The Hakata doll.
Oshie Hagoita.
The traditional wooden dolls.
Yuri Yamada.
The Kabuki dolls.
The Hina dolls.

OMIYAGE?” asked the elderly Japanese lady at a souvenir shop in Shinkyogoku shopping district in Kyoto, Japan.

I was on my “turning-30-with-a-bang” autumn trip to Japan. So there I was at the souvenir shop which my dear friend, who was staying in Kyoto at that time, called “kedai pakcik baik” (kind uncle’s shop), simply because tourists usually get discounts and free gifts from the owners.

I browsed through the rather small shop filled to the brim with many omiyage (souvenir) items unique to Japan. At one corner on a shelf was a display of katana (Japanese swords) with different lengths and handle designs. Colourful lanterns hung from the ceiling while beautiful decorative hand fans were spread open, displaying their unique designs. Floral kimonos and yukatas were stacked nicely under a shelf of wooden dolls.

My eyes were drawn to the dolls and I picked one up — a cute wooden doll of a smiling Japanese girl wearing a red kimono with a red ribbon on her black hair. “Oh, I’m buying this!” I said to myself as I placed the doll on the counter atop the mountain of souvenirs I had already selected earlier. True to my friend’s word, the elderly shopkeeper did throw in some free gifts for me.

That was six years ago.

Today, I’m at the Petaling Jaya Museum about to be introduced to more dolls that form part of the Japanese millennia-old heritage and culture. The exhibition, organised by the Japan Foundation, is showcasing some 70 traditional dolls. Known as ningyo in Japanese — which translates to “human form” — these dolls assume important social roles that go far beyond the conventional notion of dolls as merely playthings.


“Oh, your doll is a more contemporary version!” exclaims Yuri Yamada, the Asia Centre programme officer at the Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur when I show her a photo of my doll on my phone when we meet at the museum. She leads me to the area where the wooden dolls are being displayed.

They’re called the kokeshi dolls, known for their simplicity and brilliant colours. Made out of wood such as cherry, Japanese maple, dogwoods and Japanese cypress, the dolls on display are much bigger (some are knee-high) than the palm-size doll that I own. Explains Yamada: “These styles are traditional and made using woodturning techniques. As the machine runs, the craftsmen will carve and paint the wood as it turns.”

The origin of kokeshi dates back between the end of the Edo Period (1603-1867) and early 19th century in northern Japan. The contemporary dolls can be found all over Japan, says Yamada, but the traditional ones originated in northern Japan — Tohoku in particular, which is blessed with an abundance of beautiful nature. “Back in the days, many wood cutters lived there. They made these dolls for their children to play,” shares Yamada, who hails from Tokyo. Today, the kokeshi dolls come in various designs, with some possessing a more rounded shape than their traditional counterparts, which are usually cylindrical and sometimes slightly curved. They come with different facial expressions and richer colours.


“It’s easier to explain Japanese culture to foreigners through dolls,” Yamada says, jokingly, before explaining that every March 3, families with daughters celebrate the Hina Matsuri, or Doll Festival. Parents will display a pair of hina dolls of both sexes on a step-altar as a prayer offering for the happiness of their young daughters.

“I remember my parents used to do this. But the altar only lasts a few weeks. Rumour has it, if you display the doll for too long, your daughter will remain single for a long while as well!” shares Yamada, chuckling. “I guess it’s just the way Japanese parents express their love. They might not say it all the time, but displaying the doll means they really care for your happiness.”

Not far from the hina dolls display is a sumo wrestler doll wearing nothing but mawashi (loincloth) enacting a spectacular ritual of entering the ring before a sumo match called dohyo-iri. “When people see sumo, they link it to Japan. So through this Hakata doll, we can showcase our famous sport as well. Like the ones here in front,” she says, pointing to three rectangular wooden paddles. “They’re called oshie hagoita.”

The paddles were used in battledores, a game similar to badminton. These are frequently painted, usually with lacquer, with auspicious symbols or decorated with complex silk collages. This tradition dates back to the 17th century, and although the game is rarely played today, decorative hagoita crafts are still common.

Certain dolls also possess distinctive regional and cultural attributes, explains Yamada, as we stop by an effigy of a lady in an intricately-embroidered kimono, holding a hand fan. The display, titled Miyabi: Elegance, showcases the beautiful textile originating from Kyoto, the ancient capital and city of traditions. “Kyoto is famous for its fabric,” Yamada remarks.

Moving along, we come to two creepy-looking dolls with fierce masks and wild hair — one white and the other, orange. They’re the kabuki dolls and they display animal-like characters from a play. Kabuki is a Japanese traditional theatre form, usually musical, originating from the Edo period.

“There’s an interesting history behind the kabuki theatres. The roles used to be played by women around the 1600s, but then these women turned to prostitution as they became more and more popular. This led to the government banning women from the theatres. Now, even the female roles are played by old men,” shares Yamada, adding that it was during the Edo period when Japan was under the powerful rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, the last feudal Japanese military government, that Japanese culture flourished.


Do people still own these dolls? I wonder aloud as we continue with our tour.

“Yes, but not so many. Now, it’s more like a gift that’s passed from the older generation to the younger one,” she replies. Besides taking up too much space in the house, maintaining the dolls can be time-consuming, especially those dressed in elaborate costumes, says Yamada.

“The kimono, for example, can get mouldy if exposed to humidity. That’s why the younger generation are not really keen on owning these dolls. It’s too much of a hassle.”

But this hasn’t put a stop to the doll-making industry. According to Yamada, there are still some active craftsmen in Kyoto as well as the northern part of Japan where kokeshi dolls continue to be made. There aren’t any schools that teach doll-making except through apprenticeship, but not many are interested as doll-making involves complicated procedures.

“These craftsmen are carrying on the culture and heritage of Japan. Not just through the dolls they make, but other crafts as well. This exhibition forms part of our efforts in helping keep the traditions and culture of Japan alive. I hope more can be done so our heritage won’t die out,” concludes Yamada, thoughtfully.

The Dolls Of Japan: Shapes Of Prayer, Embodiments Of Love


Petaling Jaya Museum, Jalan 10/7, Seksyen 10, Petaling Jaya, Selangor (Until May 18)

Sabah Art Gallery, Jalan Muzium, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah (May 29-June 30)

Penang State Museum, No 57, Jalan Macalister, Penang (July 12-Aug 28)


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