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On this page: 
Fashion dolls
Theatrical dolls
"Geisha" dolls
Links to pictures

The following pages are an image-intensive essay on the dolls representing Kabuki themes:
The Onnagata
"Geisha Dolls"
Oiran and Onnagata
Dancing with the Spring Horse
Fuji Musume
Shiokumi: Legend, Play, Doll

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that is no longer valid, 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! 

Beautiful Ladies, Famous Actors

   The 18th and 19th century produced in Japan an art, Ukiyo-e,  representing the "floating world" --ephemeral, repugnant to Buddhist philosophy, but dear to the hearts of young men and essential to the economy and society of feudal Japan. This was the world of the Kabuki theater, with its favorite actors and their fans, and of the geisha and oiran, whose brothels became salons for elegant social intercourse as well as lively sexual intercourse.
   Dolls were certainly loved by the geishas themselves, and were as fashionable as all their other pastimes. The name now given to a doll representing a child, Ichimatsu, comes from the name of an actor, and the first dolls of this type represented a male actor in his checked ("ichimatsu") costume. 
   As the floating world floated away in the 20th century, doll art commemorated the beauties and beloved dramatis personae of the Ukiyo.

Names for this type of doll include:

  • Isho-bina or isho-ningyo: costume doll
  • Ukiyo-ningyo: floating world doll
  • Oyama ningyo: doll representing a female Kabuki role
  • Kyoto ningyo: Kyoto doll (since the beautiful fabrics produced in Kyoto meant that the best such dolls came from there)
  • Sakura ningyo: cherry blossom doll (for the silk-faced dolls)
  • To which we might add: Noh ningyo, Kabuki ningyo, and Takeda ningyo, dolls representing particular theatrical roles.
Fashion dolls

   Fashion dolls have been produced since at least the 18th century in Japan; dolls representing the activites of daily life, Ukiyo or "the floating world."  Such dolls may be called isho ningyo (or isho-bina), "costume dolls" representing various aspects of daily life, humble as well as romantic.
     This type is usually fixed in a pose on a platform; they are sometimes referred to as Kyoto ningyo, according to Gribbins, Japanese Antique Dolls.
   Among the dolls of this type were some that had wigs--either a wig shop of which the doll was proprietor, or wigs for a doll, male or female, meant to represent an actor changing characters (including a man playing a woman). A common souvenir set in the 1960s was a small wooden doll with a set of 6 wigs and explanations of the different hairstyles appropraite to a young girl and woman at different stages of her life; these were sold both in Japan and in the U.S.

Is this remarkable figure a sakura-ningyo, an oyama ningyo, an isho-bina? Click on the photograph to find out more (photo essay--heavy on graphics!).


"Geisha dolls"
    These days one often sees in antique malls these tall, willowy Japanese ladies in elaborate silk kimonos and coiffures; the skin is usually of painted silk and the hands are wired to grasp a helmet, a drum, a branch of wisteria, a puppet, or a set of big red hats. Often they are in glass cases. There are many variations: male dolls, elaborate or not; gofun-covered faces, or more recently finely-made plastic or porcelain faces and hands; round, broadly smiling faces instead of the more mysterious long oval of the classic Geisha. Some dolls may even have rooted hair and eyelashes.
     These dolls usually represent a particular dance or type of performance: the "Wisteria dance" from Kabuki, the samisen player in her quiet-colored kimono, the bride with her shite hat, and so on. sometimes, however, they do evoke the social categories of women devoted to entertainment, the geisha, maiko, or oiran.
     Dolls of this type with hard gofun, gypsum-lacquer, or even plastic faces with inset eyes might be called Oyama dolls (a word that in fact refers to the actor in Kabuki theater who portrays a woman).
    The silk-mask-faced geisha dolls were first designed by Kamimura Tsuyuko, a woman who had travelled in Europe and got the idea from French dolls; before the War, they were called Furansu (French) ningyo, but during the war were renamed Sakura ningyo, "Cherry-Blossom Doll".  They were a popular home craft, made from kits, and were also marketed by companies (Nishi, Kyugetsu). Most of the dolls of this type found in the U.S. now were produced after World War II, and found a ready market with military personnel who brought them home.
  Note that in the 1950s and 60s dolls were made using similar techniques but dressed in Western apparel, or with big anime-style eyes suggesting Western influence. These might also have been called Furansu or Sakura dolls. 
Theatrical Subjects
  Some of the oldest Japanese dolls are the Nara ningyo, carved figures which represented actors in sacred dramas and were shrine souvenirs. 
  As I have noted on the Bunraku page, the relationship between puppets and dolls is close.  The wildly posturing Takeda ningyo--see Lotz doll page for an example--are related to another form of puppet theater, and recall the woodblock prints of Kabuki actors.  On the other hand, the Oyama and Sakura ningyo draw subjects from various Kabuki plays, but the heroines are represented as women, not as the male actors who would play the roles on stage.  The girl with the buckets, the girl with the wisteria branch, the dancer with a spring horse, with butterfly wings or with seven "hats"--all these represent traditional dance and theater themes. 
      A Gosho child could also represent an actor or dancer--compare the 19th century example, Gosho doll, with a contemporary one from the Kaga Region. Such childish figures suggest a street festival, not the Kabuki plays which also present lion-dancers.
     Hakata pottery dolls have been a good medium for depicting theatrical roles; some of the loveliest images of geisha and young women in general are found in this medium.
    Another type of doll based on theatrical models is the "tableau" doll grouping. Typically one, two, or three figures from a Noh or Kabuki play stand on a little stage with a tree or other simple scenery.  Noh scenes may depict the figures as masked or made-up actors or as the "real" people they represent. Jo and Uba, the old couple from the play Takasago, are among the dolls most commonly represented in tableaux.
Check the links on the Dolls For Sale page to see what is available!