Ningyo: An Overview of Japanese Dolls, Part 4

B 33 Vintage boy ichimatsu

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.

B 34 Bunraku Japanese traditional performing arts

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.”

B 35 Karakuri Japanese mechanical doll

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 showing base with motifs

Karakuri ningyo with music box mechanism, showing base with motifs


B 36 Keue saiko Ningyo with wigs

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.

B 37 Mitsuori kneeling woman

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.

B 38 Three Geiko with a Doll 1938

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.

B 39 Japanese Boy Ichimatsu with Haori Better Quality 1

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.

B 40 Mitsuori Ningyo Boy Edo Period 2

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.

C A 28 dollhouse size play ichimatsue dolls

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.

B 44 Miss Tottori 1927 send-off party

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.

B 42 Japanese girls with blue eyed dolls

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.

B 43 Miss Wakayama by Hirata Goyo II

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.

B 45 Miss Fukuoka Full Dogu

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

B 46 BJD female

BJD girl

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).

B 47 BJD male nude

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!

B 48 Dreamland by Charles Deter Weldon

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.

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:

Make Japanese paper dolls:

Ningyo: An Overview of Japanese Dolls, Part 3


Author’s Kimekome ningyo, made on Okinawa in 1986 with the help of my Sensei

Display Dolls

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.”

B 22 Saga Ningyo mother with child side view 18th c.

Saga Ningyo mother with child side view 18th century. (Image from

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.

B 22 X Antique large Doji Ningyo, Photo credit Alan Pate

Antique large Doji Ningyo (Image from

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.

B 23 Japanese Kofuku-no-inori gosho ningyo c. 1820 Edo

Japanese Kofuku-no-inori gosho ningyo c. 1820 Edo

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).


B 25 Iki Ningyo fisherman attacked by kappa water demon

Iki Ningyo: Fisherman attacked by kappa water demon

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.

B 26 Isho ningyo modern depicting early 20th c. by Yuki Atae

Isho ningyo: Modern, depicting early 20th c. by Yuki Atae

Or, in modern examples, they may portray common life of an earlier time.


B 27 Kimekome ningyo

Kimekome doll showing the paolownia base, and the completed doll

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.


Kimekome doll completed by the author on Okinawa, 1985.


B 28 Isho ningyo two geisha musicians pre 1900

Isho ningyo: Two geisha musicians, pre 1900

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).

B 29 Traveler to Kyoto Costume Doll Circa Edo Period

Traveler to Kyoto Costume Doll, Circa Edo Period

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.”


B 30 Kokeshi


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.


Author’s kokeshi with okappa hairstyle in the made-for-tourist tradition. Purchased in Japan c. 1989.

Kokeshi are a popular souvenir for tourists to Japan, with the export dolls often having an added okappa hairstyle.


Author’s toy kokeshi,  purchased second-hand in Tokyo, c. 1989

B 31 Kamo Ningyo trio mid 1800's

Kamo Ningyo trio mid 1800’s

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.


B 32 Hakata

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.

A 6 1985 2 July 14 Fukuoka Japan Hakata doll factory

Hakata-ningyo at the factory in Fukuoka, awaiting display in the showroom.  Note the unpainted male figures in the left background.  Photo by author, 1985

A 5 Hakata Factory brochure inside

Brochure from the Hakata Factory in Fukuoka Japan, 1985.  Again, male figures dominate.

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.




Ningyo: An Overview of Japanese Dolls, Part 2

Antique 1900 photo Japanese boy and girl with Hina Matsuri display and Ichimasho doll

Notice the ichimatsu dolls on the right side by the boy in this circa 1900 photograph.

Ritual, Guardian, and Festival Ningyo

Hina-ningyo for Hina Matsuri (Girl’s Day or Peach Blossom Festival): Hina-ningyo, depicting the imperial court, are probably the best known to Westerners of all Japanese dolls. Hina Matsuri, celebrated on March 3rd, had its origin in the Heian Period (794-1192). It is a traditional custom to display ceremonial dolls on tiers of shelves covered with scarlet carpet. This is an auspicious day for purification, and parents celebrate their daughters’ happiness, growth, and good health.


Dairi-bina (Imperial Couple) and Court Ladies from author’s Hina Matsuri Display. The Imperial Couple are about 3 1/2″ tall.

In the years 1000-1600, there is intermittent evidence that paper dolls were made to play with or to give as gifts on the third day of the third month, the festival associated with nagashi-bina purification rituals.

By the 17th century, the dolls were probably being made professionally using rich cloth instead of paper, with complex heads, but by the end of that century, commoners also made the dolls so that their daughters could celebrate the third day of the third month with doll play.


Author’s Hinakazari (Hina Matsuri Display), purchased, already vintage, in Japan in 1989 and recently brought home from Connecticut to Oregon City.

Modern families often buy a new dairi-bina, or “imperial couple,” pair when the first daughter is born, adding to the display each year, while others pass down hinakazari (Hina display sets) from one generation to the next. In the past, it was common for new brides to take their set with them when they married. Many old  hinakazari still remain and hold importance to broader society as cultural treasures.

B 10 Tachi-bina pair Kyoto National Museum

Tachi-bina pair Kyoto National Museum

Tachi-bina (Standing Hina for Hina Matsuri): Tachi-bina can be made of paper at home. They are considered to be the earliest form of the dairi-bina displayed on Hina Matsuri. They represent a man (large, with outstretched protective arms) and a woman (smaller, armless), and are thought to echo the contrasting shapes of the amagatsu and hoko doll (shown below).  When made of paper or inexpensive materials, these ningyo are appropriate for the nagashi-bina purification ceremony, (also below) which is the ancestor of Hina Matsuri, in which dolls are touched or rubbed to absorb one’s sins, and then thrown into a river.  A single doll, used as a kind of proxy for the person being purified, is used for this ceremony in the Tale of Genji, (10th century classic Japanese literature) but modern nagashi-bina usually use pairs of dolls.

B 11 Hoko and Amagatsu pair

Hoko and Amagatsu pair

Hoko and Amagatsu (Talismanic forms to protect infants): The use of katashiro, or substitutes, in spiritual practice as stand-ins to take on the brunt of a person’s sins or misfortune played a role in the creation of hoko or crawling baby dolls. This is a guardian doll type, made by sewing a rectangle of cloth in such a way as to form four limbs, all of which point in the same direction. Hoko dolls have round stuffed heads, sometimes with long hair attached. They were traditionally given to pregnant women to protect the mother and unborn child. The dolls could be made for both boys and girls and were given to babies either at birth, or on special days shortly after birth. Boys’ dolls would be given up and “consecrated” at a shrine when boys turned fifteen, while girls would give up their dolls at marriage. Traditionally, hoko dolls were made of silk and human hair, and stuffed with cotton. Tiny hoko dolls remain a popular craft.

Amagatsu, or Heavenly Child doll, is mentioned in the Tale of Genji as a guardian doll for newborns, kept at all times with the child. The reference is thought to be to a cross-shaped figure, made by fixing wooden or bamboo rods in a T-shape to form a body and arms, with a cloth-covered head attached. The doll functioned as a kind of twin to the child, meant to distract evil spirits (meaning diseases) from its living counterpart. It would be burned when the child came of age.

B 12 Nagashi Bina

Nagashi Bina

Nagashi-bina is an event that involves dispelling impurities and misfortunes by floating dolls away on water. In earlier days this rite took place all over Japan, but the practice has died out in most areas. Only in Tottori City and Mochigase-cho in Tottori Prefecture does nagashi-bina survive today.

B 13 Nagashi-bina Festival in Mochigase-cho

Nagashi-bina Festival in Mochigase-cho

In this rite, dry straw is woven into a boat, which carries a pair of male and female dolls to be cast adrift in the river.

B 14 Koinobori Japanese Carp Wind Banner

Koi nobori

Musha-ningyo for Gogatsu no sekku or Tango no sekku, Boys’ Day: Boys’ Day (the fifth day of the fifth month) has a more complicated status than Hina Matsuri and does not require a doll display. The most important festive item is a banner or windsock in the shape of a carp (koi nobori), which is flown from a pole near the home; one fish is raised for each boy child. The carp is equated with virility because of the strength with which it swims upstream.

B 15 Musha-ningyo Warrior Dolls

Musha-ningyo Warrior Dolls

However, there are many dolls available to displayed on this day: Soldiers and great generals, legendary rulers, spiritual guides, and boy heroes with outrageous activities.

B 17 Daruma one eye painted

Daruma with one eye painted

Daruma dolls represent the Buddhist saint Daruma or Bodhidharma, who according to legend brought Zen enlightenment, and tea, to China and Japan. Legend has it that Daruma sat for years meditating, during which time his arms and legs atrophied, as well as his eyelids.

B 18 Daruma Vintage Gold-White Doll Japan

Daruma, Vintage Gold-White Doll, Japan

These Japanese dolls are paper-maché roly-polys which one buys with blank eyes so as to paint them in as one accomplishes some task (the first eye when one has formulated the goal, the second eye when it is achieved).

B 19 Daruma Burning

Daruma burning

Afterwards, Daruma are typically burned in a special ceremony. This custom may have originated as a thank-offering to the god for good Spring and Fall harvests; if he did not send a good harvest, he would remain blind or one-eyed. These dolls still perform a significant cultural function, and are purchased particularly at New Year’s, to assist in making resolutions.

B 20 Hagoita


Hagoita is not really a doll, but the padded images on it belong to the construction method of oshie-ningyo, or “padded-painting dolls.” Hagoita, like Daruma, are associated with the New Year. They are richly decorated game paddles, traditionally given as new year’s gifts to girls. The  game of hanetsuki is played with a feathered  large seed for a shuttlecock and a pair of hagoita. One side is painted, but the other side of the paddle is usually decorated with elaborate padded cloth faces of geisha or kabuki actors. As with Daruma, the old year’s paddles are supposed to be burned at the end of the year.

B 21 Okiagari Koboshi Pair

Okiagari Koboshi

Okiagari Koboshi can be translated as “priest who gets back up.” They are considered a lucky symbol of resilience. Traditional Japanese roly-poly toys date back as far as the14th century.

. . .

In Part 3 of this presentation on ningyo, Dolls for Display will be on focus.

Antique photo A Maiko with Hina Matsuri Dolls 1890s (2)

A Maiko (apprentice geisha) with large Hina Matsuri Dolls, 1890’s





Ningyo: An Overview of Japanese Dolls, Part 1

Japanese girl in kimono with Ichimatsu ningyo 1920

It is no wonder that Japan and its culture appear mysterious and exotic to Americans.  For over 220 years, the foreign policy of the Tokugawa Shogunate (the last feudal military government) barred nearly all foreigners from entering Japan, and the common people of Japan were barred from leaving the country. In 1853, American ships commanded by Matthew Perry forced the opening of Japan to American and Western trade.

Commodore Perry Dolls brought from Japan in 1852

Japanese dolls (three fold or Mitsuori) given as gifts to Commodore Perry in Japan, 1853

From the first trade negotiations, Perry brought back a pair of Japanese mitsuori dolls. However, a Japanese play doll had already made its way to Germany, perhaps by a Dutch trader in 1851, resulting in the German style of doll known as Motschmann or Taufling.

German Taufling papier mache circa 1851

German papier mache taufling, circa 1851

Japanese dolls, or Ningyo, have influenced western dolls since at least 1851, and perhaps earlier, as the thread doll form (keue saiku) were among the first ningyo introduced in the US in 1799 by American ships from Salem Massachusetts contracted to fulfill Dutch treaty obligations during the French Revolution period.

Thomas Nast Santa Claus with taufling-ichimatsu

Thomas Nast (German-born American) Santa Claus with taufling/ichimatsu doll.  Printed in  Harper’s Weekly 1881

Ningyo have fascinated Victorian Europe, and have continued to be mesmerizing souvenirs in America since more frequent contact with Japan after WWII. In order to understand the place of ningyo within Japanese culture, however, it is necessary to understand more about the culture of Japan.


Shinto is the native religion of Japan, though Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity are widely practiced there now, as well. Shinto involves nature worship, meaning that natural phenomenon such as sun, wind, trees, mountains, and water are considered as divinities. Torii, the traditional Japanese gates, are so popular in Japan’s culture that they have come to be known in the western part of the world as one of the characterizing features of Japan. The Torii is a gateway that signals the transition from the profane to the sacred, and is usually located at the entrance to Shinto, as well as to Buddhist, shrines, though it is also used to mark an area believed to have a deep spiritual meaning.

Tanabata Star Festival

Tanabata Star Festival

There are five sacred or holy days in the Shinto tradition. These auspicious days are January 1 (New Year), March 3 (Hina Matsuri or Girl’s Day), May 5 (Tango no Sekku or Boy’s Day), July 7 (Tanabata or Star Festival), and September 9 (Choyo or Chrysanthemum Festival).

Shinto is also animistic, meaning to see life in what we consider to be lifeless things. Dolls, therefore, have a deeply ritualistic meaning in Japan because of their ability to be surrogate human beings. “Ningyo” means human form, while “doll” is typically defined as a small human figure used as a child’s toy.


Dogu    The earliest recognizable dolls in Japan are prehistoric clay dogu figures, as old as 12000 BCE.

As ritual objects, ningyo are used as spirit vessels and votives for deities, as references to a particular person, child, infant, or unborn child, and can confuse malevolent forces, thus protecting children from danger and disease. Because of their sacred nature, ningyo are not merely disposed of; rather, they are given funerals at the end of their function with ceremonies concluding with burning the dolls or floating them away on water. (as we shall see . . .)

Just as western dolls are categorized in time periods usually corresponding to British ruling monarchs, ningyo are dated by Japanese imperial periods. In regard to antique ningyo, we are most concerned with Edo period through Showa period.

Periods of Japanese History

*  Early Japan (until 710)                                            *  Edo Period (1603-1868)

*  Nara and Heian Periods (710-1192)                      *  Meiji Period (1868-1912)

*  Kamakura Period (1192-1333)                                *  Taisho Period (1912-1926)

*  Muromachi Period (1338-1573)                              *  Showa Period (1926-1989)

*  Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1603)                *  Heisei Period (1989-present)

Categories of Ningyo

Japanese dolls can be categorized by the materials they are made from, such as cloth, wood, clay, or paper. However, it is much more enlightening to get to know ningyo within their place and purpose in Japanese culture. Therefore, we shall explore the dolls as Ritual, Guardian, and Festival Ningyo; Display or Appreciation Ningyo; and Play and Entertainment Ningyo, though these categories are also not clear cut. For example, the Ambassador or Friendship dolls are ichimatsu ningyo; however, they are obviously not play dolls. Rather, they carry a significant ritual purpose as ambassadors of goodwill, and they are intended for display. Likewise, kokeshi originated as souvenir dolls for display, yet they also have ritual significance, and some kokeshi seem intended as play dolls, as we see with the mini wobble headed dolls from my collection.


Author’s collection of miniature play kokeshi ningyo. The tallest doll is 4″.

In the next post, Part 2 of Ningyo: An Overview of Japanese Dolls, we will explore the first category listed above–Ritual, Guardian, and Festival Ningyo. (Bibliography will be listed at the end of Part 4.)


Ningyo: The Significance of Japanese Dolls


Early this month, I had the honor of presenting a program at the 2019 Mensa Annual Gathering in Phoenix, Arizona. This was an especially exciting event for me! Not only was it my first time to attend a Mensa Annual Gathering, or any event of this caliber, it was also my first time to stand up with a microphone in front of an audience to present! It was definitely a thrilling and gratifying experience. (And sometime I will make it to a UFDC {United Federation of Dolls Clubs} National Convention!)


My presentation was headed by an account of my experience living in Japan and seeking for a particular type of doll, as portrayed in my blog post, Beyond Oceans and Decades: In Search of Ningyo. The main body of the presentation was based on a program that I gave for my doll club, Antique Doll Study Club of Oregon, last summer.


Though the dinner-time audience was not a large one, the presentation was well received, and several attendees followed me to the Hospitality room, when we had to vacate the presentation room for the next program, so that they could view the dolls and reference books further and speak with me more.



One whole suitcase of dolls and books came with me for the display. They certainly added to the interest of the topic.


Now that the tension and excitement of this event are behind me, I am looking forward to sharing this program, Ningyo: An Overview of Japanese Dolls, Their Significance in Japanese Culture and History, and Their Influence on the Development of Western Dolls, with you. In the coming days, I will share this intriguing aspect of doll culture and history here, in several chapters of blog posts. Thank you for your interest and attention! Arigato gozaimasu!

Japanese girl in kimono with Ichimatsu ningyo 1920

Beyond Oceans and Decades: In Search of Ningyo


Author’s collection of ichimatsu ningyo

The pursuit of a doll can lead to quite a journey sometimes, in search of the doll itself, and of knowledge about the doll. A journey of this sort can take decades, and can encompass talismans that aid in finding that which is sought. This is the story of one seeker’s journey.

In 1984 I had the unique opportunity to move from Indiana to Okinawa as my husband graduated and accepted a teaching position with University of Maryland Asian Division. Another life-changing event occurred in the Spring of 1985 when, after three years of impaired fertility, I birthed my first son. Just five weeks later, in late June, the three of us embarked on a cultural tour of Japan with a U of M study tour. At this point, I didn’t think that life could get much better!


1985 7 July 19 Himeji Shinkansen Station Jonathan Jennie

Himeji Shinkansen Station, July 1985

The tour did include a visit to a doll factory, the Hakata ningyo factory in Fukuoka. While I found this visit interesting, I was not too excited about these dolls which, though beautiful, are stationary and all in one piece, more like figurines.

1985 3 July 14 Fukuoka Japan Hakata doll factory 1

Hakata ningyo ready to be placed into the salesroom

While it was relatively seamless for me to tote my young baby around and enjoy the tour (breastfeeding, of course!), it was necessary for me to spend a little extra time with him in our room each evening. On one of these evenings (as I found out the next morning), some of the other tour group members visited a nearby antique shop. One young woman had found an antique boy doll at the shop and was toting it around in her arms, as I toted my baby. I must say, I had more than a little envy that I did not have the opportunity to have found that doll! Yet, I consoled myself with my real little boy for whom I had waited so long.

1985 9 July 21 Ryoanji Kyoto Jennie Jonathan

Ryoanji, Kyoto, July 1985

After this tour, back on Okinawa, I was able to take a kimekome doll making class. These dolls, similar to the Hakata dolls, are stationary dolls to be admired rather than to be play dolls. I worked on several dolls in the evenings, in the seemingly few minutes that my son slept. This way, along with in-class time, I was able to complete several dolls for myself and for gifts. I also bought several more of the kits, which I still have, still in kit form.


A kimekome ningyo that I made as a gift for my mother-in-law. After her death, it came back to me, and now belongs to my daughter.


I am proud to have made this detailed kimekome geisha with the help of my sensei.

I never forgot the little antique boy ningyo that I saw in the arms of another, and continued to watch for one of my own. In 1987 we moved to the Tokyo area, and I had another son. Even though there was a doll district in Tokyo, I never made it there. Overall, dolls were not a big priority in my life at that time, and my presumption was that the dolls I would find there would be new rather than antique, and more of the stationary type I had already seen, like those above, or like the wooden kokeshi which are also commonly given as gifts.


Kokeshi ningyo are regional dolls from Tohoku in northern Japan. Those shown here are of the made-for-tourists variety. These dolls have the kappa hairstyle (defined below). Author’s collection


Here is a selection of small kokeshi that were made for the Japanese market. I found them at the weekly Salvation Army sale. They all have wobble heads. The tallest pointed hair kokeshi is 4″ while the tiny pair is a mere 3/4″. Notice the fabric-wrapped bun hairstyle on the mid-sized girls, and the shaved hair with hair tufts by the ears on the boys. This is Meiji era, or late 19th, early 20th c. and is earlier than the ichimatsu dolls shown below.

I did find some interesting second-hand shopping while I lived in Tokyo, including a weekly Salvation Army sale. One time I watched a worker unpack a whimsical small scale kimekome set of Dolls Day Hina Matsuri dolls in muted colors. As soon as she unpacked it, I bought it and she had to immediately pack it up again! (This set is still in Connecticut, so I cannot show you photos at this time.)

Japan Hina Matsuri display

Hina Matsuri, or Dolls Day festival on March 3rd, displays a replica of the court, and is perhaps the most well- known of Japanese dolls.

My life in Tokyo continued to include travel, in which I delighted. In 1989 I visited Nagoya and went to the famous Nagoya Temple Market. At one of the stalls there, I found a girl doll with moveable limbs and real hair. I didn’t know what kind of doll she was (a Bunraku puppet doll, I speculated, but there were no strings). I bought her.

1989 8 March Nagoya Temple flea market 2 Jennie Jonathan

Shopping at the Nagoya Temple Market in 1989. I am on the left with my first son.

The doll was not in the best condition, and I set out to restore her, even though I had no idea how. She smelled of moth balls and the crinkled satin-like fabric that connected her hard parts was deteriorating. Her right arm was hanging by a thread, showing the cotton batting stuffing inside. She was also missing her obi (the belt around the waist of the kimomo). I decided to hand wash her kimono in cold water, and realized that was a mistake! The fabrics began to bleed! I removed them from the water and spread them to dry, but the beautiful floral design on the dark blue kimono was permanenty damaged by my ignorance about how to restore the doll. I did patch the fabric on her arms, then admitted temporary defeat and packed her away in a wicker basket. Luckily, I had the foresight to buy a pink girl’s soft obi to replace the deteriorated one my doll had, and a vintage narrow obi as a substitute for the missing one.


This is the doll as she came out of her basket when I brought her home to Oregon from Connecticut in 2014.

This ningyo hibernated in her basket on her trip moving to the United States, in Washington for ten years, then in Connecticut where she was initially left behind, and finally came home to Oregon in 2014.

Now a lot has happened, any way you look at it, since I brought this ningyo out of Japan in 1991. At that time, I could not identify the type of doll she is, I did not know about her materials or construction, and I did not even know how to dress her or tie an obi. Over twenty-five years of internet innovation and doll research have made it possible for this sweet Ichimatsu ningyo to come out of hibernation and “breathe” again!


The doll parts in partially restored condition as I had left her since 1989. The wooden box on the lower right is her squeaker that is now in her tummy. It still works by compressing the front and back together.

The first “talisman” that I found with exciting clues about the nature of my doll was Antique Doll Collector magazine, October 2015, which offered an article on “Japanese Ningyo.” Finally, I was able to identify my doll as an ichimatsu ningyo with gofun (crushed oyster shell) covered parts. Thank goodness I didn’t try to clean her face, or it would have disolved! Other magazine articles, most notably by Japanese doll and antiques expert Alan Scott Pate, followed. Books on Japanese dolls, written for English speakers, which didn’t exist 25 years ago, and internet sources on kimono and tying an obi, are my next talismans, and have given me the confidence to finish restoring my ningyo.


The water damaged kimono and other parts of the doll’s original clothing, including the little pink soft obi that is faded and shredded.


The vintage orange adult narrow obi is at the top. Below is the padded cord that goes on top of the obi, then the doll’s faded soft obi. At the bottom is the new girl’s size soft obi that I bought while still in Japan.


The red fabric is an underskirt that goes on the doll before the kimono. The bottom shows the signature (of the doll’s artist) papers that are wrapped around the doll’s torso before she is dressed. I cannot read the kanji, so I don’t know her artist.


Here is my restored ningyo with new muslin fabric parts. The original pale green crinkled satin-type fabric is still on her arms.


My ningyo, restored and dressed. She is 20″ tall.

My ichimatsu ningyo is of the Showa era, or circa probably 1930’s. Her hairstyle is called kappa, meaning “cap” and is similar to western bobbed or pageboy hairstyles of the 1920’s and 30’s. Although she does not measure up to Alan Scott Pate’s “good” condition, I love her dearly because I found her, and I brought her back to life after all these years.


The boy ningyo. He is 14″ tall. Though Showa era, he may be later than the two girl dolls.

Although eBay has been around for many years, to my knowledge, it is much more recent that dealers in Japan have been offering items for sale internationally on eBay. There is a wide selection of ichimatsu and other ningyo now available to choose from. And choose, I did! I found a small boy doll who is at least similar to the one I saw in 1985–it has been so long, I can’t remember that doll’s details very clearly. And I brought one more girl, perhaps in the “better” category, and two babies into my family of ichimatsu ningyo.


My newest girl is also Showa era from the 1920’s or 30’s. She may be considered a “better” ningyo because of the quality of her kimono and facial detailing, and because her nails have indented detailing. She is 19″ tall.


These are gofun dollhouse size play dolls that come in a little basket with a lid. The okasan and otosan are 4″ tall. Author’s collection

The Japanese dolls or ningyo that I have shown you here are the ones that have touched my life the most, while I lived in Japan and afterward. There are many more types of ningyo, and ningyo feature prominently in many aspects of Japanese life, not just for children. I have shared my story with Japanese dolls here, yet I have not told you much about the history or characteristics of the dolls. Perhaps that will be another story . . .

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. Japanese Dolls: The Fascinating World of Ningyo. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2008.

Pate, Alan Scott. Ningyo: The Art of the Japanese Doll. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2005.

Stern, Itske and Anthony. “Wonderful Japanese Kokeshi Dolls.” Doll News, Winter 2015.


Japanese girl in kimono with Ichimatsu ningyo 1920

Japanese girl in kimono with kappa hairstyle and ichimatsu ningyo on her back, 1920




Knarls and Twists


My restored ningyo, found in Nagoya, 1989

Sometimes the knarls and twists of life just keep me from writing and sewing for the dolls. The past year has been full of twists, mostly good, that have kept me occupied away from my blog. It included a won trip to Hawaii, a move to a new apartment in a new city, a short trip to visit my son and his wife in St. Louis, and most recently, a 3 week bout of that awful flu.


My daughter and me on Hawaii, 2017

My apologies to my faithful followers for my inconsistent posting over the past year, and thank you to my new followers for your vote of confidence in my blog as a whole.

I have worked on a few doll projects over the year, and have taken some photos along the way. So now I am preparing a new blog post about a personal story and a long journey (literally and figuratively) to learning about Japanese dolls, or ningyo. I am hoping to have this post ready for you within the week–we’ll see if I can get some good photos in our near sunless Pacific Northwest climate at this time of year. Additionally, the Portland Crossroads Doll and Teddy Bear Show is tomorrow, so perhaps I will find a story there. Then, I have another doll restored and waiting to be dressed that I would like to share with you soon.


Doll restoration with a Kling shoulder head

I am offering my gratitude for all of your interest in my blog, and blessings for your health and prosperity in the coming year. Take joy in the beauty of antique dolls!  ~Jennie

Antique photo may 24 1927 Japanese dolls for American children

Ningyo being prepared to send to American children, 1927


Synchronicity and Art

Japanes Miroir-du-desir-woodblock-print-musee-guimet-paris-5-1024x530

Women in Japanese woodblock prints at Mussee Guimet. Miroir du Desir

I am constantly astounded by synchronicity in the way ideas present themselves into my sphere of being, even though I know that is how the universe works. I inevitably am reading three or four books of varying types at a time. Today, while resting my legs, I picked up Between Form and Freedom by Betty Staley,  which I have been reading for spiritual and practical ideas for working and living with my late-teen-years daughter. This book is written with the perspective of Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy or anthroposophy. It was serendipitous, after just posting about art, that the chapter I came to in my reading was about art. I want to share some excerpts that were particularly meaningful to me:

We live in a world that is splintered. The spiritual life is separated from scientific and artistic life. We classify knowledge and experiences into neat compartments, but the soul of the human being fights against such fragmentation and cries out for unity, for interrelationship. . . . Art is the healing remedy for fragmentation. . . .

Art becomes the saving grace for human beings cut off from their spiritual origins and suffering from the loneliness of the human condition. . . . When human beings feel whole once again, they are able to use their energy to enliven and transform social life. . . .

When we engage in artistic processes, we have a conversation with our inner being. We are not so concerned with the product of our work as with the process, which puts us in touch with the spiritual in us. In most activities of daily life, we respond to the outer world, but art allows us to awaken our inner eye and inner ear to imagination and inspiration. It helps us understand our thinking, feeling, willing and to gain insights into who we are and who we are not. It helps us explore the qualities as well as the quantities of life.

As [we] experience the many-textured levels of artistic process, the diverse ways of coming to an answer, the richness of metaphor in language, of rhythm and melody, of the living quality of form and space, [our] capacity for imagination deepens and [our] inner soul-space expands. A transformation of the common place stimulates [our] consciousness and sense of existence. . . .

When we create something artistically, we stand before a mystery, something unknown. We feel that  something alive is present and that we are the means for it to come into physical form. . . . [We] experience the artistic process as a time of quiet contemplation and communication. It resembles a conversation between lover and the beloved. This is the power of art. . . .

When the artistic approach is applied to the everyday world, to the dishes we eat from, the clothes we wear, the furnishings in our homes, we imbue our surroundings with beauty and care. . . . To make a well-formed plate of clay and take it though the entire process until it is ready for the table; to card, dye and spin wool, and then use it for knitting or weaving an article of clothing or household item; to make a bookcase or a chair; to print calligraphic invitations; to bind a book; to make a stained glass window; or to do any one of a variety of other crafts is a major accomplishment. . . .

The word craft once meant power or magic. It is not surprising, then, that those who take hold of a craft develop power in their lives.

Staley, Betty. Between Form and Freedom. Stroud, UK: Hawthorn Press, 1988.

writing by candlelight

These observations from Rudolf Steiner’s worldview that Betty Staley so aptly lays out illustrate the meaning of art and craft in my life. My home is significant and spiritually satisfying because I have infused it with artistic beauty. Antique dolls and Depression Glass are a considerable part of the heart and soul of my home. I have a deep sense of satisfaction, and perhaps of power, when I create something artistic; a handmade dress for an antique doll, a crocheted shawl made from soft natural fiber, a delicious and nourishing meal, a poem, a well written blog post. And I usually spend time in contemplation and communication with the physical form of what I have brought to life.


Hand sewing Mary Morgan’s 1860’s style dress.

Much more observation and contemplation could be written about the spirit and meaning of art and craft in our lives (and indeed has). I welcome your observations and comments here.


Spice Mice cookies on a Ruby Red plate.

Ruby Red

In the shop fluorescence frames

Substance of years past

In shades of daguerreotype

Until on a shelf, on paper doilies,

Gleaming abreast of crystal twinkle lights

I behold a red glass cup

Shimmering in that clutter of decades

Like a garnet embedded in a cavern wall

Millennia past compressed of primordial vegetation

A gemstone hiding in darkness

Facets beckoning to be sought.

The cup flows, curves like a womb

Lifeblood of grandmothers and great-grandmothers

Immutably setting tables with gossamer lace,

With Ruby Red glass

Boasting warm cookies, hot tea,

Tinkling sounds like echoes of laughter.

Rotund glass glows within from twinkle light

Embodied like an embryo

Fecund with viability, filial love, felicity

Apposing danger red, war red, depression red.

I take the red cup from its insipid shelf

Exchanging only a few paper bills and clinking coins

For its florid rubescence.

I take it home

To hold my hot tea, my laughter,

My flame

To glimmer like a garnet

On cotton lace.

~~ Jennifer Anne Stewart 1997

Royal Ruby cup Anchor Hocking