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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)