A cylinder for a body and a sphere for a head make a kokeshi doll. No arms or legs, but a painted face and patterns on the cylinder evoke the human being. It is this simple wooden figure that Manami Okazaki treats to readers in her book, Japanese Kokeshi Dolls: The Woodcraft and Culture of Japan’s Iconic Wooden Dolls. The author has written a comprehensive book, covering the history, craft, the artisans and the stylistic differences of this folk art.
The kokeshi doll is believed to have been created by wood-working craftsmen in the Tohoku region of Japan, the northeastern part of Honshu, the central island of the country. Honshu is divided into several prefectures, one of which is Fukushima. After the Great Eastern Earthquake of 2011, the kokeshi doll became emblematic of the resolve of the people.
The author herself has written two books and organized several international exhibitions of these dolls. Besides, Japanese Kokeshi Dolls and Kokeshi, From Tohoku with Love, Manami Okazaki has written 10 books on Japanese culture, including some on popular culture, exploring the idea of “kawaii”, the cute factor. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Tokai University and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Columbia University.
The book is sweeping. It starts with the definition of kokeshi, continues on to the craft, the artisans, the 12 traditional styles, contemporary styles, the regions where they are produced, and ends with information as to how to see and purchase them in situ or online. The ample number of photographs provides a full view of the different styles and of the individual craftsmen. Both the photographs and the organization of the book make the information easily accessible.
The popularity of the dolls has had its ups and downs. At the moment, the “kawaii” (cute) quality of the kokeshi has found favor among young women, while afficionados, showing an appreciation for the living wood, search for old dolls, often darkened by the passage of time. People continue to be drawn to these simple geometric forms. The dolls are modern by shape, and warm because of the wood. Each kokeshi is different because the paints and ink are indelible once the brush touches the wood. A slight change in the curve of the eyelid changes the facial expression.
These dolls are appreciated because, as the author notes, “Kokeshi are said to have a … comforting presence that resonates with the soul.” Manami Okazaki’s knowledge and keen interest in these dolls makes the book an enjoyable trip to Tohoku, visiting the woodworkers along the way.