and this is his house” sort, and it clearly does involve a psychological preparation for her marriage.

At some point in the mid- or late18th century there developed a doll type which is large, the size of a live baby, and whose jointed limbs allow it to be dressed and undressed easily, and posed. This is the ichimatsu doll. It was probably at first a plaything for women and children of the wealthiest classes, including geisha; there are some touching woodblock images of young girls sold into houses of pleasure, cuddling dolls of this type. In the 19th and 20th centuries, such dolls might be made in any size from 5 up to about 32 inches, boy and girl, baby or older child or adult; and they became a popular export item. Around the turn of the century Americans observed small Japanese children carrying dolls on their back, practicing for the time when they would be carrying a small sister or brother.