Ancient Art of Japan: Kokeishi Dolls
By: N. Daniel

Kokeishi are a simplistic form of wooden dolls found only in the Tohoku area of Japan. The “ko” of Kokeishi means “child”and “keishi” means erasing. These special dolls are surrounded by an air of mystery, as their point of origin is somewhat unknown.

There are several theories about how the Kokeishi dolls came to be. The first is the most controversial. About 100 years or so ago it was not uncommon for peasant families to have to abort children or sell them into slavery in order to ensure their family’s survival. It is said (very quietly) that these Kokeishi dolls were created to comfort grieving mothers and/or to console the spirits of the erased children. The doll’s head often squeaks when twisted gently, to mimic the cries of a child. There is very little written literature in print today to substantiate this theory as the guild of Kokeishi makers controls what is published about them.

The next theory comes from the worship of a deity called “Oshira-sama.” This deity, in the shape of a stick with a simple face painted at one end and wrapped in a piece of cloth, was believed to ward off evil spirits from a family’s home. It is a popular belief that the worship of this deity ultimately resulted in the creation of Kokeishi dolls.

The history of the Kokeishi dolls is surprisingly new – only about 100 years old. This leads to the final theory regarding the origin of Kokeishi dolls. These dolls are only found in the Tohoku area of Japan. Oddly enough, Japanese wood craftsmen have been settled in this area, where hot springs abound, since the seventh century. However, it has only been in the last one hundred years that Kokeishi dolls have been sold to tourists visiting these hot springs of Tohoku. Why do the Kokeishi seem to suddenly appear only in this area for such a short amount of time? Well, that remains a mystery.

Although Kokeishi dolls were not originally the primary product of wood craftsmen in Tohoku, they are one of the few surviving traditional wood crafts in progress today. Kokeishi dolls are a no longer viewed as toys (or reliquary objects), but as a very respected, simplistic and aesthetically pleasing art form.