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Finishing a kokeshi
Modern kokeshi

Kokeshi (こけし, 小芥子), are simple wooden Japanese dolls with no arms or legs that have been crafted for more than 150 years as a toy for children. Originally from the northeastern region (Tōhoku-chihō) of Japan, they are handmade from wood, having a simple trunk and head with a few thin, painted lines to define the face. The body often has floral and/or ring designs painted in red, black, and sometimes green, purple, blue, or yellow inks, and covered with a layer of wax. One characteristic of kokeshi dolls is their lack of arms or legs. Since the 1950s, kokeshi makers have signed their work, usually on the bottom and sometimes on the back.

History and etymology[edit]

The origin and naming of kokeshi is unclear,[1] with historical ateji spellings including 小芥子, 木牌子, 木形子, and 木芥子. The hiragana spelling こけし was agreed on at the All-Japan Kokeshi Exhibition (全国こけし大会) at Naruko Onsen in August 1939. A plausible theory is that "kokeshi" is derived from wooden (, ki, ko) or small (, ko), and dolls (芥子, keshi).

A popular theory[2] suggests that kokeshi may be fetish substitutes for unwanted babies killed after birth and the characters can be understood as 子消し (made up of child (, ko) and erasing, extinguishing (消し, keshi). While infanticide was commonly practiced in Japan until the 20th century,[3] there is little if any evidence to support the theory that kokeshi have anything to do with the practice, with the earliest references in literature dating only from 1965.[4] The word kokeshi itself is originally of the Sendai dialect, with the dolls being known as, for example, deko, kideko, dekoroko; in Fukushima as kibako, kihohoko; in Miyagi as obokko; and in Naruko as hangyo and kiningyō, none of which supports the theory.[4]

Kokeshi were first produced by kijishi (木地師), artisans proficient with a lathe, at the Shinchi Shuraku, near the Tōgatta Onsen in Zaō[5] from where kokeshi-making techniques spread to other spa areas in the Tōhoku region. It is said that these dolls were originally made during the middle of the Edo period (1600–1868) to be sold to people who were visiting the hot springs in the north-east of the country.


"Traditional" kokeshi (伝統こけし, dentō-kokeshi) dolls' shapes and patterns are particular to a certain area and are classified under eleven types, shown below. The most dominant type is the Naruko variety originally made in Miyagi Prefecture, which can also be found in Akita, Iwate, and Yamagata Prefectures. The main street of the Naruko Onsen Village is known as Kokeshi Street and has shops which are operated directly by the kokeshi carvers.

"Creative" kokeshi (新型こけし, shingata-kokeshi) allow the artist complete freedom in terms of shape, design and color and were developed after World War II (1945). They are not particular to a specific region of Japan and generally creative kokeshi artists are found in cities.

The woods used for kokeshi vary, with cherry used for its darkness and dogwood for its softer qualities. Itaya-kaede, a Japanese maple, is also used in the creation of both traditional and creative dolls. The wood is left outdoors to season for one to five years before it can be used.

Traditional types[edit]

Various kokeshi
Japanese postage stamp showing kokeshi

Traditional types often correspond to a single or multiple onsen located within the Tōhoku region.[6]

In popular culture[edit]

Kokeshi dolls have been used as an inspiration for the style of Nintendo's digital avatars, called "Miis", which are created and customized by players. Their appearance has become the symbol of the platform's overall aesthetic.[7]

In the popular PlayStation series LittleBigPlanet, a Kokeshi doll is seen in the game and can be obtained and used as an item for level making.

Inspiration for the Momiji Doll originates from the Kokeshi Doll.

Japanese professional wrestler Tomoaki Honma is nicknamed "Everybody's Kokeshi" (みんなのこけし, minna no kokeshi) after his finishing move "Kokeshi", a diving headbutt where Honma seems to fall lifelessly on his opponent.

In the game Mother 2, there is an object called "Kokeshi doll statue", blocking the underground path below the Stonehenge. The protagonist needs to erase this statue with so-called Kokeshi eraser machine (こけしけしマシン, Kokeshi Keshi Mashin).

Miss Grand Japan 2020, Ruri Saji, wore a Kokeshi doll-inspired costume[8] which also transformed into an anime robot, showcasing Japan leading the world in the robotics field since the 19th century. It won the Best in National Costume title at the Miss Grand International 2020 held in Bangkok, Thailand.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Newman, Michelle. "Kokeshi Dolls" Archived 2009-01-31 at the Wayback Machine. Travelworld International Magazine, March/April 2007. Accessed 7 May 2009.
  2. ^ Booth, Alan. Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan. New York: Kodansha International, 1996, p.129. ISBN 1-56836-148-3.
  3. ^ Shiono, Hiroshi; Atoyo Maya; Noriko Tabata; Masataka Fujiwara; Jun-ich Azumi; Mashahiko Morita (1986). "Medicolegal aspects of infanticide in Hokkaido District, Japan". American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. 7 (2): 104. doi:10.1097/00000433-198607020-00004. PMID 3740005.
  4. ^ a b こけしに関するQ&A / Q & A on Kokeshi . Accessed 11 Aug 2021.
  5. ^ Togatta Hot Spring Archived 2009-09-26 at the Wayback Machine, Japan-i. Accessed 7 May 2009.
  6. ^ McDowell, Jennifer E. "Kokeshi: Continued and Created Traditions (Motivations for a Japanese Folk Art Doll)," pp. 263–269 [PDF 279–285 of 317]; retrieved 2012-12-4.
  7. ^ Jones, Steven E.; Thiruvathukal, George K. (2012). Codename Revolution: The Nintendo Wii Platform. MIT Press. pp. 15, 36-37. ISBN 978-0-262-01680-3.
  8. ^ News, ABS-CBN (2021-03-28). "LOOK: Japan's winning national costume in Miss Grand Int'l is Pinoy-made". ABS-CBN News. Retrieved 2021-04-25. {{cite web}}: |last= has generic name (help)

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