"Kokeshi Doll Exhibition"

by Mio Yamada

Staff Writer

CLASKA Gallery & Shop “Do”
Closes July 31

For a popular souvenir of Japan, the traditional wooden kokeshi doll has a surprisingly little-documented history. While it’s known that they were first made sometime during the mid- to late-Edo Period (1603-1867) in the northeastern region of Tohoku, their original purpose is unclear. They have been known to be used toys, bought as souvenirs of Tohoku’s hot-spring areas and it’s been suggested that they make good shoulder massagers.

Recently, kokeshi have experienced a bit of a comeback as a trendy icon. Their distinct shape of slim, cylindrical bodies topped with oversized, usually round, heads was the inspiration behind Nintendo’s Wii Mi characters. There have also been kokeshi-inspired bento lunch boxes, exercise weights, makeup kits and other products, and the U.S.-based online craft site Etsy has a wide range of customized kokeshi-style dolls.

Authentic traditional dento kokeshi, however, are still only made in one area: their birthplace of Tohoku. And the most common doll, called the Naruko, hails from Miyagi Prefecture, one the worst-hit areas in the Great East Japan Earthquake.

“Kokeshi Exhibition” is a collaboration between the Claska Gallery & Shop “Do” in Meguro, Tokyo, and Kokeshien, an organization promoting kokeshi and their craftsmen to raise funds for the reconstruction of Tohoku. While it is essentially a fundraising sale of dolls, it also offers the opportunity to see a wide range of kokeshi styles.

Though almost all the dolls have similar figures, there are in fact 11 styles of dento kokeshi. Made in different areas of Tohoku’s six prefectures, their variations in body and head shapes, hair styles and hand-painted designs indicate their source.

But it is perhaps the non-traditional dolls that are the most fun to see. Sosaku, creative-style kokeshi, developed after World War II, when craftsmen began to introduce unusual shapes, new colors and more modern decorative styles. Some of the cutest examples of sosaku and other non-traditional homemade kokeshi — including a tiny one wearing a top hat and another that looks a bit like an old-school mechanical toy — are those that have been lent to the show by a number of Japanese designers, magazine editors, writers and artists.

The majority of dolls on display, including a large selection of secondhand, hand-painted ones, are available to buy, and proceeds of sales will go to charity. (Mio Yamada)

CLASKA Gallery & Shop “Do” is open 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; admission free. For more information, visit or (Japanese only).