Traditional kokeshi ningyo are Japanese dolls with a colourful history and controversial reputation. They have been associated with miscarried babies and infanticide. They were guardians of children and keepers of their souls. Today, the word kokeshi is a sexual innuendo due to the phallic shape.
Kokeshi were originally souvenirs for Japanese tourists and offered entertainment to children but developed into something much more. The dolls are fascinating, shocking, sad or mundane depending on the perspective. click below to read on..
If I bring up the topic of ‘kokeshi’ in Japan, the younger generation usually respond with a smirk. Traditional dolls do not have arms or legs, but a long body and oversized head. This has led to ‘kokeshi’ being used as a euphemism for a sex aid.
During the Edo period, kokeshi were the guardians of children and keepers of their souls. The dolls would watch over their child owners as they grew up and keep them from harm.
Naruko type kokeshi have a head which can be twisted to create a squeaking sound to imitate a child crying. The dolls were perhaps images of children themselves.
On coming of age, as the child grew into adulthood, the young soul would enter the doll and the adult soul would continue on. The ritual burning of the figure ensured the soul was freed and carried by the smoke back to the mountain from whence it came. For this reason, antique kokeshi from the Edo period are extremely rare.
Perhaps the idea that a child’s soul could be carried in a doll provided some solace to for mothers who miscarry. To display a doll in the household shrine along side photos of other passed relatives would ensure the child was not forgotten.
It is possible to separate the word kokeshi into two parts: ko (child) and keshi (a conjugation of the verb kesu meaning erase). This led to the speculation that the figures could have been used as memorial objects for women who, in times of great hardship, had to resort to infanticide. In Japan’s history, infanticide has been known in times of poverty.
In fact, the etymology of the word has nothing to do with ‘erasing’ children at all, but is the company name of a manufacturer. Despite this, the idea of kokeshi as symbols of lost children rose in popularity during the 1960s when abortion became more accessible and a contentious issue in Japan.
Something which started as a commercial fad and children’s toy eventually evolved into something symbolic. Although, these days they are not as popular as they once were among Japanese. The most popular hot spring souvenir now is probably sweets. Kokeshi can be found in antique fairs and flea markets and are objects for collectors.
I usually stock a few in my shop. Stop by and take a look.