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On this page: 
Sites to start with
Nature of Ningyo
Books in English
Film Guide


This page was designed and is maintained 
by Judy Shoaf,
Please let me know if there is a link 
that is no longer valid, 
or one that you know of that should be added! 
and can't tell you about the value of your dolls. 

I began this page in Fall 1996, simply because I found that the Web was a wonderful, rich, cheap source of pictures and sometimes information about Japanese dolls, or ningyo (ningyou, ningyô), a subject that interested me. I needed a project for experimenting with Web authoring, and this seemed to me a topic which would be of interest to many. I have learned a lot as the site grew, and my little essays on the dolls have become longer. The Web has grown, also, and I can no longer hope to include links to all the sites which tell about ningyo. 

Welcome, and I hope you enjoy the many links you will find here! 

This site is intended for those who wish to learn more about ningyo. Its goal is educational, not commercial. Although I link to commercial sites which have pictures of dolls, I don't sell, appraise, or offer advice on selling dolls.

Some types of dolls I have NOT included are the Plastic Princesses (Barbie-type dolls, who fit nicely into the Japanese tradition of Beautiful Ladies), Anime dolls representing the cartoon literature of Japan, and electronic paper dolls (KISS), which are popular on the internet.

There are more and more Japanese sites which require a Japanese browser (and the ability to read Japanese!) which describe, illustrate, or sell dolls. I have included some such sites with wonderful photos, indicating that they are "Japanese text" sites.

Websites with illustrations of many types of ningyo:

Yokohama Doll Museum--Japanese Dolls is a wonderful illustrated primer showing the various types of dolls and the names they have been given.
The Kyoto National Museum has an online database with photos of many antique ningyo; search the catalogue for "doll" or, even better, "ningyo" or even "hina ningyo" or "gosho ningyo."
Field Museum in Chicago now has a site with examples and information for many types of Japanese doll, including kokeshi, gosho, and hina.
Japanese Antique Dolls is a beautiful website by an artist living in Japan, who has photographed her own extensive collection --several hundred of them, in many categories.
Jean Lotz's Wooden Dolls page--Jean is a doll artist who has become very interested in Japanese dolls. She has wonderful illustrations of all kinds of wooden Japanese dolls, with links and descriptions of how the dolls are made.
Yoshino Antiques Newsletter has an issue on Ningyo with an illustrated  history of the  development of various forms.
The International Doll Museum of Michael Cosgrove --a collection of several lovely Japanese ningyo of various types (as well as dolls from many other parts of the world)
The J.A.D.E. Pages are a great place to go to learn about Japanese dolls. Unfortunately, J.A.D.E. disbanded in 2004, and the website may disappear in 2006.

For more information about particular types of dolls, try the articles posted on these websites: L'Asie Exotique - Published Articles (Tim Mertel's Circa & Arts of Asia articles on warrior dolls, gosho dolls, and festival dolls) 
Alan Pate's Publications  on various kinds of antique Japanese dolls, including online articles and books for sale. 

 Other good link pages:
Japanese dolls --Shauwecker's Guide to Japan ningyo page. Information and links.

Japanese Dolls: Ningyô

  In Japan, over the past millenium, the making of human figures has moved comfortably between the talisman and the souvenir, the sacred object and the plaything. Dolls, for which the broadest term is ningyo (`written with two characters, meaning "human figure''), have a spiritual significance; they seal friendships, protect or purify those who use them, and help young girls and boys explore their roles in society. Their history also reflects the development of relgious and political ideas, and an economy of local crafts for export. They may be made of wood, reeds, paper, pottery, or even ivory, and dressed in the finest cloth, often woven or painted especially with appropriately tiny motifs. 

     There are several criteria for classification: materials (kamo = "willow") or method of construction (kimekomi = cloth "tucked in" a grooved base); distinctive shapes (kokeshi, tachibina, hoko); locality of origin or production (Nara, Saga, Kobe dolls); theatrical names (Ichimatsu, Takeda); names associated with festivals or other activities. Any one ningyo may be classified in all these ways. I will not be including all these types but only the ones I have found depicted at various sites on the Web.

     American interest in Japanese ningyo right now probably springs at least partly from the "geisha" dolls brought back by U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan in the 1940s and 50s. I remember seeing tall, elegant dolls in cases in the house of a childhood friend whose late father had been a naval officer. Fifty years later, many of these dolls are coming on the market and can be found at auctions and in antique shops.

The year 1000: A famous testimony to the use of dolls as protective devices, purification tokens, and playthings with elaborate houses, is the Tale of Genji of Murasaki Shibiku, written in the years 1000-1025. I have made a page for the ningyo in Genji.

The year 1944: The deep meaning of dolls in Japanese culture can be understood through the research of American anthropologist Ellen Schattschneider, who is studying the role of dolls in Japan's  military effort of World War II.  Dolls allowed civilian women to feel they were part of the war, and pilots to feel they were supported; and, later, allowed families to mourn the boys who had died without marriage and children. See Mystery of the Mascot Dolls.

Ningyo Lover's Movie Guide:
Looking for a movie that will tell you something about your ningyo? Try--
  • Takeshi Kitano's "Dolls." This story is set in a modern Japan of gangsters and pop stars, but its simple, tragic love story is designed to evoke the world of Bunraku puppet plays and the traditional sweep of the four seasons dear to Japanese art. The movie opens with a scene from a Bunraku play.
  • Akira Kurosawa's "Dreams" (Yume). The first episode shows a "fox wedding," which in itself can be a subject for ningyo representation. The second episode involves a magnificent hina-dan display which comes alive as FIVE complete (13-doll) sets which sing and dance for a child who weeps for a lost peach orchard.
  • Kenji Mizoguchi's "Life of Oharu" tells the story of a woman's life in the 17th century, encompassing an aristocratic maidenhood, true love almost leading to suicide, concubinage, marriage, nunhood, the life of a courtesan in the pleasure quarters and of the lowest of street whores. Oharu's period as a lord's concubine in Edo (about halfway through the film) culminates with the birth of a son; during this time, she attends a bunraku puppet performance emphasizing a wife's jealousy, which is brief but vivid, and gives birth in a room decorated by a gigantic Gosho doll and a treasure-ship.
  • Kurosawa's "The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail" is a one-hour film from 1946 which retells the famous story of the Kabuki play Kanjincho. This story, in which Benkei protects the hero Yoshitsune by disguising him as his servant and beating him, is a subject for doll tableaux. Benkei and Yoshitsune themselves are favorites in Boys' Day displays, and it is delightful to see them "alive."
Some books in English on Japanese dolls:
  • Alan Pate, Ningyo: The Art Of The Japanese Doll (Tuttle, 2005). This is a big, marvelously illustrated book on dolls of the Edo period (17th-19th century), which brings into English much scholarly information about Japanese doll history. The essays on individual dolls provide detailed information on theater, literature, politics, and economics--a reminder of why Japanese dolls can enthrall us as a window into a lost culture.
  • Lea Baten, Japanese Dolls: The Image and the Motif (Shufunotomo, Tokyo, 1986), the source of much of the information on these pages! 
  • Lea Baten, Identifying Japanese Dolls: Notes on Ningyo (Hotei Press, 2000).
  • Lea Baten, Playthings and Pastimes in Japanese Prints.  1995. Actual toys and dolls are shown along with prints from the 18th through early 20th centuries showing them in use.
  • Lea Baten, Japanese Folk Toys: The Playful Arts. 1992. Survey of the many special toys produced in various regions of Japan.
  • Gunnhild Avitabile, NINGYO: THE ART OF HUMAN FIGURINE Traditional Japanese Display Dolls from the Ayervais Collection, 95 pp., over 80 color illustrations, paper, New York, 1995. $30.00 (catalogue of an exhibition at the Japan Society, New York). This book was the result of collaboration with Japanese doll experts and has many wonderful insights.
  • Tokebei Yamada,  Japanese Dolls, Japan Travel Bureau (1955). A lively little book with information not only on the history of the dolls but on 1950's doll production.
  • Jill and David Gribbin, Japanese Antique Dolls --a beautiful big book with a good deal of information.
  • Luella Tilton Hart, The Japanese Doll, privately printed 1952. A small book I happened on in a sale, with a good deal of useful information.
  • Daruma Magazine often publishes articles on Japanese dolls.
  • Several of the newer books here are available through Paragon Book Gallery.