Japanese Dolls: A bespoke craft

Japanese dolls are an incredibly unique area of Japanese crafts. There are many types of traditional dolls, but together they are most commonly known as ningyō which can be translated to mean ‘human shape’. Japanese dolls are all individually designed to represent different things; some represent children and babies whereas others are crafted to represent things such as the imperial court, warriors and heroes. Much like Japanese mythology and symbolism, many Japanese dolls are also crafted to represent fairy-tale characters, Gods and also people from the daily life of Japanese cities. Let’s take a look at the dolls’ intricate history and what makes them so significant.

A handcrafted history

The oldest known Japanese dolls originate back to the Jōmon period, a time in Japan that dates to 14,000 to 300 BC. During this period, Dogū or small humanoid and animal figurines, were being crafted to represent gods and be used in rituals. This is thought to be the start of traditional Japanese doll craft. As Japan entered the Kofun Period around 300-600 AD, the Haniwa, small terracotta figures that were made for ritual use and buried with the dead, were also being crafted. They were seen as grave offerings and were made in the shape of people, animals and objects. By the 11th Century, the Heian Period was known for several types of Japanese dolls that were mainly used for playing, rituals and as protection from bad spirits. It was commonly thought that dolls could trap bad spirits and be used as protection by the person who carries the doll. 

Moving towards the 14th Century, dolls began to become more sophisticated and new materials were being tried and tested. Okiagari-koboshi, or ‘roly-poly toys’ were made from papier-mâché and were seen as a symbol of perseverance, resilience and good luck. It is believed that the first professional dollmakers were originally temple sculptors who used their pre-existing skills and knowledge to make painted wooden Japanese dolls. 

Japanese dolls were then crafted using carved wood or a wood composition and were then lacquered using ground oyster shell and glue before being finished with textiles. As Japan entered the Edo period, it became more closed to trading which meant Japanese dolls were being made and developed for a market of wealthy individuals who would pay for the most beautiful doll sets to be used as a display in their homes or as valuable gifts. This competitive trade was eventually regulated by the government which meant that artisans who crafted Japanese dolls could be arrested and banished for breaking the laws on materials and height.

Culture of the doll

Ever since ancient times, dolls have been a part of traditional Japanese culture. Japanese dolls represent an item of respect as a child’s plaything or an object that brings delight. The outer appearance of Japanese dolls has constantly changed over the years but the love for this piece of Japanese culture has remained steady throughout.

In Japan, there are two main doll festivals that are celebrated. The first is known as Hinamatsuri, the Dolls’ Festival or Girls Day, which is celebrated annually on the 3rd of March. The second is known as Tango No Sekku, or Boy’s Day, which is celebrated annually on the 5th May. Even to this day, Japanese Dolls are not only considered objects of decoration or entertainment but as living creatures also. An expression of such ritualistic behaviour is found in the ceremonies of Doll Burial. If a doll’s owner must reluctantly throw it away, he takes it to a temple where old and new Japanese dolls, both expensive and ordinary ones, are piled together and burnt to ashes once the owner has expressed their gratitude and said farewell.

One type of Japanese doll that proves to be quite popular is the Daruma. Traditionally, this doll is seated in a meditation pose with large eyes and a big beard usually painted in a vibrant red. When it comes to Japanese dolls, the Daruma is believed to symbolise perseverance. With its wobbly appearance and heavy base, the Daruma stays stable and upright symbolising the idea that even if you fall, it is important to try again. Initially, Daruma’s eyes are not drawn on by the maker. this is so that when the owner of the Japanese doll wishes for something or decides to pursue a new aim, they may draw in a left eye. If the aim is then achieved or the dream is realised, the right eye is also drawn. Aside from the Daruma, there are many other types of Japanese dolls all of which have unique characteristics and meanings to explore.

Searching for your own piece of Japanese doll culture? At Atelier Japan, we have our very own handcrafted collection of Japanese dolls, Darumas and ornaments made by some of Japan’s finest artisans. Visit the Atelier Japan collections to explore our Japanese dolls and purchase your own piece of Japanese culture for your home.