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5 Types of Traditional Japanese Dolls


You may be familiar with Japanese toys, whether they are transforming robots, stuffed animals, or figurines from pop culture. These days, shelves all over the world are stocked with products from the latest trending cartoon or movie. In the ages before trading card games and summertime blockbusters, other dolls took the spotlight. They may be simple by today’s standards, but they are no less loved.

The country’s flashy technology may have brought it much attention across the world, but their traditional crafts also deserve notice. Even without the convenience of modern tools, Japanese artists have made beautiful creations that survived into the modern era. Here are five types of traditional Japanese dolls that, while devoid of lights and sound effects, still serve to dazzle us all.

Kokeshi

traditional-kokeshi modern-kokeshi
Traditional kokeshi versus creative or modern kokeshi
Source: Wikimedia Commons

These adorable, limbless cylindrical dolls come in many sizes. Each doll is hand carved from wood, then given delicately painted faces along with a few designs on the body. While traditional kokeshi adhere to a particular set of patterns or shapes, other kokeshi are designed to show off the artist’s creativity, using many different colors or designs. This is a time-consuming craft given the fine details, and the wood also needs to season for 1 to 5 years before use.

Kokeshi have been around since the Edo period, and even today they remain as popular collectibles and symbolic icons of Japan. Many people today are familiar with the modern style of kokeshi, adorned with round, helmet-like hair and Japanese clothing.

Teru Teru Bozu

Resembling cute and harmless ghosts, these dolls are found around the house or hanging from trees. The term “teru teru” means shining or sunshine, while “bozu” means monk or boy. Given the doll’s shape, this is a fitting name. These are very easy to make, involving just paper or cloth, string, and some stuffing. Traditionally, farmers hung them as charms to ward off rain or bad weather. Children often sat around making these dolls and praying for a fine day so they could go outside. This was accompanied by a chant similar to our “rain, rain, go away” rhyme.

In the past, people would draw in the eyes if the charm worked, pour sake over the body, and then release it into the river. Popular since the Edo period, people still bring out these charming dolls to dispel inclement weather, though the faces are usually already drawn in. Next time you head out for a picnic or a ball game, why not try making one of these? Be careful though, if you hang one upside down, rain will pour!

Daruma

This squat, hollow doll may appear scary, but it is actually fashioned after Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism. Most of the doll is red, in reference to the red robes of high-ranking monks. As with many things in Japan, daruma dolls are rich in history and symbolism. They represent good luck and perseverance, making them popular gifts. The patterned facial hair is meant to resemble cranes and tortoises, which are animals renowned for their longevity in Asian cultures.

The daruma’s eyes are left blank on purpose. Once you receive or purchase one, think of a goal and then fill in one eye. As the daruma sits there and stares silently, he reminds you of your objective. After you have achieved it, fill in the other eye. Daruma are also found in a variety of children’s games, including a version of Red Light Green Light called “The Daruma Fell Over”.

Hina

Hina dolls are displayed during Hinamatsuri, a festival that takes place on March 3. The event is also called Dolls Day or Girls’ Day, and many dolls representing the royal Heian court are displayed as part of the occasion. The figures are placed on red platforms in a pyramidal shape, with each tier representing a different aspect of the court. The Emperor and Empress sit at the top, followed by attendants, musicians, ministers, and then samurai. Furniture and other belongings are also sometimes displayed. The dolls also used to be placed on a boat and sent down the river, representing bad spirits or hard times being washed away. The costumes and dolls are of great quality, and even a small set of Hina dolls can be very expensive.

Bunraku

bunraku

Source: Kate Nevens via Flickr

These dolls are actually puppets used in Bunraku, a form of Japanese puppet theater from around the 18th century. The finely crafted puppets take a long time to make, but pays off in the beauty of the intricate costumes and lifelike form. Some even have heads that can change expressions, or eyes that dart around. The ones who handle the puppets must be very skilled, and one puppet often has many puppeteers, each controlling a different part. The head is the most important, and much care goes into the design of each face and hair.

The puppets act out the play, accompanied by a single chanter voicing each part. Seated next to the chanter is the shamisen player, strumming out melodic music to set the mood. Bunraku has become less popular but is kept alive by the National Bunraku Theater in Osaka, and these special puppets continue to dazzle the audience to this day.

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