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Lessons we can learn from an exchange of dolls

by

Special To The Japan Times

Civil society in the United States responded swiftly and loudly to President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily halting the flow of people from seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees from everywhere. Americans took to the streets and airports in protest. Cornell University, where I teach, issued a statement declaring the order “fundamentally antithetical” to the university’s principles.

The relative silence in Japan has been notable. Perhaps that is because the restrictions were said to be temporary, or because they did not apply to Japanese citizens. Or perhaps it is because it is hard to imagine that protests in a faraway place can have any effect.

Yet I have learned that creative citizen action can have far-reaching and long-lasting impact, even if it is sometimes less than direct.

One hundred years ago this month, the U.S. Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917. The law was intended to keep out broad categories of immigrants, including those who were illiterate, indigent or mentally ill. It also barred entry to people from wide swaths of Asia and the Pacific.

Japanese and Filipinos were exempted, but seven years later President Warren Harding pushed through an even stiffer measure, the Immigration Act of 1924, which extended the restrictions to citizens of Japan.

The Japanese government protested, as did many American citizens and civil society groups. When it became clear there was little chance of changing the minds of the president or Congress, a man named Sidney Gulick decided to turn his attention to the next generation.

Gulick, who had spent 25 years in Japan as a Christian missionary, arranged to have 12,000 dolls sent as gifts from American children to their Japanese counterparts. These “blue-eyed dolls” were manufactured in U.S. factories and dressed in clothing made by hand by the children and their families. Gulick hoped they would foster friendship between the two countries’ future leaders.

They were received in that spirit. Welcome ceremonies were organized, and the dolls were distributed to kindergartens and elementary schools throughout the country.

Eiichi Shibusawa, a renowned industrialist and a friend of Gulick’s, was determined to reciprocate. At his urging, every schoolgirl in the country was asked to contribute 1 sen (a hundredth of ¥1) toward the production of Japanese dolls to send to America.

Unlike Gulick’s offerings, the 58 “ambassador dolls” were not toys but art objects, made by skilled craftsmen, costing the equivalent of six months’ salary for an average male worker. Each represented a Japanese prefecture or colony. They were sent with much fanfare and were welcomed throughout the U.S., where many ended up in museums. I recommend Hiroaki Koresawa’s book “Aoimenoningyo to kindai Nihon” (“Blue-eyed Dolls and Modern Japan”) if you are interested in learning more.

Over the last 40 years there has been a resurgence of interest in the doll exchange. Numerous voluntary associations have been formed to foster citizen-level exchanges between Japan and the U.S., including return visits by the Japanese dolls to the places they ostensibly come from.

The doll that ended up in Rochester, New York, represents Nagasaki. Its return visit in 2003 inspired a broad-based group of Nagasaki’s citizens and community leaders to form an association dedicated to cultural exchanges between the citizens of the two cities.

Soon the association expanded its scope, embarking on a project to build a school in Cambodia. The group also began working with Kids’ Guernica, a Japan-based movement that promotes peace through children’s art. It has sponsored the collaborative creation of numerous murals by schoolchildren in Nagasaki and elsewhere, and has organized an outdoor exhibition on the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki each year.

This year, to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the original gift, a series of events will be held in Tokyo, Nagasaki and Rochester to explore the contemporary significance of Gulick’s disarmingly simple idea.

As the curator of the events in Rochester, I have given that a lot of thought. For me — an immigrant, a teacher, a father and a promoter of international education — it boils down to the enduring power of exchange — of people, of art, of ideas, of empathy and of hope for a better future.

Hirokazu Miyazaki is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University and director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies. His latest book is “The Economy of Hope.”