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  Traditional ningyo shapes 

I group here ningyo whose distinctiveness and cultural importance has to do with their shape more than their decoration; they are each highly stylized representations of the human figure.  It is possible to see them as dividing into two main types: the armless guardian or surrogate figure deriving from native religions (or alternatively the figure with arms spread perpendicular to the body), or the round Buddhist -derived characters of the Gosho or Daruma (an insight conveyed in an article by Alan Pate in the Ningyo Journal).

The strongly recognizable silhouettes of these dolls makes it possible to incorporate features of them into other doll types, or other media. The oval shape of Daruma may be given a girl's face and become a "princess Daruma," and this may evolve into its own art-doll format. Tachibina are often portrayed on scrolls and even dishes. Gosho modulate into children or even warriors, keeping their big heads, gentle expressions, and white skin. While classic kokeshi turned on a lathe are still extremely popular and collectible, variations abound--kokeshi heads on bathing, skiing, dancing figures!

The first ningyo I ever owned were a pair of Kokeshi dolls given me by my Aunt Sally and Uncle Jim, probably purchased in Seattle at the festival center which remains from the 1962 World's Fair. 


("standing hina") can be made of paper at home, and have been since the late 15th century at least.

They represent a man (large, with outstretched protective arms) and a woman (smaller, armless). They are related to very ancient protective figures (the amagatsu, a cross of bamboo with a head, and the hoko, an almost armless stuffed doll). They also evoke and sometimes replace the elaborate emperor and empress hina-ningyo which girls display at Hina Matsuri. When made of paper or inexpensive materials, they are appropriate for the nagashi-bina ceremony, the ancestor of Hina Matsuri, in which dolls are touched or rubbed to absorb one's sins, and then thrown into a river.

The pair  can also be made of various more durable materials (kimekomi, wood, pottery, or complex construction like hina) and today represent marriage.

The woodcut at right is "Memories of other times, Japan" by Paul Jacoulet (early 20th c. French artist). The tachibina pair clearly remind the old woman of her days as a bride, or perhaps as a girl dreaming of marriage. Scan compliments of Washington Antiques Center.
Gosho ningyo represent baby boys and are very round and very white, made of clay or wood or composition covered with gofun (oyster-shell paste). They were first made early in the 17th century and are associated with the Imperial Court of Kyoto. They can be quite large, though the style lends itself also to small figures. The smiling white face on a big roundhead appears in many decorative motifs and many dolls, always evoking the basic gosho.

(The figure here  is a dyed and embroidered representation of the classic type, playing with a toy; for two more of these babies/dolls, see my photo gallery of dolls.) 

New in 2006: An article by Alan Pate, "Gosho-Ningyo: Palace Dolls and Auspicious Wishes."

Kyoto National Museum online database includes many classic  gosho; go to the English search page and type in "gosho doll" or "gosho ningyo."
A Japanese-language site with pictures of antique gosho dolls.


Kokeshi dolls, which consist of a lathe-turned joined wooden cylinder body and sphere head, are still made, as they have been since ca. 1800. They were made originally as souvenirs of the Tohoku hot-springs area, but also as offerings to the gods. 
     There are a certain number of "classic" kokeshi styles, distinguished by experts through slight variations in shape, construction, and painting. The basic kokeshi idea, however, has been explored by artists in many ways, so that one finds nesting kokeshi, rounded neckless kokeshi, kokeshi with the addition of bamboo hair and sometimes kimono, and kokeshi positioned in little scenes of daily life or of legend. Thus these dolls can overlap with the Daruma or even hina figures.
Northern Japanese Traditional Kokeshi by Shirlee Funk (on the Asie Exotique website). Pictures of Kokeshi on the same site.
Kokeshi: Wooden Treasures of Japan; by Michael Evans and Robert Wolf. 232 pages, 224 color plates is a 2005 publication that might be helpful in studying kokeshi.
Yakushi Kokeshi-do --a page showing a temple decorated with Kokeshi in traditional ritual offerings.
Miyagi Kokeshi Doll Association--a quick tour of the areas in which different styles of kokeshi doll decoration thrive.
Nancy's Kokeshi Page  has some great illustrations of a range of kokeshi.
Japan Atlas: Naruko Kokeshi --Kokeshi from the Sendai area.
Grade 4 Japanese Dolls Pre-Start --a project on kokeshi based on the now-defunct Japanesque site.
Tsuchi-yu --kokeshi of Fukushima. 
Darumas represent the god Daruma or Dharma, son of the 28th Zen patriarch, who brought Zen enlightenment, and tea, to China and Japan. There are many artistic representations of Daruma as a monk or missionary, but the Japanese dolls are paper-maché roly-polys, which one buys with blank eyes so as to paint them in as one accomplishes some task. This custom may have originated as a thank-offering to the god for good Spring and Fall harvests; if he did not send a good harvest, he would remain blind or one-eyed. These dolls are still performing a significant cultural function.
     There are many related types or versions of Daruma in the various localities of Japan, some of them designated as female--"ehime daruma," or "princess daruma."  One type is made with a gofun face and rich fabrics like a  kimekomi ningyo, but shaped like a Daruma; these often come in boy-girl pairs.
Daruma and Japanese Culture by Gabi Greve This large and ever growing website is richly illustrated with information in Japanese and in English. Gabi Greve  explains the history of the figure, and shows it in many different forms and media, as a god in a temple and a snowman...! T
Daruma; an article about the Japanese doll by Storyteller Harlynne Geisler
Japan Atlas: Takasaki Daruma --a great site for Daruma dolls.
Chad's Daruma Page --a personal page for Daruma, with beautiful pictures.
Japan-guide  shows a modern Daruma Market.

Hagoita, like Daruma, are associated with the New Year. They are richly decorated game paddles, traditonally given as new year's gifts to girls. The  game of hanetsuke is played with a feathered  large seed for a shuttlecock,  which is hit with a painted wooden paddle; the other side of the paddle is usually decorated with elaborate padded cloth faces of geishas or kabuki actors, using an art form called "oshie" or "padded painting". The  old year's paddles are supposed to be burned at the end of the year.

Here is a picture of a modern December Hagoita market.
Another page on the Hagoita market.

Zen-shop has hagoita for sale, amply illustrated.