To quote Alan Scott Pate, “In many countries dolls are closely associated with children and playtime. In contrast, a significant part of Japan’s doll culture involves dolls made specifically for adults and designed for display rather than for play.”
Saga-ningyo, the most refined aesthetics of Edo ningyo: Saga-ningyo are the rarest and most sought after antique dolls in Japan, rarely represented in foreign collections. The base is carved wood with the head, and often the hands, formed separately. Clothing is formed with a sophisticated technique of applying lacquered colors.
Many styles of Saga-ningyo were created; however, the most sought after are the “doji” style of a kneeling boy acolyte often holding an animal such as a dog or a bird.
Gosho-ningyo (Palace Dolls), A Celebration of Youth: Gosho-ningyo are closely associated with the imperial culture of the 18th century. They were gifts that conveyed auspicious wishes within the imperial family, and to visitors in recognition of tributes to the emperor.
The Gosho dolls are noted for representing rotund boy children, often wearing a haragake bib, and often in parody of popular culture. Their format of one-third proportions and white spherical elements echoes Buddhist ideals. Gosho-ningyo are made of clay or wood or composition covered with gofun (oyster-shell paste).
Iki-ningyo: Literally “living dolls.” In the Edo era they were used by various traveling performers and at temple fairs. Their realism and the content of the display were often violent and shocking.
Or, in modern examples, they may portray common life of an earlier time.
Kimekome: This is a traditional method for crafting dolls starting with a base carved of Paolownia wood. The garments are made by gluing padded fabric to the base and tucking it into the seams cut in the wood. Hina and Musha ningyo can be made of Kimekome, and kits are available for crafters to complete.
Isho-ningyo: Fashion Dolls and Popular Culture of the Edo period. “Isho” means fashion or clothing. Usually standing, these dolls are mounted on a lacquered base. They depict every imaginable topic from kimono fashion, to hit plays on the Kabuki stage, Seven Gods of Good Fortune, and they overlap with musha ningyo, warriors from the past (as seen in Part 1 of Ningyo).
Textiles are the main focus for isho-ningyo, and Japan’s weaving technology in silk brocades, silk and cotton velvets, gauze, hemp, and satin, can be found in the costumes of these dolls. Alan Pate’s latest article in Doll News, Summer 2019, focuses on this doll form. He aptly notes, “[Isho-ningyo] represent a uniquely Japanese form of doll–one infused with all the beauty and mastery of refined doll art, but additionally layered in history, lore and social values. They are fabulous windows to a long-ago world, but one that comes to life again when one gazes at the lustrous white gofun faces, admires the rich silken brocades, and ponders reflectively the stories they tell.”
Kokeshi Cylindrical Wooden Dolls, or “Poppy-seed Child”: These primitive style lathe turned wooden dolls originated in the cold north of Japan in the hot-springs area of Tohoku, and were made as souvenirs. They could also be used as offerings to gods, possibly depicting children who have died.
Kokeshi are a popular souvenir for tourists to Japan, with the export dolls often having an added okappa hairstyle.
Kamo-ningyo: Most likely originating in the mid-18th century, these are small (about 3″) wooden dolls inspired by the daily life in Kyoto. They have applied textiles and minimalist facial features. While little known to the outside world, they are one of the most collected of early dolls in Japan.
Hakata-ningyo: These are clay figures which blur the lines between doll and sculpture. Known for depicting elegant women, they are made exclusively on the southern island of Kyushu and centered in the town of Fukuoka, where the clay is easily available.
Part 4 of Ningyo: An Overview of Japanese Dolls will continue with Dolls for Entertainment and Play, and with the Bibliography and For More Information.