Japan's worldwide image these days is connected more to modern technology and the country is seen generally as an origin of various sought-after items of regular consumption ranging from motor cars to video games and animation films. Despite the economic slowdown followed by a prolonged impact of corona virus pandemic hitting the country badly, Japan is still regarded as a major center of global innovation. And in terms of the advancement in scientific and technological development, the country is among one of the tops in the world.

However, the island nation also has many traditional aspects dating back to more than a millennium and many of those are attracting the attention of people from other parts of the world as well. In performing art, Kabuki and Noh stage shows are regarded as supreme examples of refinement of traditional culture providing entertainment to an audience from home and abroad transcending the barriers of time. Temples and shrines dotted around almost every corner of the country also tell a lot about an age-old tradition that represent artistic excellence linked to the heritage of the past. In each of those fields, whether it is production of consumer items or building facilities for public use, the artistic skill or craftsmanship applied in the process of their making is something that had been handed down from generation to generation, and thus preserving the originality while refining the techniques being applied. This minute perfection is evident in all items produced in the country; be it small items like wooden dolls or robots that are being used in industrial production or in service sector.

The art of making kokeshi wooden dolls is a not an old tradition that goes back to the early days of Japanese history. Compared to various other craft cultures like lacquer ware or ceramic products, kokeshi dolls are relatively new inventions. However, despite the lack of a long historical root, these wooden dolls could also make a breakthrough in overseas markets as a sought-after gift item from the land of the rising sun. Relatively simple but attractive design with kimono-motive exterior paintings bring essentially Japanese touch in those wooden dolls that makes them popular gift items in France, Italy, and some other countries.

Kokeshi wooden dolls traditionally represent little girls carved on wood and originally are from Tohoku region of north-eastern Japan. Their early appearance dates to late Edo period or early 19th century. These wooden dolls have identical cylindrical bodies, rounded heads, and colorful designs, and were regarded in the past as toys made for children. Currently they serve more as decorative pieces and hence in design as well kokeshi dolls have gone through stages of transformation. Their production center also has shifted southward from Tohoku region and currently Gunma Prefecture is regarded as the main center where kokeshi dolls are made. Gunma accounts for almost 70 percent of sosaku or creative kokeshi produced in Japan. Producers these days are no longer bounded by tradition and this allows them to experiment with new designs and motives in the process of production. As a result. comic characters like Miffy and few others also making their appearance in kokeshi motives.

Usaburo Kokeshi, located in Shinto village of Gunma Prefecture is one of the most well-known producers of kokeshi wooden dolls in Japan. Their products are well received in Japan and abroad and currently the company makes around 130,000 kokeshi dolls annually and exports the products to 18 countries around the world, Italy being the largest importer.

A recent visit to the main workshop and factory allowed the team of a Tokyo-based foreign journalists getting a better understanding of the production process of this traditional hand-made items where artisans these days are also using some of the modern techniques. However, painting and shaping of the dolls remain in the expert hands of artisans who give finishing touch to most sought-after items. Usaburo Okamoto, the founder of Usaburo Kokeshi started manufacturing kokeshi dolls in 1950 and his small studio subsequently has grown to be the largest producer of kokeshi dolls in Japan. During his lifetime he was also involved in extensive research focusing on prevention of cracks appearing on the wood. He also developed a technique of carving and baking to create a three-dimensional effect and introduced lathe technology in shaping the wood to a desired form. Wood used in making kokeshi dolls are carefully selected and dried before they are used to make dolls.

The company is currently headed by Yoshihiro Okamoto, grandson of the founder of Usaburo Kokeshi. Being a third-generation representative of the family business, he himself is a trained artisan who had learned the technique of making kokeshi dolls as a family inheritance.

As in many other craft cultures, kokeshi doll making also has some elements in its origin of which researchers are still not sure about. A popular theory suggests that these dolls might have been used in the past as substitutes for unwanted babies who were killed at the birth. Infanticide in Japan was not uncommon in old days and wooden dolls might have been made in memory of children who were sacrificed because of poverty and starvation. Others argue that the dolls were invocation of deities of fertility and good harvest. Whatever it might have been in the past, this culture of making wooden dolls have survived and has been refined to make products that are seen uniquely Japanese in present day context.

(Tokyo, April 11, 2023)

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