Marie Ebersolt

3rd June, 2023

You may already have seen these round, colourful wooden figurines on the shop front of a shop specialising in Japanese products. Unlike other Japanese words, kokeshi is not (yet?) in the French dictionary, but many Japanophiles are familiar with this decorative object.

This anthropomorphic sculpture consists of two parts: a round head and a cylindrical body without limbs. It is traditionally made on a wood lathe by specialist craftsmen from species of wood such as hornbeam, cherry, pear or maple. Hand-painted and then coated with lacquer, kokeshi have been conquering the world since 2000. Although they are now mass-produced and come in rounder "kawai" shapes, sometimes depicting cartoon characters, in the past they were handmade by masters and their disciples in eleven schools. They were taller and thinner, with natural pigments adorning the faces and bodies, mainly in red, the colour of good omens, black and green.

The first kokeshi appeared during the Edo period in north-east Japan, around the prefectures of Miyagi and Fukushima. At that time, the peasant population regularly went to spring baths to rest their aching bodies, where they bought crockery made by local woodturners. At the request of their customers, the woodturners began to carve figurines for children. The figurines were thin and handy, but small and unstable, so that the little ones could easily pick them up. Little by little, adults began to appropriate these toys and collectors began to appear. Techniques then evolved to make them more stable and decorative. The curists turned these dolls into talismans symbolising health and vitality.

Kokeshi are still so popular today that they have been transformed into practical objects. They can contain seals, used by the Japanese as official signatures, or letters. One company has turned the flaw of instability into a strength by incorporating a detector: when the kokeshi topples over, a light goes on to signal the presence of a victim in the event of an earthquake.  
The popularity of these wooden dolls is also due to the organisation of three annual competitions for excellence, one of which is awarded by the Prime Minister himself!

Marie Ebersolt