Dolls for Entertainment and Play
While all of the ningyo are invaluable to collectors of Asian art, it is the play dolls that are most endearing to doll enthusiasts. “Huggable” dolls, made for and played with by children, carry that undeniable charm of a childhood from long ago, or one in progress right now.
Bunraku theater puppets. Note black hooded puppeteers who do not show up on the stage during a performance.
Bunraku-ningyo or Theatrical Dolls for Puppet Theater: Although there are several types of puppet or theater dolls in Japan, Bunraku puppets are perhaps the most complex and layered, and are considered as one of the most sophisticated doll forms in the world. The puppets are themselves of simple construction with loosely attached limbs for great mobility, and detachable heads for interchangeability. Their depth and mystery comes from how they are transformed on stage. Puppeteers wear all black with hoods to manipulate the puppets on stage, sometimes with as many as three operators per puppet. They transform the inert doll magically in great dramas of emotion, power, pathos, agony, heroism, and loss. To quote Alan Scott Pate once more, “Such is their extraordinary sense of vivacity onstage, that to see them on their stands, inert, after a performance it is difficult to believe that they are actually inanimate.”
Karakuri Mechanical Doll with western clockwork mechanism
Karakuri-ningyo or Mechanical Dolls: Just as with the European automaton, there are dolls in Japan that can move by means of strings, hand cranks, and knobs, for home entertainment. Some are simple, such as a karakuri gosho figure who lifts his arms to don a mask. Some are more complicated tableaux. Many of these are divided into four categories: musicians, transformations, animal scenes, and performers. The facades of the bases depict longevity motifs such as cranes, turtles, bamboo, and pine.
Karakuri ningyo with music box mechanism, showing base with motifs
Keue Saiku doll with many wigs
Keue Saiku: Almost all of the keue saiku depict animals, so could be classified as gangu, or toys, rather than ningyo. However, the interchangeable wig doll falls within this category. The figures portray at once a sense of whimsy and profound realism. “Saiku” means fine workmanship, and “keue” means thread planting, indicating the creation of these toys involved fine crafting by individually inserting silk threads in the figures.
Mitsuore-ningyo illustrating the way in which the doll can fold its legs to kneel in the Japanese style.
Mitsuore-ningyo or Three Fold Dolls: Mitsuore, as well as ichimatsu, are also called daki-ningyo or huggable dolls, and are meant to be held and dressed. This is a style of doll that is more familiar to gaijin, or foreigners. This doll, introduced in the late 18th century, was an expensive toy doll with a technically complicated structure. It is pliable with cloth upper arms, easily dressed for a change of clothing. Because of the hollowed out backs of the thighs, this doll can stand, sit, or kneel.
Three Geiko (higher-level apprentice Geisha) with a Doll 1938
As well as being play dolls for children, the daki-ningyo were also popular with geisha (“arts person”) and maiko, (“dancing child” or apprentice geisha). This is evidenced by images in woodblock prints and photographs in the mid-Edo through Showa periods. This type of photo became a populay souvenir for tourists after Japan was opened in 1853.
Ichimatsu Boy from author’s collection. His hair is painted on.
Ichimatsu-ningyo: While still holding artistic appeal, these are truly huggable play dolls depicting children of about six or seven years of age with their bendable fabric portioned limbs, and often a squeaker in their mid-sections.
Mitsuori Ningyo Boy, Edo Period. Of note is the shaved hairstyle of the period with longer hair in front of the ears.
Most early ichimatsu, before the Friendship Dolls of 1927, depicted boys. These dolls are individually artist made from molded parts covered with gofun, with some being more artistically rendered than others. A paper bearing the artist’s signature wraps the torso before the doll is dressed.
Ichimatsu from the author’s collection. Note the two babies in the front of the photo.
Ichimatsu depicting younger babies and miniature play doll families are also made as children’s toys.
These miniature dollhouse sized ningyo are from the author’s collection. The okaasan and otosan are 4″ tall. They come in a little basket with a lid.
Miss Tottori: Photo from the 1927 send-off party (Sending from Japan to USA)
Torei-ningyo, Friendship or Ambassador Dolls: The most famous of the ichimatsu-ningyo are the Friendship Dolls who were sent to America in 1927 after 12,739 department store variety “Blue-eyed” dolls were sent to Japan the previous year as an overture of goodwill following discrimination of Japanese citizens in the United States.
Japanese girls holding blue eyed dolls sent to Japan in 1926 from American children
Whole volumes have been written about these dolls and their experience as they have come back into the public awareness since the 1980’s.
Miss Wakayama by Hirata Goyo II
They are each 32″ tall, dressed in exquisite furisode (long sleeved formal kimono), and were accompanied with stands, accoutrements, accessories, a passport, and a ship ticket.
Miss Fukuoka/Gunma Full Dogu
These highly artistically rendered dolls are the starting point of the Japanese Art Doll Movement. 45 of the original 58 dolls are now accounted for, though they are not all identified correctly, as their stands and accessories were mixed up in their early touring of the United States. Miss Fukuoka/Gunma resides at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, Oregon. Please click on the link below in “For More Information” to experience Alan Scott Pate’s 2014 lecture (69 minutes) on the Japanese Friendship Dolls at the Schnitzer Museum
BJD Dolls: No overview of Japanese dolls can be complete without a mention of the wildly popular among young people today, BJD (ball jointed dolls).
BJD nude male
The Volks company is one of the outstanding creators of these highly detailed dolls, often with the popular Japanese “anime” look.
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Ningyo of Japan serve significant cultural roles as ritual, guardian, and votive objects, as art for admiration, and as entertainment and toys for adults and children. Though dolls of Japan have been collectible as art in the west since the late 19th century, collectors of antique dolls are just beginning to discover the beautiful, “kawaii” ningyo. Kirei desu ne!
Dreamland by Charles Deter Weldon circa 1883
For More Information:
Kaonis, Donna. “A Visit with the Herrings.” (Japanese Dolls) Antique Doll Collector, October 2015.
Kita, Terry. The Sun Shines For Us All: The Friendship Dolls From Japan. Valparaiso, IN: Valparaiso University, 2015.
Pate, Alan Scott. “Good, Better, Best: Evaluating Japanese Ichimatsu Dolls.” Antique Doll Collector, March 2017.
Pate, Alan Scott. “Courtesans and Heroines: Japanese Fashion Dolls from the 18th Century.” Doll News, Summer 2019.
Pate, Alan Scott. Japanese Dolls: The Fascinating World of Ningyo. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2008.
Pate, Alan Scott. Lecture: Japanese Friendship Dolls. Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, February 4, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBNGH2mno5A
Pate, Alan Scott. Ningyo: The Art of the Japanese Doll. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2005.
Stern, Itsuke and Anthony. “Wonderful Japanese Kokeshi Dolls.” Doll News, Winter 2015.
Stewart, Jennifer Anne. “Beyond Oceans and Decades: In Search of Ningyo.” Blog Post: https://quintessentialantiquedolls.wordpress.com/2018/01/27/beyond-oceans-and-decades-in-search-of-ningyo/
Make Japanese paper dolls: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=in38zVtiiZI