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A Doll’s-Eye View of Japanese Aesthetics

Kokeshi

It is remarked that women hold up half the sky. Propping up one particular outstanding woman, in turn, was a peculiar little woman: a top-heavy wooden doll without arms or legs.

Japan’s asadora (“morning dramas”) is a tradition stretching back to 1961 at national broadcaster NHK (Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai / Japan Broadcasting Corporation). For half a year to one year at a time, the television series tells the story of a heroine fighting for her dream under adverse circumstances. Massan, which aired from September 2014 to March 2015, for instance, depicted a Scotswoman who married a Japanese man and helped him realize his aspiration of producing genuine whiskey in Japan in the 1920s-1940s. Along the way, she battled with social hostility against foreigners. Often, the stories are modeled after real-life women. In the case of Massan, this was Rita Taketsuru, the Scottish spouse of Nikka Whiskey founder Masataka Taketsuru.

The most famous asadora of all time, however, must be 1983-84 production Oshin, which was inspired by the experiences of Katsu Wada, the mother of multinational supermarket chain Yaohan’s founder Kazuo Wada. The drama began with the eponymous character, an 83-year-old matriarch and businesswoman, leaving for an unannounced private trip instead of attending the opening ceremony of her family’s 17th store. With an old kokeshi she left behind as a clue, her adopted grandson managed to locate and join her as she traced the memories of her hardship-ridden life. Growing up in the poverty-stricken 1900s, Oshin had to work as a live-in nanny at the tender age of seven to support her peasant family. Before embarking on one such assignment, Oshin received a kokeshi doll from her mother as a keepsake. When she felt miserable at her workplace, she would talk to the doll, deriving from it the strength to endure and survive.

Kokeshi Scene in 1983-84 Japanese Drama Oshin

Oshin and her Mother

In general, kokeshi are unclothed wooden dolls traditionally made with large spherical heads and limbless cylindrical bodies. Originating from the Tōhoku region of Japan, these dolls were thought to be originally made from scrap wood by artisans in the Edo period (1603-1868) and gifted to celebrate events like house building and births. Over time, kokeshi with painted patterns distinctive to their village or other area of origin were developed and passed down the generations.  In more recent times, designers have launched new versions of the dolls, which shapes and patterns are not constrained by traditional guidelines. Nonetheless, these creative kokeshi frequently retained their predecessors’ limbless feature.

Where does the beauty of such oddly shaped figurines lie? According to Japanese arts traditions, one source of their charm resides precisely in their incompleteness. Things that fall short of optimal conditions can be more alluring as they provoke surprise and curiosity, prompting the beholder to wonder what the objects would be like if they were perfect. That is why Japanese aesthetes celebrate obscured moons, fallen blossoms and blemished scrolls. This approach to visual appreciation looks beyond an artifact’s physical deficiency to envisage its past and future possibilities, embracing the visible as well as the invisible. It is a means of finding joy in otherwise unpalatable conditions and replacing the pathos associated with the transience of life with Zen-like understanding or even marvel.

Kokeshi

Traditional Kokeshi, Source: Aoba Kokeshi Association

Another aspect of kokeshi‘s appeal lies in its evocation of nature. The dolls’ bodies are frequently decorated with motifs of leaves and flowers like chrysanthemums and Japanese plum. But more fundamentally, their material, wood, is a natural substance which generates a feeling of warmth. This property is reinforced by the dolls’ adherence to the Japanese aesthetic principle of respecting the intrinsic characteristics of objects and allowing these characteristics to dictate the execution of the art. Instead of coating the entire bodies with paint, traditional kokeshi makers let the natural color of the wood form the backdrop, over which relatively fine patterns are painted. Some modern-age kokeshi bring this ideal to another level by echoing or emphasizing the pattern of the wood grain. Occasionally, they even leverage on these patterns to enhance certain whimsical or beautiful features. One kokeshi, for instance, has oval wood grain patterns that radiate out from its abdomen, lending its already rotund shape a quality of dynamism.

What breathes life into most kokeshi, however, is perhaps the drawing of their facial expressions. The painting techniques applied on kokeshi are similar to those adopted in regular oriental brush paintings in that they capture the spiritual essence, not the semblance of the subject. In the process, craftsmen employ delicate brushstrokes which can, in a few outwardly simple lines, endow the dolls with graceful expressions. Oshin, in fact, was drawn to her doll even before she received it as she thought that it shared her mother’s kind face. In the course of kokeshi‘s history, traditional artisans have developed various standard eye and nose shapes, the more poetic of which include “one-stroke eyes,” “whale’s eyes,” “cat’s nose” and “pine needle nose.” As the crafts are handmade, though, no two dolls are bound to have the same face.

Modern-Age Kokeshi

A Modern-Age Kokeshi, © Charlotte Marillet, shared under the permission of CC BY-SA 2.0

Uniting these disparate elements is the Zen ideal of simplicity. Artisans often refrain from adding more details to the dolls than necessary and leave certain features implied rather than stated. Hence, as long as the dolls’ identities as representations of humans are discernible, there is no need to flesh them out with a full crop of hair, limbs, flamboyant garments and elaborate facial features. Enhancing this simplicity is the use of basic geometric shapes and repetitive motifs. Some contemporary designers take this quest for minimalism to the extreme, creating kokeshi made up of unembellished cylindrical bodies and blank spherical heads topped with short wigs of fur or flowers as uncomplicated but powerful expressions of personality. Kokeshi of the Nambu strain frequently do away with decorations altogether.

On the whole, kokeshi embody innocence. While that is a sentiment commonly associated with toys, the dolls’ rustic beauty, natural warmth and often gentle demeanor elevate their simplicity not to any prosaic form of childish innocence, but to an innocence that comes with undiminished capacity for spontaneous love and concern. Indeed, the loss of such innocence in her family was what set off the elderly Oshin’s nostalgia for her roots. Oshin has been widely viewed as a symbol of the Japanese value of perseverance, while her rags-to-riches story is thought to mirror Japan’s stellar economic development for the large part of the 20th century. Less well-known, however, is that the drama was also an expression of disapproval at the onslaught of materialism—at the expense of humanistic values—in the society. Unlike her money-minded children and their spouses, Oshin’s motivation for the hard work she put in all her life originated not from a thirst for wealth per se, but from a pure desire to protect her loved ones. To reinstill the other-regarding ideals of the past, the matriarch was eventually willing to let the business empire she spent decades assembling collapse from a crisis brought on by the new store and start over from scratch.

That may be the non-artistic modern relevance of kokeshi‘s often impractically large heads: so that they will fall, so that they will call out to us from time to time, so that they will repeatedly remind us of our more unworldly dreams.

1956 Kokeshi Stamp

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12 thoughts on “A Doll’s-Eye View of Japanese Aesthetics

  1. I am so glad I read this and now, with time available, will be reading more of your fascinating blog! I just got the ms of “Song of the Nightingale” done and to the publisher…and it will be out early July I believe. So much of our writing and interests dovetail. Thank you for visiting my blog and it’s time I do the same with yours.

    Lady Nyo

  2. Wonderful post! I’ve wondered what the dolls were called, and I love Japanese dramas. My father used to send me dolls in kimono and glass cases from overseas when I was a little girl. I’ll have to ask him if he saw any kokesh.

    — Stephe ^@@^

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