In conversation with the founder of The Kokeshi Project, Kate Gaudreau, on her collection of kokeshi — a form of wooden dolls — shot as portraits amongst the changing seasons
The creative kokeshi can be found all over Japan, and now, the world. But an original and traditional kokeshi can only be found in the Tōhoku region that they derive from. Those found elsewhere cannot be authenticated and oftentimes the understanding that kokeshi dolls are Japanese, can detract from their region-specific heritage and turn understandings of kokeshi dolls by tourists and non-Japanese into a that of a cultural generalization.
Originally standing at 30cm tall, kokeshi dolls are characterized by their limbless bodies and heads that sit disproportionately to their frames. Their painted faces — applied in single strokes using a weasel-fur brush and a simple palette of black, red, and green — pose a variety of facial features, often dependent on their place of origin. Hand-carved on a lathe using cherry wood or dogwood, their creators, or masters, do every part of the crafting process themselves, bar the chopping of the trees. Tools are also created by the craftsman, due to, in part, a lack of blacksmiths skilled in the creation of the chisel tool, but also for varieties of comfort.
Kokeshi, a form of wooden doll, first appeared in the Tōhoku region of northeastern Japan in the Nineteenth century toward the end of the Edo period [1603 – 1868 CE]. They emerged as a folk craft in hot spring mountain villages (Onsens) or prefectures that made up Tōhoku; Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Miyagi, Yamagata, and Fukushima, which all have a heritage of traditional kokeshi making. It is folk art such as kokeshi that serves as a reminder for Japanese people of their heritage and therefore provides a sense of nostalgia. It is also their appearance that connects to Japanese values and their simplistic use of color and shape, as well as the designs of the kimonos they appear to wear, symbolize their innate ‘Japanese-ness’.
Initially crafted as toys for farmer’s children by woodturners who would otherwise make bowls and plates, kokeshi’s former design was simplistic but gradually painted with facial expressions and kimonos. The dolls were given as gifts on the birth of a child with the baby’s name painted on the back of the body, adding to the idea and feelings of nostalgia, a notion in Japanese society.
Despite no formal connection with the Shinto religion, Tōhoku’s spirituality has always been immersed and connected with the forests, nature, and animism and the dolls were an anchor of life for the villages of the region. It is thought that given the Onsen origin of the kokeshi dolls, their shape hints at the possibility that they were used as a massage tool in the springs.
After speaking with Kate Gaudreau, a photographer, artist, and founder of The Kokeshi Project, a work that sees her collection of kokeshi dolls shot as portraits amongst the changing seasons, the ideas of linking to nature and family became more abundant. «My family had a collection of them, brought back by my great aunt from her missionary travels which began in 1931. These dolls spent most of the time behind glass doors in a cabinet, but we were free to take them out whenever we wanted». The changing of the seasons is an often-celebrated event in Japanese cultural identity and «the essence of this work demands that I be observant of the natural environment, the subtle or not-so-subtle changes within it, the rhythm of the seasons».
Twelve styles of the doll are seen across Tōhoku, with the Tako Bozu kokeshi, featuring a bald head and eyes surrounded by red rings, being the authenticated style announced in 2018. Tako Bozu originated from the Nakanosawa Onsen in Fukushima and it is these twelve styles that are each drawn back to a different spring (Onsen) town. Each town had its own local name for their varieties of kokeshi, however, to avoid confusion for collectors, the standardized name kokeshi was given to represent them all. One of the rarest styles is the Hijori Onsen in Yamagata whereby only one master kokeshi maker remains. «As a child, I was drawn to the colors, the shapes, and sizes, the small figures».
During the early Meiji period [1868 – 1912] there was little work for farmers and so they, along with tourists, travelled to the mountains of North Eastern Japan to find pleasure in the Onsens and for religious pilgrimages to one of Japan’s most sacred Dewa Sanzan mountains of Tōhoku. Wood turners of the area began to craft kokeshi as souvenirs for the farmers and tourists. Thus, it is here that kokeshi was no longer a folk toy, but served itself as an ornament and an item for collectors alike.
The act of making the kokeshi, however, remained somewhat of a mastery with skills of the craft being passed through family lines where often a father would turn their first-born son into their apprentice. In some cases, the father and son would take on the role of the carver, and the mother would paint, creating a family business. The kokeshi masters of the present world, for fear that the tradition is lost in the passing of age, have begun to pass down their skills and train a new generation of artisans, including young women, to secure the future of traditional kokeshi.
The Miyagi Zao Kokeshi Museum is home to more than 5,000 examples of kokeshi which have either been donated or gifted by collectors. Its permanent collection includes many rare dolls created by masters of kokeshi making. Within the museum, there is a studio where visitors can meet apprentice kokeshi makers and have the chance to witness the decoration of their own doll.
By being able to view a large variety of kokeshi at a close glance, visitors can see the differences in their design and observe the diversity in facial expressions — which many take great pleasure in. When first approaching her work, this idea of emotion coming from the kokeshi is something Kate experienced, «I made a few early attempts at photographing the kokeshi indoors, but I found the results unemotional». Kate’s photography took hold after thirty years spent working in visual merchandising and looking for a way to reconnect herself to nature, her home, and the woods in her garden.
It is the expression of the kokeshi that Kate often returns to and is «the kokeshi’s close ‘observations’ of and intimate ‘interactions’ with the environment which I feel brings forth a sense of emotion in my photographs. My ambition is to make the kokeshi ‘feel at home’ in nature, to use the natural world to draw out the individual personalities of the kokeshi, to capture them while experiencing the seasons and the elements, and observing, marveling at, contemplating, or becoming one with nature».
Kokeshi were originally differentiated by their decoration, facial expressions and features, head and body shape, and are identified by at least twelve official styles, each named after places in the Tōhoku region and its respective areas, including Hijiori, Kijiyama, Nakanosawa, Nanbu, Naruko, Sakunami, Togatta, Tsuchiyu, Tsugaru, Yajiro, Yamagata and Zao. The Naruko Onsen area of the Miyagi prefecture hold the best-known style of kokeshi with a turning spherical head, a concaved body, red lips, parted hair, single eyelid, and chrysanthemums for decoration.
A set of rules for the kokeshi’s shape, color, and design is in place to retain its tradition and heritage. Kokeshi that do not feature or align with these rules, or perhaps fall outside of the prescribed designs are known as creative kokeshi.
Creative kokeshi, given the name as they are created by artists and therefore bear the fruits of said artist’s creativity, were initially created in the Gunma prefecture, toward central Japan, and south of the traditional kokeshi’s origin area of Tōhoku. However, lines between traditional and creative kokeshi are blurred when they are put in spaces created to draw in tourist traffic. Information for both varieties are often the same which can cause some confusion, but for those who do not know otherwise, this does not pose a problem. It Highlights the relationship between what is recognized as being a Japanese cultural product and what is only tied to and produced in a specific region within the country of origin.
People from across the world have been collecting kokeshi since the late nineteenth century. In more recent times, collections have grown to include the creative kokeshi varieties, as well as the mass-produced type. Does this make a collector a true collector, if they choose to collect those that could be said to belittle the craftsmanship of the kokeshi masters of Tōhoku?
Some collectors, upon learning of the history and origins of the craftsmanship of the kokeshi dolls, may find a newfound admiration for them, or a bigger emotional attachment to them, and consequently for the traditional methods of creating them. Kate refers to her collection as her ‘family’ and «Over time the ‘family’ has grown through gifts, fortuitous finds at second-hand and antique stores, and purchases online from kokeshi aficionados and even Ebay» she remarks.
The collector, in turn, however, became an important customer of kokeshi dolls, so much so that the original 30cm height was reduced to 18cm to suit their demand. This could be, in part, because many families and collectors now live in smaller spaces, and do not have space for ornaments of the original height.
Kate recalls «I have always lived with kokeshi, a few of them visibly present throughout the spaces I call home. They connect me to my childhood and to my family history». Kate is currently working on an upcoming book which sees her kokeshi portraits paired with the haiku of Japanese masters. «As I was photographing two of my kokeshi, an older man and woman, a story emerged and I decided to follow it. It was inspired by the haiku poetry of Matsuo Basho who lived (1644-1694) and is considered a master of the haiku form. His travels throughout Japan were the source of inspiration for his writing. My upcoming book, The Wanderer, pairs the journey of my old man with the haiku of Basho and other haiku masters».
Text Mary McCartan