April 05, 2017

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Kokeshi: handpainted folk art masterpieces

kokeshi at Cargo

Cargo just received our largest shipment of kokeshi dolls ever! Kokeshi dolls are thought to be the first toys of children in the Kiji-ya area of Tohoku, a mountainous province in northeast Japan known for their onsen, natural hot spring resorts. The dolls started in the Edo era around 1830.  Prior to 19th century, the government prohibited woodworkers to use their wood on something considered to be so frivolous as toy making. The cold winter was a slow time for wood workers, so they began to make these simple dolls during this time to sell to onsen tourists. With no arms or legs, they could be simply made on a lathe out of scrap wood. The kokeshi tradition was born and has become one of Japan’s most celebrated folk arts. The location where the dolls are made will often dictate the doll’s features. For example the Naruko Osnen makes dolls with heads that you can turn to make a squeaking sound, “a crying child” the literal translation of Naruko.

cargo kokeshiThere are two types of kokeshi: “traditional” and “creative” or sosaku. The traditional kokeshi, produced only in Tohoku, have a very simple round head and cylindrical body. The patterns and colors of the dolls kimonos are passed down through generations of kokeshi makers. The creative kokeshi are created throughout Japan and vary each on the artist’s distinctive style. Both traditional and creative kokeshi artists often sign their work, and collectors often look for specific artists. There are several kokeshi competitions each year throughout Japan.

There are many uses associated with Kokeshi dolls. They are bought by Japanese as mementos. Some feel they may ward off evil or prevent fires by having them in the home. While others feel they are a token of friendship, to exchange with messages concealed within. Nintendo game designer Shigeru Miyamoto has claimed in the past that kokeshi were the source of inspiration for the design of Nintendo’s avatars. Kokeshi have had a resurgence in popularity recently and are very collectible. Over four hundred traditional kokeshi artists continue to create kokeshi today, while many more create creative kokeshi. See Cargo's online collection here.

cargo kokeshi


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