Japanese Samurai Dolls

Circa Fall 1989 issue

Text by Timothy Mertel
Photography by Nancy Hines
Courtesy of Honeychurch Antiques

A rich variety of fine, decorative and folk arts have come from Japan. The Japanese doll illustrates many aspects of these arts. This distinctly Japanese creation embodies the folklore and culture of Japan. Here in the West, we admire it as a decorative art, something exotic and regal from that complex country where so many of their everyday objects are admired for their artistic beauty.

Dolls have been created by various cultures around the world. Everyone is charmed by the human form in miniature. The Japanese samurai doll goes beyond this dimension to represent the meaning of being a samurai.

The samurai tradition is unique to Japanese history. As the venerated guardian of the people, the samurai is trained from birth to respect his birthright and attain the highest honors of his class. This class was next to the Imperial family in the strict social strata of Japan. The samurai class had the means to fund many arts. The utilitarian items designed for the samurai such as swords, armor and fittings were considered to be works of art. Many of Japan’s fine arts are based on samurai culture. This fact illustrates why "Bushido" or "Way of the samurai" is an integral part of Japanese society.

The Japanese sword has become the symbol of the samurai class and the most important element of a warrior’s make-up. A samurai without his sword was not a samurai. This fact explains why such high prices are being realized today for these metal blades of the past.

In the home of the samurai, swords are displayed on a special stand. Additionally, a samurai family will often display the treasured armor of an ancestor, complete with helmet and shoes. This tradition of displaying the accoutrements of a samurai exemplifies the great pride taken in being a member of this class.

The Japanese farmer or merchant would always graciously welcome and serve the samurai. This service was not performed out of fear but, rather, out of great admiration and respect for the samurai’s status. An ancient Japanese proverb states that the strong will protect the weak and, in return, the weak will serve the strong. This theme is frequently illustrated in Japanese art with the symbols of the tiger and the bamboo. The tiger protects the bamboo grove from predators and in turn bamboo serves the tiger by providing a perfect camouflage for the tiger’s lair. This major tenet of Japanese feudal society has existed for over 2000 years.

Samurai tradition is celebrated by way of a festival on the fifth day of the fifth month. This festival is called Tango-No-Sekku (first day of the horse) or, better known, as Boy’s Day festival. The earliest record of this festival is 730 A.D. when the roof of the Imperial palace was wreathed with iris leaves, symbolic of swords, and a grand horse race was held in the palace grounds. The festival is based on all manly virtues including courage, persistence, combat skills, filial piety and respect for authority. On this day the samurai class would display banners, armor and weapons in the foyer of their homes for the public to see. During the Edo period (1600-1868) these displays became elaborate and grand. It is during this period that the first samurai dolls were created and displayed.

The dolls, costumed in the finest silk and gold brocades, were model warriors outfitted in the supreme armor style of the earlier Kamakura period (1185-1333 A.D.). Their full suit of armor was crafted of lacquered plates of paper laced together with silk cord and details of repousse metal decorative mounts. All details were true to an original suit of armor, including the corresponding helmet or ceremonial cap. The doll was even outfitted with all the appropriate weapons including short sword and long sword - complete with removable blades - tiger fur sheaths, and shark skin hilts.

The dolls themselves were crafted out of straw, wire and wood with the head showing the most remarkable craftsmanship. The heads were either carved of wood or molded of sawdust around a wire pin. They were then dipped in countless layers of gofun (crushed oyster shell paste) to create the milky white complexion so admired by the Japanese. This surface was carved and burnished to provide a slight sheen and the subtle facial features were deftly painted. The hair was inset with actual human hair combed and arranged in a traditional samurai hairstyle. The dolls of the Edo period range in size from 12 to 36 inches in height, proportionate to the swords and other military accoutrements displayed.

The earliest examples of samurai dolls trace back to the mid 18th century. These pieces were only commissioned by the Samurai class, thus making them quite rare today. During this period there was no general contact with the world outside of Japan. Figures in Japanese history and folklore were exalted to superhuman proportions. These early dolls were based on the heroic figures whose exploits are the material for Japanese literature and folk tales.

The most popular figure in Japanese history is Minamoto Yoshitsune (1159-1189 A.D.). As the youngest of the Minamoto, or Genji, clan he was destined for the religious life. He set out on his own at a very young age and was known throughout Japan as a fierce and cunning warrior of noble birth.

Yoshitsune is known for leading the great battle of Dan-No Ura (1185) in which he defeated the Taira clan. His downfall came at the age of 31 when he was escaping the pursuit of his jealous brother, Yoritomo. Yoshitsune defended himself brilliantly but upon his realization of imminent defeat he executed his wife and children and then committed ritual suicide (seppuku).

To the Japanese, Yoshitsune represents the brave fearless warrior who persisted with bold determination in battle. He started at a very young age and became an important folk hero revered for his stupendous valor. Yoshitsune dolls are easily identifiable. They are regally dressed with a youthful countenance. His distinguishing emblem is the dragon which is displayed on his breast plate and helmet.

Another folk hero venerated during Boy’s Day is Empress Jingu. She is often depicted with her faithful minister, Takenouchi-No-Sukune. The Empress was the wife of the fourteenth Emperor of Japan (192-200 A.D.) and is famous for carrying on her husband’s expedition to Korea after his death. She conducted herself in the true manner of a military leader with the help of her faithful minister. Takenouchi-No-Sukune is known for his great loyalty to the Emperor and Empress and is said to have lived for over three hundred years. While in Korea, Empress Jingu gave birth to a son, Ojin, who became known as the God of War.

Jingu dolls are always costumed in samurai armor with her long hair tied back from her face. She is usually portrayed in a standing position. Her minister is the only elderly figure portrayed for Boy’s Day. He has long facial hair and a wrinkled face in a seated or kneeling posture usually holding a swathed child in his arms.

One figure rarely displayed in the Japanese Boy’s Day displays was Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582 A.D.), the famed shogun of Japan. Bold and persevering, Nobunaga rose from the ranks of a petty daimyo to the highest honors of the empire. He put an end to the civil wars that had been ruining his country for more than a century. With his reputation for flamboyance in dress, Nobunaga dolls are generally costumed in vibrant and elaborate clothing, consistent with his foppish nature.

A contemporary of Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598 A.D.) is one of the greatest role models in Japanese history. Of low birth he rose, by intelligence, to the first rank. He was a dutiful servant of the Imperial family, known for his political cunning rather than his combat skills. He is a popular figure for a Boy’s Day festival, although not as popular as Yoshitsune. Dolls depicting Hideyoshi are rare, with his identifying attributes being a great gourd banner and the winged cap of a shogun.

The most impressive Boy’s Day dolls created during the Edo period are those crafted by the Takeda Theatre in Osaka. This doll manufacturer specialized in portraying legendary characters in Japanese history in animated poses with dynamic Kabuki style expressions.

Popular figures such as Hideyoshi, Benkei, Soga-No-Goro, Kato Kyomasa and Takenouchi-No-Sukune were generally depicted in a broad stance with one foot on a tree stump and the other extended forward. Crafted of wood, these dolls were outfitted in the finest fabrics. Typically silk crepe and velvet were used with beautiful brocades and elaborate embroidery on the sleeves.

Although these dolls are extremely rare, fine examples can still be found today. There is no Japanese doll that compares with the dynamism of the Takeda doll. An important identifying feature of a Takeda doll is the base on which the doll stands. Due to the animated posture, a sturdy box-shaped base was needed to support the doll. The front side of this box was decorated with an embroidered panel. This stand will often have been altered over time, but it is a sure indication that the doll is an authentic Takeda doll.

It is believed that these 19th century dolls originated from the art forms of the Kabuki theatre, Bunraku puppetry and mechanical dolls. All are art forms that were extremely popular in the Osaka area and for which the Takeda theatre was famous. Some later imitations were made, but they cannot compare with the original dolls crafted by Takeda.

In 1876, during the Meiji Restoration (1868-1911), the right of the samurai class to bear arms was abolished. This mandate drastically brought an end to the feudal society that had existed for centuries. Japan became obsessed with industrialization and catching up with the prosperity of the industrialized world. The tradition of the Boy’s Day festival lived on, becoming a ceremonial celebration of the male child. Flying carp banners and elaborate warrior dolls with weapons were displayed in Boy’s Day festivals of this time. The festival became widespread across all classes, its primary purpose to imbue young boys with the samurai spirit and to remain in contact with the pure Japanese heritage.

During this time the samurai doll became even more elaborate for the wealthy patrons. The doll became the ultimate in perfection of the model samurai. Dolls of this period have eyes which were inset with glass pupils and extremely neat and detailed hairstyles.

Through these modifications the principal Japanese warrior doll for Boy’s Day lost his identity. He no longer was an identifiable figure in Japanese history, but became the ideal vision of the perfect samurai: handsome, young, orderly and well armed. In no circumstances was the doll meant for play. It was revered as a mesmerizing deity to inspire the young boy to honor the samurai morals of the past.

The dolls from the Meiji period are much more abundant today than earlier examples. Since the festival had national popularity, a variety of quality levels of samurai dolls were created. The most beautiful were the dolls for the wealthy who could afford the finest examples. All Japanese wanted to keep their heritage alive, especially with all of the influences of the outside world now thrust upon Japan.

Knowing the history and importance of the samurai dolls, we can begin to understand the emotions and connotations these images provoked in the Japanese people. These dolls were not just decorative objects, but important symbols of the Japanese samurai of the past and the code of ethics by which he lived.

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