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Michi no Ku Dentô Kokeshi

(Northern Japan Traditional Kokeshi)

Variations on a Theme

Article by Shirlee Funk
Ningyo Journal, Early Winter 2003

Copyright J.A.D.E. (Japanese Asian Doll Enthusiasts)

Examples of each of 11 strains of Dentô Kokeshi. All these are about 10" (25cm) tall.
Funk Collection

LOOK at a shelf full of dentô kokeshi, and you may shrug and think, "Oh. Kokeshi". Keep looking. First you notice the larger ones; smooth bald heads, streaks of black hair, and red ribbons. Shades of various naked wood colors: some almost white, some with stronger grain patterns, some darkened with age.

Look at all the body styles: simple cylinders with curves in how many shapes? How many with body stripes? How many styles of eyes? Almost every one is different. So there it is: though they are similar in many aspects, nearly every one is unique. Variations on a theme. They don't show well in group pictures, needing individual examination to see personality, details and differences.

Right now I am a kokeshi collector. I am intrigued by the art of the craftsmen and the ways that they have taken standard designs and put their own signatures on them. Recently, many craftsmen have taken the established patterns in new directions, too. Using a few more colors in brighter patterns. Adding new curves to old styles. Expanding the box, you might say.

Hmm, I don't have a Tsugaru with the "streak eyes" yet. One more that I need to find, and add to my collection. Also the Kijiyama in the umebachi kimono design, or the Tsuchiyu with a hal. So, my collection is growing. And I am not alone.

Dentô kokeshi have long been regarded as collectibles in Japan. When other kinds of ningyo were collected only by the elite few historians, kokeshi collectors assembled groups of lathe-turned wood figures. Visiting hotspring resorts regularly, they brought home various styles from various artists, perhaps visiting different onsen (hotspring resort) in turn, or going back to the same one to find variations by one master, and the work of his pupils.

Interestingly. many of the important ningyo books either do not mention dentô kokeshi at all, or give them only a brief overview. Yet dentô kokeshi have many books in Japanese devoted to them. This speaks to a major difference in appreciation and perhaps in the market for kokeshi, which have been targeted at collectors for a long time.

According to Tokubei Yamada, "Simplicity of shape and of coloring appeals ... to Japanese taste ... The average Japanese likes the way a kokeshi is painted, or rather is left unpainted, because in his mind, it looks nice and neat that way."1

Though making lathe-turned figures is began as a sideline for the craftsman who made bowls, cups and other household items of wood, those who first fashioned kokeshi found a ready market with onsen visitors.

The commercial impetus to produce was inherent in the onsen culture, where visitors naturally were drawn to buy souvenirs. So wood craftsmen created an attractive memento that had meaning, and also naturally fueled continued interest, due to the variety that could be found.

Producing these kokeshi is a master's craft. Not only must certain precise skills be honed to a readily reproducible level, but personal style must be developed within the framework of established styles. A master teaches these skills to an apprentice over a period of time. Often the apprentices are offspring, who may start learning from their father in adolescence. In some cases, wives have learned from their husbands, and a number of master craftsmen are women.

Kiji-ya, or wood-crafters, have well documented genealogies in terms of masters and pupils. Changes in style and development of variations are documented, too.

Whereas most early ningyo were anonymous creations of unknown craftsmen, dentô kokeshi are signed by the craftsman who created them. If more than one was involved in the creation of the figure, the one who painted it is the one who signed it.

Most aficionados feel that the spirit of the artist is incorporated in his dolls. This is more than just the elements of the artist's signature style, which identifies his work to those who have studied. Some impute a spirit of humor or endurance to some dolls, reflecting their creator or location of origin. Some collectors impute a personality to the kokeshi anyway, a reflection of the laces and the style of decoration. Some of this personality is said to arise from the wood used.

Quite a variety of different woods are used to make dentô kokeshi, including sakura (cherry,) itaya kaede (maple,) haku'un-boku (persimmon,) and most famous, the lovely hana mizuki, the white dogwood. The wood used affects the character of the kokeshi made, not only by the color of background it provides, but also by the grain pattern which is more clearly visible in some than in others. Obviously, for the craftsman, the wood used also affects his work when shaping on the lathe, as some wood grains are easier to cut and shape than others.

Physically, it's a tough and demanding occupation. The kokeshi-kojin is a craftsman who creates his figures beginning to end. He cuts the trees, stacks the wood to cure. Once the woodstock has dried, and is cut into proper lengths, he must remove as much excess wood as he can, so that the piece is balanced enough to spin well in the lathe. When the kokeshi-kojin shapes the rotating wood with tools on the lathe, it takes not only upper-body strength, but mental concentration. It's essential to give it a smooth finish, too. He also paints on any rokuro lines or wider rings, using the tool stabilizer bar to steady his arm holding the brushes.

These steps must be repeated for the head, too, if the kokeshi is made from two separate pieces of wood. If the head is to be inserted into the body, this may happen while the body rotates on the lathe, too.

All of these steps are very physical, requiring muscle power and a lot of mental concentration for turning and and for painting. In fact, makers typically create blanks one day, and do the painting a different day, since their arms and shoulders are too tired to hold the brush steadily after a day of shaping wood on the lathe.

An old print showing the earliest kind of lathe, requiring two persons to operate.
It is rotated by puffing the end of the rope wound on the torsion post.

Togatta-kei Kokeshi
Left photo: Charles Mayer collection. Right Funk collection.

Narugo-kei Kokeshi

Togatta-kei with interesting flower variation.
Rosie Skiles collection.

White mizuki wood Narugo. Rosie Skiles collection

A sampler of Narugo. The smafl ones in front are "seated" nemariko.
Funk collection.

Tsuchiyu-kei Kokeshi Some of the huge variety of painting styles of Tsuchiyu in first picture and left one in second photo. All the rest are Nakanosawa sub-strain. In second photo, the center one is by Iwamoto Yoshizô, son of the founder of this style. The blush around the eyes has faded.
Outer two photos: Charles Mayer collection. Left of center: Funk collection. Right of center: Rosie Skiles collection.

Special thanks to Charles Meyer for willingly sharing so much of his extensive collection.

Yajirô-kei Kokeshi Some of the great variety of Yajirô, including one with a hat, and one that has a princess daruma turned in the middle of her body.
Charles Mayer collection.

Nanbu-kei kokeshi Left: Nanbu in the Charles Mayer collection. Near left: A Nanbu-kei that resembles her kina-kina ancestor. Rosie Skiles collection. Right: a classic Hanamaki style kokeshi, with a nodding head. Rosie Skiles collection.

After any rokuro painting of the head is done, the piece can be removed from the lathe, so the face and head can be painted by hand. The hand painting includes the motifs other than circular lines on the body, the head decoration, and the face. The eyes are painted on the face first, providing not only an anchor for the face, but also investing the dolls with life. After the paint has dried, each one is finished with beeswax.

A kiji-ya paints the face of a Narugo kokeshi

One kokeshi-kojin, Mr. Sakyo Miiyama, said that his first face of the day is usually not as good as one painted later on, even though he concentrates just as hard on each. As his hand and arm warm up and loosen up, the flow is better. Even though the artist gives his best effort to the painting, he may not all be satisfied with all the results. Mr. Miiyama humbly mentioned that perhaps one in one hundred of his kokeshi has a superlative face, one that makes him say, "Yes, that's it!"2. But, he never stops trying to make each one the best possible.

Origins of dento kakeshi are pretty recent in terms of the long history of various other kinds of ningyo. Sources very over when they actually began, from the mid-Edo to late Edo period. The meaning and symbolism of kokeshi, why they came to be, is another story.3

There is no doubt that by the end of the Edo period, several strains or families, called keiin Japanese, were being made. The oldest are the Togatta and Narugo strains, and their influence can be seen in shapes and painting styles on other strains. Most strains were named for the onsen, the hot-spring resort where they originated. By the end of the Taisho period, ten or eleven strains, depending on who counts them, had developed, induding the Togatta, Narugo, Tsuchiyu, Nanbu, Kijiyama, Yajirô, Sakunami-Yamagata, Zaô, Hijiori and Tsugaru. These are described in some detail in the next pages.

Several strains have developed specific derivative styles that can be called "sub-strains." These are still considered as a part of the main strain, even though some sub-strains, such as the Nakanosawa style, may be as popular as the main strain. These sub-strains are named for either the location where they were established, or for the originating artist.

The early kokeshi were made as toys for children in the standard sizes of 8 sun (24 cm.) 6 sun (18 cm.) and 4 sun (12 cm.). Beginning in the Taisho and early Showa period, when collecting started, sizes began to vary more, induding much larger ones, up to 4 ft. (1.22 m.) or more tall. Some very large ones, turned from the whole trunk of a tree, stand as bridge-posts in Miyagjken.

It's worth noting that dento kokeshi are assumed to all be girls. Folk specialist Ryosuke Saito described them thus: "All of them depict the unsophisticated beauty of young country girls."4 Unlike some collectibles, many kokeshi collectors focus on more recent pieces. If the wax has whitened over time, the wood darkened over time, and the colors are faded, it's harder to appreciate the intended beauty. These factors make old pieces loose some of their appeal.

Of course, those collecting based on the names and genealogies of the artists do want various rare older pleces, even with the darkened wood and faded paint. Pieces by significant masters still command high prices.

Pieces from the last few years are brighter and more colorful, seeming to use a different kind of paint. More colors are used now than were used in the past, including purples, blues, and shades of red and green.

All along, there have also been a few all-black (gray and black) pieces made, having the graphic quality of sumi-e ink paintings. Notably these have been made by Narugo, Sakunami, Togatta, Tsugaru, Tsuchiyu, Yajirô, Yamagata and Zeô artists.

On any dento kokeshi, damp or oily fingers are a "no-no," since this paint is water soluble. It may be the recent, very bright colors are colorfast, but don't test it! Over time, the colors do fade, green first, but eventually the red and black fade, too. Do keep dento kokeshi out of the sunlight, which darkens the wood, and fades the paint.

1 Tokubei Yamada: Japanese Dolls (Tokyo: Tourist Lib. p. 76-77.
2 Interview with Mr. Sakyo Niiyama, on-line at
3 For a discussion of the meaning of kokeshi, relating to their origins, see Lea Baten's Japanese Dolls.   The Image and the Motif, p. 43-44. Also see Ningyo Journal 3:3, pg. 6.
4 Ryosuke Saito, journalist and director of the Japanese Folk Toy Society, In an article titled "Folk    Toys Mirror Old Japan." Unknown magazine and date.

First-day issue cards for the 1956 New Year's stamp featured a photo of the two dento kokeshi which were used for the design of the stamp. The Togatta-kei and an ejiko kokeshi were also featured on the cancellation mark.

Tôgatta-kei & Aone style, Kichiya style
Produced at Tôgatta Onsen, Aone Onsen, Sendai-shi, Izumi, and elsewhere

One of the most common and easily identified strains of traditional kokeshi, the Tôgatta-kei is also be the oldest. Early ones were chlldren's toys. Though not soft and cuddly, children used to treat them like babies, carrying them onbu, in back carriers.

Most Tôgatta have a straight columnar body that tapers to the neck. The heads are large, in a slightly blocky shape. Some have heads that widen toward the top. Heads are attached to the body in a squeeze-in joint.

The most identifiable characteristic of Tôgatta-kei are the red radial lines painted on top the heads, in a circular array of red petals, like a chrysanthemum flower, centered on the green spot at the top of the divided bangs. These red ornaments, called tegara, are echoed by the array of red streaks fanned out below the bangs down both sides of the face behind the tufts of hair. Varying from short rays that merge together, to rather long ones, nearly every Tôgatta has them.

A story tells how one of the early kiji-ya craftsmen had seen a Kyo ningyô, impressive with her rich, brocade kimono, her refined face, and the many ornaments in her soft hair. The painted array he added to his kokeshi heads was his version, meant to show the village children the proud, refined beauty of the Kyoto figure.

Most Tôgatta have a ware-bana, or split nose, though some have the neko-bana, or cat nose. The eyes are slightly arched double lid eyes. This seems to convey good humor, especially with the simple, slightly curved mouths.

Bodies are often painted with kasanegiku, the stylized layers of chrysanthemums. Others have layered plum flowers on the body. In larger pieces, flowers may be painted on the back.

A less common painted body design is the edaume, a painted a branch of plum flowers, with the "V" of a kimono collar painted just below the neck. Some Tôgatta have bodies painted in the rokura technique, creating circular bands painted on the body while still on the lathe. Most rare of body decorations is the painted version of a wood-grain pattern, called mokume.

Focus on details: Tôgatta

All close-ups from photos by Charles Mayer (noted by "CM") or by Shirlee Funk unless other wise stated.

Aone Onsen Style

Kasanegiku (layered chrysanthemums) & rokuro (lines painted on the lathe.)

Edaume (plum branch) motif

Mokume wood
grain design

Plum blossoms
Peg Bailey coll.
Ware-bana (split nose)
Side of head: "flower petal" streaks
Tegara designs on top of head

Tôgatta craftsman shared their techniques with those at other spas, so Tôgatta style has been influential throughout the Tohoku region. Other strains use tegara-like decorations and kasanegiku-style flowers on their bodies, for instance.

A variation on the standard Tôgatta style, begun in the 1950s, uses traditional body painting patterns, except that the body is colored yellow before the designs are painted on. This is the Togatta Kichiya style, named for the family shop where this style began. Since these have a profusion of chrysanthemums painted on the body, they are colorful, almost flamboyant, even while painted with traditional designs otherwise.

A branch style of the Tôgatta-kei is made at the Aone Onsen, about 15 minutes drive away. This group lacks the chrysanthemum-petal pattern. Instead, these have the rounded petals of the plum flower on top the head and on the body front.

In the 1960s, Tôgatta craftsman founded the Tôgatta Kiji Union, a cooperative that was able to gain rights for wood use from the Japanese Ministry of Forestry. Thus, the kiji-ya could concentrate on production. To their dismay, younger craftsman began using this reserved wood to create modern kokeshi. Still enough craftsman continue the Tôgatta style that they are easily found by collectors in an interesting range of variations.

Narugo-kei & Ginzan style
Produced at Narugo Onsen, Ginzan Onsen, Hanamaki-shi, and other places

Naru is "sound" or "cry," and ko is "child." Thus, naruko is "crying child:' It's no surprise, then, that the Naruko kokeshi "cries" when her head is turned.

To do this, the head stub is forced into a hole in the top of the body while it turns on the lathe, using the force and heat of friction. As the wood shrinks and cools, the shape of the stub and the hole change enough that they cannot come apart. The tolerance is just tight enough that the wood rubs together when the head is turned, and it squeaks in protest. Those who are poetic call it a "nightingale voice." Of course, if it is turned too much, the joint wears, and it looses its voice.

The most prolific of all dento styles, the Naruko (more properly pronounced "Narugo" in the compound form) kokeshi is also one of the earliest. It has influenced other strains, such as the Hijiori and Hanamakl strains, as well as the Owani style of the Tsugaru strain.

Narugo kokeshi originated sometime in the Edo period at the Narugo Onsen. One of the most popular hotspring resorts in Tohoku, it's not surprising that these souvenirs flourished. Currently, more than 125 craftsmen help produce this style. No wonder there is a kokeshi festival focused on Narugo every September. Each year the best kokeshi from the Narugo festival are added to the collection of the kokeshi museum near Narugo, the Nippon Kokeshi-kan, which was started by kokeshi enthusiast Kaname Fukazawa.

Narugo onsen has a long history of wood craftsman, who made lacquerware as well as plain woodwork. The kiji-shi had long made toys for children, and their kokeshi were also made originally for children. Visitors to the resort purchased the figures as talismans for their own children.

The Narugo body seems the most quintessential dento style, solid and stable, slightly concave at the waist, with definite shoulders. A special planing technique called uterakashi was developed to help shape the bodies. The neatly rounded heads are just slightly ovoid. They are about the same width as the shoulders, so the proportioning has a secure, classic feel.

The painting of the heads also follows a standard pattern. The curve of the bangs follows the curve of the eyebrows. The side tufts of hair generally have three brush strokes. The pattern on top the head has a central black tuft or ponytail, artfully curved like a flourish in caillgraphy. On either side of this are red tegara patterns, somewhat variable in style, but also with calligraphic flair. Perhaps this style of ribbon-like ornamentation was borrowed from mizuhiki designs used on gosho from Kyoto.

The faces are understated, with small features that include single-lidded eyes and neko-bana noses. The lips are small, made with two minimal touches of the brush. Only red, black, and green color have been used on Narugo, though a few have the base colored yellow before the motifs are added. Very recent ones may have purple.

It is in decorating the Narugo body that the artfully wielded brush flourishes. Some are decorated with tsubaki (camellia,) with momiji (maple leaves,) and rarely, with ayame (iris) or botan (peony) flowers. Most common are the many variations on chrysanthemums. Some are double blooms, some are shown from the side, with a central curled petal, some are in a style called "waterwheel" chrysanthemums. These designs are wonderfully diverse and exaggerated in a variety of ways, such as vertical distortion, or near-abstraction. One, two, or many blooms are used to fill the front space of the kokeshi body creatively. All this style adds up, so that the Narugo kokeshi has been labeled the most sophisticated.

Focus on details: Narugo

Tsubaki (camellia) motif &
momiji (maple.)

Chrysanthemum variations. CM

Top of heads: red ribbon motifs like mizuhikis
Water-wheel chrysanthemums - CM
Concave waist, definite shoulders

Typical face: small face, neko-bana (cat nose) curved bangs, 3-stroke side tufts, one-stroke eye.

Left: Ginzan Onsen style with big eyes, simple chrysanthemums. -CM

Below: Top af head for Ginzan style.

Set of four nemariko: "seated" style

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