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JAPANESE FRIENDSHIP DOLLS

A particular group of Ichimatsu-ningyô, called tôrei-ningyô (Friendship Dolls), represents a fascinating chapter in Japanese ningyo history as well as in the diplomatic history between Japan and the United States. In the early 1920s, acting on the belief that better understanding was needed between the people of the US and the people of Japan, especially following the Oriental Exclusion Act passed by Congress in 1924, a former missionary to Japan, the Reverend Sidney Gulick, conceived of the idea of sending a group of dolls to the children of Japan as a gesture of goodwill. The Committee on World Friendship Among Children was soon established within his own denomination and an attempt was made to collect dolls from all around the country to send to Japan.

Through the collaborative efforts of numerous organizations, 12,739 "blue-eyed" dolls were sent to Japan in January of 1927. These dolls were received with great fanfare. In response, the Japanese made a return overture. Fifty-eight large Ichimatsu-ningyo were commissioned, representing the imperial household, the six largest cities, each individual prefecture, and territories abroad held by Japan at that time, including Korea, Taiwan, and Manchuria (Kantoshu). Noted ningyo artisans such as Hirata Goyo, Koryusai, and Shokansai were enlisted for the effort. Each figure was furnished with accessories, including lacquered furniture, tea sets, lanterns, folding screens, parasols, geta (raised wood sandals), and other personal ornaments.


Provided with passports, the dolls were sent to the US in October of 1927 aboard the steamer Tenyo Maru. They arrived in San Francisco to great fanfare. The mayor of San Francisco at the time, James "Sunny Jim" Rolf, declared: "These dolls must be thought of as more than just dolls. They are expressions of goodwill, a binder of good faith between two great countries on either side of the Pacific ... they are ambassadors destined to accomplish much." Following reception tours across the US in separate contingents, the fifty-eight figures were distributed to children's museums, libraries, and other appropriate venues across the US as part of their "diplomatic mission." Miss Japan, considered the finest of the fifty-eight, was kept in Washington and is now part of the Smithsonian's collection.

Historical events, however, ultimately undermined the success of this goodwill gesture. With the entry of the US into World War II following the Bombing of Pearl Harbor, the majority of Friendship Dolls were removed from display, put in storage, forgotten, or eventually de-acquisitioned from their original institutions. One, Miss Ehime, was destroyed by Hurricane Camille in 1969. An equally unfortunate fate was met in Japan by the majority of dolls sent by Gulick's group in 1926, where orders were issued by the imperial government to destroy and deface these symbols of the enemy. As for the Friendship Dolls, of the original fifty-eight, only forty-four have been located, many in a sad state of repair.

The tôrei-ningyô that have been located and returned to Japan for restoration are again met with great celebration, and frequently descendants of the artisans who first created these pieces are involved in the restoration process, all of which has generated a greater awareness of this chapter of ningyô history. Efforts to reunite and account for the entire fifty-eight have gained momentum in the last decade through activities on both sides of the Pacific.

The reassembling of the original group of Friendship Dolls has been complicated on many levels, not the least of which is correctly identifying those pieces which have been found. When the tôrei-ningyô first arrived from Japan, each was identified in English on its stand, indicating which area of Japan she represented: Miss Tokyo, Miss Osaka, Miss Kyoto, etc. As the ningyô were packed and unpacked, shipped, displayed, and then reshipped as part of their original goodwill tour, many of the stands became separated from their original dolls. Moreover, many of the Friendship Dolls were undressed and redressed by the Americans, further complicating later identification. Over time, identities were sometimes randomly assigned. Many of these identities have persisted until today and a painstaking effort is under way to not only locate these lost pieces of history and to refurbish them where necessary, but also to correctly identify them.

The creation of the original tôrei-ningyô was overseen by two companies: the Yoshitoku Doll Company in Tokyo, which created fifty-one of the dolls representing the forty-seven prefectures and four colonies of Korea, Manchuria, Sakhalin, and Taiwan, and the Ohki Heizo (Maruhei) Doll Company in Kyoto, which oversaw the seven "city" dolls of Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe as well as the figure representing the imperial household.

The dolls share certain features. Each is 81cm (32"-33") high, has human hair, and inset glass eyes. Each sports a yuzen dyed kimono with furosode-style sleeves. There is a variety of kimono patterns, some of which are duplicated except for the color palette. Each kimono bears a mon or crest which is repeated five times on the kimono; these crests have no direct bearing on their assigned locality, but have been instrumental in helping to reassign identities by comparing original photos taken at their embarkation ceremony in Japan with those recently taken. Each was equipped with a squeaking mechanism which was activated by depressing the ribs. The interior construction of the city dolls differed from that of the prefectural dolls. The city dolls were constructed of wood with peg joints at the legs to allow movement, while the prefectural dolls have a fabric covering over their bodies with only a partial wood core. Their legs are also hinged to allow for movement. Another difference can be found in a comparison of their right hands. While the right hands of the city dolls are closed into a slight fist, those of the prefectural dolls are open. A final identifying element for the prefectural dolls is a label in English reading "The Tokyo Doll Wholesale Traders Association" on the back underneath the kimono, with additional identification in Japanese of the artist responsible for that particular doll, while there are no labels on the backs of the city dolls.

Artists such as Goyo, who was later named a "Living National Treasure" (Ningen kokuho), or
Koryûsai would not have been responsible for the construction of the whole piece but would have lent their artistry to the creation of the head, hands, and feet, while the remaining portion would have been factory-produced.


Miss Fukushima, one of the original 58 Friendship Dolls, now makes her home here at Alan Scott Pate Antique Japanese Dolls in St Ignatius. Her journey to Montana from her native land has been a long and interesting one. Participating in all the arrival festivities and tours around the country, she was eventually placed in the hands of the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston, TX. Labels still attached to her original shipping trunk also show, however, that she spent some time at the Carnegie Library in Fort Worth, Texas, possibly part of a state-wide tour before settling more permanently into her new home. Further research is required before discovering when, and under what circumstances she was de-acquisitioned from Houston, but in 1990 she was auctioned of at Butterfield and Butterfield in San Francisco. Several years later, she was sold into a private collection where she was eventually authenticated by Michiko Takaoka and Rosie Skiles as part of their exhaustive project to relocate and identify the remaining Friendship Dolls.

Label identifying the artist responsible for
Miss Fukushima (Alan Pate's Collection)

But is Miss Fukushima a changeling? When the Friendship Dolls arrived in San Francisco, this was only the first leg of a very long and complex journey. Traveling to New York for a second reception, the dolls were gradually broken down into smaller groups and sent to various regions. As mentioned above, stands bearing the name of the original prefecture, accessories with crests matching those on the kimono of the dolls, passports, travel documents, and other identifying elements were frequently incorrectly assigned as the dolls moved from one site to the next. Michiko Takaoka in her exhaustive research on the Friendship Dolls entitled Doll Ambassadors: An Alternative History of US-Japan Relations reveals that the doll currently known as “Miss Fukushima” is, probably, a changeling. The incriminating evidence centers on her kimono. Newspaper articles from Fukushima printed around the time of her going-away party clearly describe the textiles as bearing a grape vine pattern (karakusa) and done in an orange brown silk crepe with a light maroon under kimono with the kuyô (nine star) pattern on her shoulders. The kimono for our current “Miss Fukushima” is executed in a green palette, with a design of shells and clouds, and bears the wisteria crest on her shoulders. Her accessories, however, do bear the kuyô crest, the characters on her parasol do read “Fukushima ken,” and a letter accompanying her does tie her to Fukushima Prefecture.  However, the doll itself was likely from another prefecture. An alternative explanation is that the kimono itself was inadvertently switched at some point during the initial arrival festivities.

Miss Fukushima, fortunately, comes down to us in very good condition. Her lovely face is done with a closed smile. Both hands are open. Her squeak box, located in her abdomen, still works quite well. The green kimono features a pattern of clamshells and clouds with additional details done in couched gold thread. Her crest is that of the wisteria blossom. Her red under kimono has a scattered design of flying phoenix and butterflies. Her red obi is decorated in the Thousand Children motif. Though sold in 1990 as without obi, the red obi she wears today matches in every detail the obi she wears in a 1927 archival photograph. She retains many of her original accessories, including her stand with label plate, her parasol, two pair of geta, numerous lacquered furnishings, a pair of lanterns, a tea ceremony set, and a metal work vase, among others.

Examination of the label on her back reveals that she was created by the artist Takizawa Koryûsai and would have been executed under the supervision of the Yoshitoku Doll Company in Tokyo. Born in 1882, Takizawa Koryûsai (Takizawa Yoshitoyo, Koryûsai II) was one of the most important ichimatsu-ningyô artists of the early Showa era. He was a pivotal player in the Friendship Doll project, even lending the head mold of his own creation for other artists to use who were involved in the project for the Yoshitoku Doll Company. Koryûsai was a second-generation doll maker, so officially he is referred to as Koryûsai II. His father, Takizawa Heikichi (d.1910), was Koryûsai I, though he frequently signed his pieces “Takizawa Yoshio.” Koryûsai I studied under the influential ningyô artist Eitokusai during the Meiji Era and created a number of exceptional ichimatsu-ningyô. Koryûsai II was responsible for a number of the Friendship Dolls, including Miss Kantoshu (Manchuria) in the collection of Marv and Flo Herring, featured on page 218 of Ningyô: The Art of the Japanese Doll.

We are also fortunate in having an archival photograph taken of Miss Fukushima in 1927-28 soon after her arrival in Texas (shown above). The photographer’s signature stamp reads "Hamlin" and in the picture we see a jauntily posed Miss Fukushima with the parasol open and perched on her left shoulder. A flapper-like hair band has been placed on her head and she is surrounded by her accessories. Behind her and to her right stands a woman of some mystery. To date she has been generally assumed to be an American woman, possibly African-American. However a close examination of her features shows that she is almost certainly Japanese, but with a darkened complexion from the hot Texas sun, possibly a member of the Japanese expatriate community in the Houston area.

Much research remains to be done in conjunction with our “Miss Fukushima.” If she is not the original Miss Fukushima, who is she? And where, then, is the original Miss Fukushima today? Under what circumstances did she leave the museum in Houston? And who is the lady in the photograph?

The Friendship Dolls offer many lessons to us today regarding international relations and gestures of friendship, the often fickle and temporary nature of allies, and the timeless beauty of ningyô.



The author, Alan Pate, is the owner of Antique Japanese Dolls in St. Ignatius, Montana, USA,
Tel +1 (406)-745-7400
E-mail: info@antiquejapanesedolls.com

He received an M. A. in Korean history and language from Harvard University.


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