Japanese dolls

Japanese doll of a courtesan

Dolls (人形 ningyō, lit. "human form") are one of the traditional Japanese crafts.

There are various types of traditional dolls, some representing children and babies, some the imperial court, warriors and heroes, fairy-tale characters, gods and (rarely) demons, and also people of the daily life of Japanese cities. Many have a long tradition and are still made today, for household shrines, for formal gift-giving, or for festival celebrations such as Hinamatsuri, the doll festival, or Kodomo no Hi, Children's Day. Some are manufactured as a local craft, to be purchased by pilgrims as a souvenir of a temple visit or some other trip.


There may be a continuity in the making of the dogū, humanoid figures, by the ancient Jōmon culture in Japan (8000-200 BC) and in the Haniwa funerary figures of the subsequent Kofun culture (around 300-600 AD). Expert Alan Pate notes that temple records refer to the making of a grass doll to be blessed and thrown into the river at Ise Shrine in 3 BC; the custom was probably even more ancient, but it is at the root of the modern doll festival or Hinamatsuri.

In the early eleventh century, around the peak of the Heian period, several types of dolls had already been defined, as known from Lady Murasaki's novel "The Tale of Genji". Girls played with dolls and doll houses; women made protective dolls for their children or grandchildren; dolls were used in religious ceremonies, taking on the sins of a person whom they had touched.

Hōko (though not explicitly mentioned in "The Tale of Genji") were soft-bodied dolls given to young women of age and especially to pregnant women to protect both mother and unborn child.[1] Sources mentioning them by name start appearing in the Heian period, but are more apparent in the Muromachi period.[2]

Okiagari-koboshi are roly-poly toys made from papier-mâché, dating back to at least the 14th-century. They are good-luck charms and symbols of perseverance and resilience.

Probably the first professional dollmakers were temple sculptors, who used their skill to make painted wooden images of children (Saga dolls). The possibilities of this art form, using carved wood or wood composition, a shining white "skin" lacquer called gofun made from ground oystershell and glue, and textiles, were vast.

During the Edo period (about 1603-1867), when Japan was closed to most trade, there developed both fine dollmakers and a market of wealthy individuals who would pay for the most beautiful doll sets for display in their homes or as valuable gifts. Sets of dolls came to include larger and more elaborate figures, and more of them. The competitive trade was eventually regulated by government, meaning that doll makers could be arrested or banished for breaking laws on materials and height.


It was during the Edo period that most of the traditional dolls developed.

Hinamatsuri dolls of the emperor and empress
Mechanical karakuri ningyō for bringing tea
Bunraku puppet during a play
Wooden kokeshi dolls

With the end of the Edo period and the advent of the modern Meiji era in the late 1800's, the art of doll-making changed as well.


  1. Pate, Alan S. (2005). Ningyo: The Art of the Japanese Doll. Singapore: Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 9781462907205.
  2. Law, Jane Marie (1997). Puppets of Nostalgia: The Life, Death and Rebirth of the Japanese "Awaji Ningy?" Tradition. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 35. ISBN 9780691604718.
  3. Tsutomu Kawamoto (June 2007). "Nishiki-e depicting Iki-ningyo". National Diet Library Newsletter (155).
  4. Louis Frédéric (2005). Japan encyclopedia. translated by Käthe Roth. Harvard University Press. p. 379. ISBN 978-0-674-01753-5.
  5. Alan Scott Pate (2008). "Iki-ningyō: Living Dolls and the Export Market". Japanese Dolls: The Fascinating World of Ningyo. Art and Design Series. Tuttle Publishing. pp. 142154. ISBN 978-4-8053-0922-3.

Further reading

Media related to Dolls from Japan at Wikimedia Commons

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