How Japanese Dolls came to Europe and America: 

A "Prehistory" of Japanese Dolls in the West

From 1639 until 1854, Japan's rulers controlled contact with other countries very tightly. The country's economy was mostly stable and nearly independent of exports and imports; only a very few traders, Dutch and Chinese, were allowed to approach the ports, or rather the one port which was a point of contact, Nagasaki.  In 1853-56, Matthew Perry led a U.S. naval expedition to force Japan to begin trading with America–and the rest of the world.
Prophetically, one of the items he brought back from these first treaty negotiations was a pair of Japanese ichimatsu dolls. They are jointed dolls, made entirely of wood, covered with glowing white polished gofun. The dolls were  an elegant gift from one of the the  Shogun's commissioners. 

I had an opportunity to see these two (survivors of a group of 13) dolls brought back by Commodore Perry, as part of a special visit to the Smithsonian storage complex arranged during the 1999 J.A.D.E. Convention. They are about 10" tall and are in poor condition, but the gofun lacquer is still beautiful. They are illustrated in Artifacts of Diplomacy by Chang-Su Houchins, Smithsonian contributions to Anthropology 37 (1995), p. 129; the description on p. 128 clarifies that they were part of a group of dolls given to the expedition by Izawa Mimasaka-no-kami in 1854; the dolls were noted as "naked dolls" in the Japanese records.

Already, however, at about the same time as Perry's expeditions, at least one Japanese play doll had found its way to Germany, perhaps through a Dutch trader. A German exporter from Sonneberg saw such a doll--in 1851 it is thought, perhaps in Cologne--and commissioned a sculptor to create the prototype of a European doll based on this Japanese doll. The result was a style  of doll called the "Motschmann-type" or Taufling doll. We can infer that the Japanese model was a  flesh-colored baby with glass eyes, cloth joints, and a device in the belly to produce a "ma-ma" sound when squeezed. It also probably had hands and feet that would turn in their sockets, and a gap between the big toe and the rest of the foot.  It would have been a much poorer quality than the elegant dolls brought back by Commander Perry, but it introduced into the Western doll world some new ideas.


The doll above is a Japanese ichimatsu (ca. 1900) of the type on which the German dolls would have been based, and the doll to the right is a "Motschmann-type" doll made in Germany in the 19th century, imitating the cloth joints and bellows "crying" design of the Japanese baby.

(Thanks to Judith Pannebaker for the image of this German doll.)

This doll had the proportions and look of a baby or child. It was light and cuddly, because of the warm papier-mache or composition and the soft cloth joints. It could be dressed and undressed, because of its mobility. Also, the child could produce a sound by manipulating the doll in a particular way. And it was cheap. It was a doll meant to be given to a child to play with and mother, not just to set on a shelf as an heirloom. It filled a need in a time when family size was beginning to shrink and little girls no longer had an endless stream of younger siblings to mother.

So we may say that the European play doll is in fact a direct descendent of the Japanese doll.

Starting in the 1870s, the Japanese themselves exported many of their own ichimatsu dolls to America and Europe. Although buldings, lacquer, furniture, and fabrics were more important items to display at the Worlds' Fairs and Philadelphia Centennial Fair, dolls were there, too. To judge from the materials I have seen, the European market was more likely to get deluxe dolls, while a cheaper type of doll, but still very charming, was common in the US. In fact, the "Jap doll" or "Jappie" was familiar enough to be introduced in advertising and magazine illustration, comic postcards, children's books, and so on.

Some of my own "Jap dolls." These probably date from 1890-1910.

Thanks to the following sources:

Shirlee Funk, "Ichimatsu," Ningyô Journal 6.1.

Amy Campbell, "Seeking Understanding: The So-Called Motschmann Doll," (1/2002, unpublished), and   online discussion of a Japanese doll--I think-- in the context of early German dollmaking. Amy's work was extremely helpful in understanding the chronology and the physical aspects of the Japanese-Motschmann relationship.

Miriam Firmanek-Brunnell, Made to Play House: Dolls and the Commercialization of American Girlhood (Yale University Press, 1993).

N. Harris, "All the World a Melting-Pot? Japan at American Fairs, 1876-1904," in Mutual Images: Essays in American-Japanese Relations, ed. Akira Iriye (Harvard University Press, 1975)