Introduction and bibliography

Japanese Dolls: Ningyo

In Japan, over the past millennium, the making of human figures has moved comfortably between the talisman and the souvenir, the sacred object and the plaything. Dolls, for which the broadest term is 人形, transcribed ningyo, ningyō, ningyô, or  ningyou (the two characters mean “human figure”), have a spiritual significance; they seal friendships, protect or purify those who use them, and help young girls and boys explore their roles in society. Their history also reflects the development of religious and political ideas, and the economic status of local crafts. They may be made of wood, reeds, paper, pottery, or even ivory, and dressed in the finest cloth, often woven or painted especially with appropriately tiny motifs. 

There are several criteria for classification: materials (kamo = “willow”) or method of construction (kimekomi = cloth “tucked in” a grooved base); distinctive shapes (kokeshi, tachibina, hoko); locality of origin or production (Nara, Saga, Kobe dolls); theatrical names (Ichimatsu, Takeda); names associated with festivals or other activities (hina, gogatsu). Any one ningyo may be classified in all these ways.

American interest in Japanese dolls right now probably springs at least partly from the “geisha” dolls brought back by U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan in the 1940s and 50s. I remember seeing tall, elegant dolls in cases in the house of a childhood friend whose late father had been a naval officer. Fifty years later, many of these dolls are coming on the market and can be found at auctions and in antique shops.

Two moments in a millennium of Japanese dolls

While the prehistory of dolls can be extended back into legendary times, and dolls are still important and their use still being reinterpreted, these two milestones indicate the unique scope of Japanese doll culture:

Around the year 1000: A famous testimony to the use of dolls as protective devices, purification tokens, and playthings with their own elaborate houses, is the Tale of Genji of Murasaki Shibiku, written in the years 1000-1025.

The year 1944: The deep meaning of dolls in 20th-century Japanese culture can be understood through the research of American anthropologist Ellen Schattschneider. In Japan’s  military effort of World War II,  dolls allowed civilian women to feel they were part of the war, and pilots to feel they were supported; and, later, allowed families to mourn sons who had died without marriage and children. See Mystery of the Mascot Dolls.

The millennium:

Heian period (794-1185 CE). The capital of Japan is located in the city of Heian-kyo, now called Kyoto. The imperial court, headed by a hereditary emperor considered to be descended from the Sun Goddess, is the center of government over much of the islands, and also of a rich artistic culture, including poetry, novels, painting, and elaborate clothing. Among the aristocracy, dolls are prominent both as toys and as talismans.

Kamakura (1185–1333), Kenmu Restoration (1333–1336), Muromachi (1336–1573), and Azuchi–Momoyama (1568–1603): In this long period, the imperial power was rivaled by, and usually overshadowed by, the power of Shoguns or military rulers, whose capitals were elsewhere than in Kyoto (where, however, the emperor still lived). During some periods, especially the last, wars ravaged the country. In 1543, Westerners arrived to trade, Christianizing many Japanese and carrying off much of the country’s mineral resources, as well as artistic products. Doll play and use seems to have developed little from the Heian period, but sculptors creating figures for festival carts, religious statues, and memorial portraits developed skills which would later support doll-making.

Edo period (1603-1868). The Tokugawa family established its capital in the city of Edo (now called Tokyo), which quickly became a cultural center comparable to, or at times exceeding, the imperial city of Kyoto. After Christianity was suppressed in 1614, Japan cut itself off completely from all foreign influences, refusing almost all trade or other contacts. Westerners trying to interpret the situation referred to the system as having two emperors–the hereditary emperor for spiritual matters, the military emperor (Shogun) for active government. While the period was mostly peaceful, the ethics and hierarchies of the samurai loyal to their daimyo (regional lords) were culturally important. During this period,complex, sophisticated, professionally made dolls became an important consumer good, particularly for aristocrats in Kyoto and for the households the daimyo in Tokyo. The hina, musha, gosho, and ichimatsu doll types developed in traditions that are still important today, and many fine dolls from the period have survived.

Meiji period (1868-1912). This period really began in 1854, when the American Commodore Perry sailed near the capital of Edo and insisted that Japan resume trade and diplomatic relations with the West. After a difficult period, the Shogun was deposed in favor of the Emperor, who moved from Kyoto to reside principally in Tokyo, where he presided over the establishment of many Western-style institutions. The daimyo and samurai were replaced by a more European system of aristocrats and military. Though there was plenty of cultural confusion, the doll-makers survived and their products continued to evolve, reflecting the new patriotism and also new materials, such as chemical dyes.

Taisho period (1912-1926) and Early Showa period (1926-1945). 1927 saw the creation of the beautiful Friendship Dolls, which set a high standard for the depiction of children in doll form. As Japan established an empire in Korea, Taiwan, and Manchuria, it became ever more important to remind citizens, starting when they were children, of the values of Japan. Dolls served this purpose, and their use in celebrations spread to lower economic groups. Dolls representing heroes and warriors reinforced military values, while dolls enacting tales of piety and virtue ensured private morality.

Postwar (Showa and Heisei period). Doll artisans continued to create dolls, though fine handmade ones were again luxury items. Individual doll artists experimented with various techniques, continuing to develop new materials and subject matter. Certain types, such as the pottery Hakata dolls representing traditional Japanese craftsmen, and the “geisha dolls” often representing Kabuki roles, were popular with Americans and various postwar visitors and tourists. Japan also developed its own version of Western doll types for domestic consumption, such as the Licca doll, a younger and less sophisticate/sexy version of Barbie.

Reading in English about Japanese Dolls

  • Tokebei Yamada,  Japanese Dolls, Japan Travel Bureau (1955). A lively little book with information not only on the history of the dolls but on 1950’s doll production. This is probably the best overview of all kinds of dolls, from a Japanese perspective.

Two authors have published a great deal in English on this subject in the past 20 years, Alan Scott Pate and the late Lea Baten. Baten is primarily interested in the variety and continuity of doll use from the earliest times until the present; she looks at quite primitive modern doll types and the appearance of dolls as motifs in other media. Pate is a dealer in Edo-period dolls (17th-19th century) as well as a scholar, and is primarily interested in that very rich period, when dolls were luxury items produced with remarkable craftsmanship and imagination.

  • Lea Baten, Japanese Dolls: The Image and the Motif (Shufunotomo, Tokyo, 1986), the source of much of the information on these pages!
  • Lea Baten, Identifying Japanese Dolls: Notes on Ningyo (Hotei Press, 2000).
  • Lea Baten, Playthings and Pastimes in Japanese Prints.  1995. Actual toys and dolls are shown along with prints from the 18th through early 20th centuries showing them in use.
  • Lea Baten, Japanese Folk Toys: The Playful Arts. 1992. Survey of the many special toys produced in various regions of Japan.
  • Alan Pate, Ningyo: The Art Of The Japanese Doll (Tuttle, 2005). The essays on individual doll types provide detailed information on theater, literature, politics, and economics–a reminder of why Japanese dolls can enthrall us as a window into a lost culture. A good source for the history of the festival dolls.
  • Alan Pate, Japanese Dolls: The Fascinating World of Ningyo (Tuttle, 2008). This book looks at the history of Japanese doll collecting, both in Japan and in the U.S., and examines various “collectible” types.
  • Alan Pate, Entertaining the Gods and Man: Japanese Dolls and the Theater (Morikami Museum 2013). Catalogue of an exhibition. “Theater” is broadly defined to include not only puppets and dolls representing actors in theatrical roles, but also the political theater of the Meiji Restoration.
  • Alan Pate,”The Japanese Friendship Dolls of 1927 and the Birth of the Japanese Art Doll,” Doll News Winter 2013. Older articles on various ningyo-related topics are posted on Alan’s website.

A few older  valuable books:

  • Gunnhild Avitabile, NINGYO: THE ART OF HUMAN FIGURINE Traditional Japanese Display Dolls from the Ayervais Collection (Japan Society, 1995). Catalogue of an exhibition. This book was the result of collaboration with Japanese doll experts and has many useful and even unusual insights.
  • Jill and David Gribbin, Japanese Antique Dolls (1984)–a beautiful big book with a good deal of information. The authors were interested in pottery dolls as well as the classic luxury types.
  • U. A. Casal, Five Sacred Festivals of Ancient Japan (1967).  Rich chapters on the history of the Doll Festival and the May Festival, at both of which dolls are displayed. Casal’s history of the Doll Festival is detailed and derives from Japanese sources, so it is an important resource. He includes illustrations from early treatises on the history of the hina doll.
  • G. Caiger,  Dolls on Display: Japan in Miniature (1933). This is a beautiful book, though not extremely informative. Caiger concentrates on the festival dolls, especially the hina. The book is illustrated with two fold-out woodblock prints as well as photographs.

 Japanese movies featuring dolls:

  • Takeshi Kitano’s “Dolls.” This story is set in a modern Japan of gangsters and pop stars, but its simple, tragic love story is designed to evoke the world of Bunraku puppet plays and the traditional sweep of the four seasons dear to Japanese art. The movie opens with a scene from a Bunraku play.
  • Akira Kurosawa’s “Dreams” (Yume). The first episode shows a “fox wedding,” which in itself can be a subject for ningyo representation. The second episode involves a magnificent hina-dan display which comes alive as FIVE complete (13-doll) sets which sing and dance for a child who weeps for a lost peach orchard.
  • Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Life of Oharu” tells the story of a woman’s life in the 17th century, encompassing an aristocratic maidenhood, true love almost leading to suicide, concubinage, marriage, nunhood, the life of a courtesan in the pleasure quarters and of the lowest of street whores. Oharu’s period as a lord’s concubine in Edo (about halfway through the film) culminates with the birth of a son; during this time, she attends a bunraku puppet performance emphasizing a wife’s jealousy, which is brief but vivid, and gives birth in a room decorated by a gigantic Gosho doll and a treasure-ship.