Welcome, friends! Recently, while researching for an article about Barbie dolls, we noticed a scarcity of Japanese Barbies. Intrigued, we decided to delve into the rich culture of Japanese dolls. How did our ancestors view dolls? How do traditional Japanese dolls evolve through centuries? With this article, we invite you to uncover the fascinating world of Japanese dolls. At the end of this article, we’ll also share a carefully curated selection of beautifully crafted Japanese dolls.
Dolls in Japanese Words
Japanese dolls, or “ningyō,” are an integral part of the country’s culture, representing a wide spectrum of symbolism and tradition. The term ningyō, which translates to “human shape,” echoes the dolls’ intimate connection with human life in Japan.
Far from being mere entertainment or decorative items, Japanese dolls often work as a substitute for humans in cultural rituals. Their presence in rites related to fertility, the afterlife, purification, and home blessings underline the profound symbolic significance of ningyō in traditional Japanese culture.
History of Japanese Dolls
The Very Beginning: Jōmon Period
The origins of Japanese dolls, or ningyō, stretch back to the earliest days of Japan’s history, specifically to the Jōmon period. This era saw the emergence of a thriving pottery culture. Known for its distinctive cord pattern, or “jōmon,” the period gets its name.
Among the various pots from the Jomon period, archaeologists have unearthed a significant number of doll-like forms known as dogū. These primitive figures, decorated with cord patterns, are characterized by simply formed heads, torsos, arms, and legs.
The dogū are often androgynous or distinctly female in appearance. Some of them are depicted seated in what seems to be a birthing position, while others feature distended bellies with small clay balls inside. Till now, dogū bearing overtly male characteristics are not found.
While scholars generally link dogū with fertility rituals, their exact function remains elusive. The widespread presence of dogū throughout Jōmon society and the discovery of sites containing over a thousand figures underlines their substantial significance within a ritual context. Despite their mysterious origins, these dogū are the earliest discovered form of ningyō in Japanese history.
Used in Ritual Ceremonies: Kofun Period to Nara Period
The Kofun period marked the use of another ningyō form, the haniwa, in funerary rites for nobility. These clay figures varied in representation, ranging from humans, horses, ceremonial items, to structures, providing invaluable insights into the dress styles, personal ornamentation, and religious rites of the period.
The custom of using haniwa was allegedly initiated by Emperor Suinin, who sought alternatives to the gruesome practice of burying alive the personal attendants of the deceased. Haniwa figurines gradually evolved into sophisticated martial figures, echoing the ritual substitution role of the ningyō.
After haniwa, tumulus-style burial practices dwindled with the introduction of Buddhism. These burial practices led to the rise of the katashiro, a more minimalistic ningyō form. Despite their rudimentary design, katashiro played significant roles in repelling disease and malevolent influences.
Over time, the nademono appeared, used in purification rituals to transfer or purge impurities and evil elements. These paper dolls were rubbed over the body and then ritually destroyed or set adrift. Ancient Japanese believed these movements could erase negative elements or send them away.
The Flourishment: Heian Period
During the Heian period, Japanese dolls maintained their ritual emblem role. Hiina dolls, in particular, were believed to absorb evil spirits, protecting young girls from harm. This protective symbolism extended into the Hina Matsuri, also called “Doll’s Day” or “Girls’ Day.”
Although the “Hina Asobi” or “doll play” looked like children’s play, it functioned more than entertainment and ritual representation. As young girls engaged with their dolls, they internalized and reflected upon the social structures of the Heian court. Through arranging and interacting with these dolls, girls were subtly introduced to their expected roles in society, understanding rank, and hierarchy.
According to Alan Pate’s “Ningyo: The Art of the Japanese Dolls,” hōko dolls also started to show in the Heian period. These soft-bodied dolls were traditionally made from silk, human hair, and cotton. They were mostly given to pregnant women as protection for both mother and unborn child. The family could also give hōko dolls to their children at birth or on special days in their lives.
Creative Explosion: Edo Period
The Edo period is when the creation of Japanese blooms. There are many types of Japanese dolls created in this period.
One of the dolls created is the isho ningyō. Wearing paper or fabric clothes, they often depict themes from traditional Japanese arts like noh and kabuki, as well as scenes from ordinary life. A famous subtype of isho ningyō is the ichimatsu ningyō. The ichimatsu dolls got their names from the 18th-century kabuki actor Sanogawa Ichimatsu. These dolls, created in his likeness, became quite popular, similar to today’s idol figurines. Over time, ichimatsu ningyō evolved into dolls that could be dressed up, mainly portraying young girls in kimonos with bobbed hair.
Tsuchi ningyō, meaning “clay doll,” is another kind of Japanese doll created in the Edo period. Fushimi ningyō is the first tsuchio ningyō, according to the post by Public Relations Office of Japan. It was made from clay near Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto. These dolls then served as a model for the creation of other clay dolls across Japan, including hina dolls, gogatsu dolls, and kabuki actor dolls.
The Edo period also witnessed the advent of paper daruma dolls, representing Bodhidharma, the meditating Buddhist monk. These dolls, initially created as good luck charms for prosperity or to ward off misfortune, quickly spread across Japan. Today, they remain a popular Japanese souvenir, along with beckoning cat dolls.
A Bridge with the West: Meiji Period to Taishō Period
The art of doll-making in the Meiji era (1868-1912) and Taishō era (1912–1926) responded to the increasing contact with the West.
Miniature figurine dolls crafted from clay and porcelain demonstrated new Western dress styles and toys. Even the mechanical dolls, “karakuri ningyō,” which had been popular during the Edo period, began to wear Western frocks and bonnets in a nod to Western influence.
This is a karakuri doll created in France in 1890. We can see the astonishing facial expressions and movements.
The Taishō period saw the introduction of the bunka ningyō. These dolls, with their large round eyes and heart-shaped mouths, depicted Japanese children in Western dress. They differed from traditional Japanese dolls in that they were made for play, not merely for display. They could be cuddled and easily packaged, offering more flexible ways for girls to play with dolls.
Besides, high school girls of the later Taishō period widely embraced a kind of doll named “furansu ningyō” (French dolls) as room decorations. These silk-mask-faced dolls were initially designed by Kamimura Tsuyuko, who got inspiration from French dolls during her travels in Europe. During the pre-war, these dolls maintained their names as furansu ningyō, honoring their French inspiration. However, with the onset of war, their name was changed to Sakura Ningyō, perhaps signaling a shift towards a more nationalistic sentiment.
Japanese dolls have continued to evolve into the modern era, with a diverse range of dolls now available that showcase Japan’s rich culture and multi-aesthetics.
One modern Japanese doll that has made a significant impact is the Licca-chan doll. Launched by Takara (now Takara Tomy) in 1967, Licca-chan quickly became a beloved character among Japanese children and remains a popular toy today. Akin to the American Barbie, Licca-chan, however, embodies more of a typical Japanese girl image.
Asian ball-jointed dolls (ABJD) are another notable trend in modern doll-making. Commercially produced by a Japanese company, Volks, in the late 1990s, they have since gained popularity in Japan, South Korea, and China. These dolls are characterized by their jointed limbs that allow for flexible posing. A unique aspect of ABJDs is the high degree of customization, enabling collectors to engage with the dolls more creatively.
Of course, we cannot ignore garage kits when speaking of modern Japanese dolls. Hobbyists crafted their figures out of clay, made silicone-rubber molds from the sculptures, and reproduced them using materials such as vinyl, PVC, resin, or epoxy in a method known as cold casting. Initially, these kits were homemade and circulated within tight-knit fan communities. Although they are not traditional Japanese dolls, they have evolved into a professional industry and stepped into the global market.
These modern incarnations of Japanese dolls, ranging from Licca-chan to garage kits, exemplify Japan’s inventive spirit and a deep-rooted appreciation for meticulous craftsmanship.
Our Selection of Japanese Dolls (Ordered by Time Period)
Late Heian period: Tin soldier Museum Samurai Warrior
Produced by Silver Dream Studio, this tin figure is sculpted to a 1:18 scale, standing at approximately 90mm. Each component of this piece is crafted using high-quality tin alloy, exuding durability. Every intricate detail is skillfully painted using acrylic and tempera colors, enhancing the authenticity of the historical representation.
Edo period: Antique Laughing Buddha Doll
This rare, hand-carved doll of Hotei is the Japanese Buddha god and one of the “Seven Lucky Gods.” Crafted from wood and adorned with Gofun, the doll’s intricate details, from hand-painted features to finely modeled body, exude authentic Japanese craftsmanship. Dressed in a brocade kimono, this antique artifact is a fascinating piece of history and a treasure for collectors.
Meiji Period: Japanese Court Lady with Dog
Exuding handcrafted elegance, the doll features inlaid glass eyes, a brass and glass headpiece, and a linen dress. Accompanied by a long-haired dog, the court lady is set upon an ebonized and gilded wooden base, backed by a stylized spider print screen. Despite minor chips and cracks, this antique treasure offers rich and intricate detailing.
Shōwa Period: Japanese Gosho Doll
Invite luck and prosperity into your life with this charming Gosho doll from the 1980s. Dressed in a red bib and golden court hat, the doll holds a big fish, embodying Ebisu, the Japanese god of fisherman and luck. Despite surface imperfections, this 7-inch doll emanates joy, serving as a thoughtful token of celebration and an essential piece for any enthusiast of Japanese culture and lore.
Heisei period: Japanese Noble Woman
Step back into old Tokyo with this flawless 1990s Japanese doll. Representing a lady from a wealthy merchant class family, the doll is bedecked in a refined peach and ivory kimono and an obi tied at the front. Her porcelain face features glass eyes and her resin hands replicate the traditional gofun material. Adorned with kanzashi in her hair and holding a richly painted hand fan, this 22″ tall doll is an exquisite piece for discerning collectors.
Dolls hold a unique place in Japanese history and culture, transitioning from ritual to recreational objects. We’ve traced the journey of Japanese dolls from primitive dogū to sophisticated hōko dolls, inventive Sakura dolls, and beyond. These miniature marvels, rich in symbolism and steeped in tradition, bear testament to Japan’s enduring craftsmanship. As you explore the wide array of Japanese dolls, remember to appreciate the stories they tell and the passion that’s been sewn into each detail. After all, every Japanese doll is a piece of history waiting to be cherished.
If you want to learn more about Japanese traditions and fashion, welcome to our “Japanese Fashion” and “Historical Fashion” channels. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions or ideas~ We are always here to exchange brilliant thoughts!
Gerbert, Elaine. “Dolls in Japan.” Journal of popular culture 35.3 (2001): 59.
Japan Government Public Relations Online. The History and Culture of Japanese Dolls. Published Online, 2022.
Kyburz, Josef A. “” Omocha”: Things to Play (Or Not to Play) with.” Asian folklore studies (1994): 1-28.
Pate, Alan Scott. Ningyo: The art of the Japanese doll. Tuttle Publishing, 2013.
Pate, Alan Scott. Japanese dolls: the fascinating world of Ningyo. Tuttle Publishing, 2012.
Saitō Ryōsuke. Nihon no omocha. Minzoku mingei sōsho 46. Tokyo: Iwasaki Bijutsusha, 1969.