Monday, March 8, 2010

Hina-matsuri and Kokeshi Dolls in Japan

Each year, I have written a post about the Japanese Hina-matsuri Festival that occurs on the 3rd day of March and have included photographs of some of the magnificent Hina displays.

The Hina-matsuri which is a Doll Festival dedicated to good fortune for Girls is known as the Momo-No-Sekku or Peach Blossom Festival as well. Peach blossoms, white rice wine and Hishi-Mochi (special rice cakes) are placed on the stand where the Hina dolls are displayed.

The Hina dolls traditionally are displayed on shelf tiers covered with a red carpet from the end of February until 3 March. When a girl is born, she often will be given a set of Hina dolls by her grandparents or parents, unless she will inherit the Hina dolls that have belonged to her family for generations.

Hina dolls traditionally represent the Emperor and Empress as well as their court. The custom was established during the Edo period in the 17th-18th century and is believed to have its roots in an ancient Chinese ritual wherein paper dolls were floated down a river to banish any evil or illness from the body.

This year, as the Hina-Matsuri Festival occurred a week ago, I decided to write about Kokeshi dolls instead.

Kokeshi Dolls are a traditional form of Japanese folk art but not as old as the Hina doll tradition. They were created originally in the Tohoku region of northern Japan in the early 19th century and sold as toys or souvenirs to visitors of the famed hot springs or onsen of the region. Wooden dolls in general, however, represent a very ancient art form with spiritual significance. In ancient Egypt, wooden or clay figures known as ushabti were buried in tombs, believed to act as servants of the dead. Wooden dolls have been found in Japan from the Yayoi period, circa 300 B.C., demonstrating that carving human figures from wood was an ancient universal practice.
In some cases, these carvings represented figures of deities but in others they were votives offered to the gods with a wish for health or feritility.

Kokeshi dolls are carved traditionally either from cherry wood or a lighter wood named Mizuki. Mizuki translated is 'water tree' and is a moist wood believed to have the power to avert fire. Kokeshi dolls carved from mizuki wood often were kept in homes to protect those houses from fire.

the most traditional Kokeshi dolls are produced only in the six prefectures of Tohoku. They have round heads and cylindrical bodies. Floral and linear patterns to decorate their kimonos were passed down from generation to generation by Kokeshi makers and therefore instantly would provide the viewer with details as to the provenance of the Kokeshi.

Since the Second World War, however, a new Kokeshi tradition, known as 'Creative Kokeshi' developed and inspired a rich variety of wooden Kokeshi dolls. Although they retain the essential limbless form of traditional Kokeshi, they have emerged as highly individual, with carved hair, ornments and even added accoutrements such as umbrellas. Patterns of richly decorated kimonos often are incised into the wood and hair ornaments are common to these dolls. Some Kokeshi have been carved as a group scene, representing the 'spirit' of oysters or clams, for example.

Creative Kokeshi tend to be made in the Gunma prefecture and are created by artists who each have their own style and features. Now an established tradition for over half a century, individual artists famed for their Creative Kokeshi have set their own trends in this style of folk art.

Kokeshi dolls are part of my own childhood memories. I had an elderly great-aunt who had traveled extensively throughout Asia when she was a young woman. She was quite adventurous for her time and brought home many wonderful souvenirs for her three sisters, all of whom cherished these items but who never visited Asia themselves. I am not certain that the Kokeshi of my childhood actually came from this great-aunt but I do recall them vividly. My sister and I incorporated dolls and stuffed animals from many different parts of the globe in our miniature world and the Kokeshi dolls were involved in our doll palaces and townhouses in some capacity.

In some ways, the game Animal Crossing reminds me of my own childhood with its international treasures and toys. Matrioshka from Russia, tiny bisque dolls and cloth dolls from Germany as well as the Kokeshi all resided in or visited my childhood dollhouses.

The photograph at the top of this article shows a traditional Hina-Matsuri display of Emperor and Empress dolls. Below that, the photographs show Creative Kokeshi by Japanese artists Fujikawa Syoei, Okamoto Usaburo and Ogata Ritsuko, the widow of Ogata Michinori, a traditional Naruto Kokeshi artist.

The 'themes' of these Kokeshi are nature-inspired and the dolls have been given names that are evocative of a mood, season or flower. A very popular symbol is that of the 'Camellia' flower and you will see a Camellia Kokeshi named 'Hontsubaki' or 'Red Camellia' next to a photograph of the actual blossom. Other themes shown here are 'Passage' signifying the beauty experienced through travel, 'Omoi' or 'Desire' and 'Bakusyu' or 'Summer', a season known for the ripening of the Wheat and Barley to gold.

Ogata Ritsuko, who paints the Kokeshi created by her husband before his death, incorporates clever practical devices in her dolls, such as the ability to hold a letter inside (and even post it!) or a small charm to attach to a cellphone. Another artist has created bridal Kokeshi wearing a kimono that contains a scroll on which a poem or message to bride, groom or honoured guest can be inscribed.

Any art form based upon very simple stylised elements is fascinating. The way that an artist can change the entire mood of the figure by creating the eyes with a single stroke of a brush or by widening them or add richness to a kimono by incising stalks of grain into the actual texture of the painted garment is the basis of the styles that have made Kokeshi a popular collectible.

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