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An Introduction to Miyagi’s Traditional "Kokeshi" Dolls

This video is called ‘Tohoku STANDARD 07 Kokeshi dolls of Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture (東北STANDARD 07 宮城県 仙台こけし)’ made by Tohoku Standard (東北STANDARD), and it shows you Miyagi Prefecture's Traditional Kokeshi doll.

Miyagi's traditional Kokeshi doll has a long history. Its origins trace back to the mid-Edo Period (1603~1868). It was originally a souvenir from onsen hot spring towns in Japan's Tohoku Region.
There are five traditional Kokeshi dolls in Miyagi Prefecture: Naruko Kokeshi dolls, Sakunami Kokeshi dolls, Tohgatta Kokeshi dolls, Yajiro Kokeshi dolls, and Hijiori Kokeshi dolls. Their colors and shapes vary by craftsman.

The video introduces you to Kokeshi doll craftsman, Akira Suzuki from the Ganguan Kokeshi Doll Studio at the Akiu Crafts Centre at the Akiu hot springs in Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture. He has been working on the restoration of Enakichi Kokeshi dolls by Meiji Period craftsman Enakichi Takahashi.

In the interview, Akira Suzuki explains the characteristics of Kokeshi dolls and the tradition that he has been passed on.
Watch the video to enjoy the traditional Japanese culture that has been pass down for generations.

Sendai's Kokeshi Dolls

Image of Kokeshi doll
Photo:Kokeshi doll

Kokeshi dolls are popular wooden toys with a simple shape, generally consisting of a spherical head and a cylindrical body, which are used and sold for girls to play with.
The body is made in a shape that can be easily held by children.

One of the origins of the word, Kokeshi doll is said to be "Kohukeshi," a nickname for them in the Naruko region.
Kokeshi dolls have various regional names such as Kiboko, Deku, Kogesu and Hohko.
In 1940, at the first local meeting of the Tokyo Kokeshi Society, researchers and artisans debated on the name for the doll and finally decided on "Kokeshi."

The Kokeshi doll made by Akira Suzuki in the video is a Sakunami Kokeshi doll and it belongs to the category of Sendai Kokeshi dolls.

As seen from 0:33 in the video, the characteristics of Sendai Kokeshi dolls are their thinner lower bodies that can easily be held and the simple use of black and red colors.
In addition to traditional Kokeshi dolls, Akira Suzuki also creates pretty Kokeshi dolls such as Hyakuso Kokeshi doll shown from 0:57 in the video.

Some Kokeshi dolls are made using the traditional techniques and skills passed down through many generations and have maintained their original shapes.
Others have a more modern look to suit current tastes, with variations depending on people’s interests at the time of creation.

How Kokeshi Dolls Are Made

Kokeshi dolls use mainly Cornel and Japanese Maple as materials. It requires the skills of a master craftsman.

Production Step 1 - Tamakiri (Crosscutting) and Kidori (conversion)
Cutting the dry timber to the suitable length is called Tamakiri, while adjusting the shape of the timber suitable for use for Kokeshi dolls is called Kidori.
You cut the timber with a tool such as a saw, then make it into a cylindrical shape by cutting off the corners. This is the foundation of Kokeshi dolls.

Production Step 2 - Wood turning (~0:14
Set the head and body on the lathe and use a plane to shave the wood.

Production Step 3 - Finalizing the shape
Once the wood is ground to a certain shape, it is cut and shaped with a finishing planer called a "Bankaki."
Next, you use sandpaper to smooth the surface.

Production Step 4 - Painting (~0:41)
Using the lathe, draw lines on the body and add a face on the head carefully.

Production Stage 5 - Finish
Make a hole in the head and attach it to the body.

Other Information About Kokeshi Dolls

Image of Kokeshi doll painting experience
Photo:Kokeshi doll painting experience

In Naruko Onsen, where Naruko Kokeshi dolls are made, they hold the National Kokeshi Doll Festival.
Traditional Kokeshi dolls from nationwide gather at the festival, and a festival parade and Kokeshi doll workshops and sales booths are set up.

At Kokeshi no Shimanuki in Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture, you can buy various local folk art and crafts from Japan's Tohoku region. You can also try a Kokeshi doll painting workshop.
They sell various Kokeshi doll goods, such as Kokeshi doll in Can, which has a traditional Kokeshi doll packed in a can, and Akari Kokeshi dolls, whose bodies light up and can even be used in emergencies.
These items sold at Kokeshi no Shimanuki can also be bought at their online shops.

Other popular Kokeshi doll goods include local Kokeshi doll clips made of paper, masking tapes, Kokeshi doll key rings, and Kokeshi doll cakes. Kokeshi dolls with a Sendai Accent which is quite popular, and its postal stamps and LINE stamps are sold. Sendai dialect Kokeshi, a unique character that speaks in the dialect of Miyagi Prefecture, is also popular, and stamps and LINE stamps are also available.
The Sendai dialect variation is quite popular because the actress Satomi Ishihara uses it.

Summary of the Sendai Kokeshi Dolls

In the interview (~1:24), Akira Suzuki says, "You can’t keep the tradition alive just by passing it down. We conserve our tradition through innovation."

Kokeshi dolls have been popular as a children’s toy for many years. Nowadays, they are popular overseas as souvenirs and collectibles from Japan.
If this video has you interested in Tohoku Kokeshi dolls definitely visit the Nihon Kokeshi Doll Museum in Naruko Town.
We highly recommend it!
Mr. Akira Suzuki looks rather serious in this video's interview, but at the end of this 2 minute video you can tell he is full of love for Kokeshi dolls.
By the time you finish this video, we're sure you'll be a fan of Kokeshi dolls too!

【Official Website】Traditional Folk Art of Miyagi – Traditional Kokeshi doll - Miyagi Prefecture Official Website

Written By
Last Updated : Oct. 12, 2020
A writer who loves Japan
Kokeshi Dolls, With Their Cute Appearance and Expressions, Are Very Popular as Souvenirs and Collectibles Overseas! A Look at Kokeshi Craftsmen and Their Dedication to the Traditional Japanese Craft of Miyagi Prefecture
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