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Early Japanese Play Dolls

by Alan Scott Pate

Doll Advertiser 2009
23rd Edition
Courtesy of Alan Scott Pate, Antique Japanese Dolls

Mitsuore Oiran Courtesan, Edo Period
19th Century, 15" tall
Hannig Collection


I call him "Doll Zero," the mysteriou Japanese doll that sent a profound rippl through Europe's doll manufacturing world in the middle of the 19th century. This amazing revelation is described as being simply clothed, with an articulated body construction of three parts made of papier maché, with moveable hands and feet called hanging limbs." The signature and showstopping element was a voice box, contained within the body, which emitted adorable sounds closely approximating "papa" and mama" when compressed. Cloth-wrapped padded upper arms and thighs provided additional flexibility and playfulness.

Isho Ningyô depicting an Oiran courtesan
Edo Period, 18th Century, 15" tall
Hannig Collection

Different sources speak of different route and origination points. Popular lore state that a Japanese doll acquired at the London Exhibition of 1851 was taken back to the Sonneberg area of Germany where the enterprising doll makers there quickly put the new design to market and the taufling was born. Or maybe the doll was purchased in Cologne. Or maybe the doll was brought back by early traders. Uncertainty abound. In fact, we may never know for sure under what circumstances "Doll Zero" was found and brought to the attention of Western dollmakers. But what we do know is that, by the 1850's, Japan had a millennia-old tradition of fine doll craftsmanship and a nearly century-old tradition of manufacturing finely articulated dolls. In Japan they were generally referred to a mitsuore-ningyô or "triple-jointed dolls." So it is not too surprising that the European doll world would be struck by Japanese innovation in this area. (Fig. 1)

Mitsuore gosho-ningyô, Edo Period,
18th century, 36" tall. Author's Collection

The history of Japanese dolls is a rich, complex, and imminently fascinating study. Dolls used in fertility rituals date back to prehistoric times. Court document literature, and paintings from the Heian Period (794-1185) point to a highly developed doll culture used in both play and ritual contexts.

The Edo period (1612-1858) however, can be seen as thegolden age of Japanese dolls, when a veritable explosion of doll types, technologies, and applications occurred, resulting in a doll culture and economy that remains unsurpassed. The famed hina-ningyô of Girl 's Day, the fierce and dramatic musha-ningyô warrior dolls of Boy's Day, the cherubic gosho-ningyô of the imperial court, and the mesmerizing bunraku-ningyô theater puppets all reached their apogee during this period.

Dolls for play, too, witnessed exciting leap during this time. Beginning in the early 18th century, wire padded arms were added to fashion dolls known as isho-ningyô to facilitate the changing of kimono. Closely connected with the demi-monde and theatrical circles, dolls of this ilk frequently were designed to imitate celebrated courtesans or actors of the day and were largely intended for an adult audience. (Fig. 2)

By the Anei era (1772-81), the addition of a jointed hip allowed the dolls to be positioned in a seated or standing position. By the close of the century further development in the form of knee and ankle joints resulted in a fully articulated doll that could be positioned kneeling, sitting or standing, sold frequently with changes of clothing and other accoutrements. (Fig. 3)

A woodblock print image of a doll shop during the bustling hina matsuri (Girl's Day) celebration dated to 1806 clearly shows th articulated figures for sale, both naked (hadaka) and clothed. Closer examination of the image reveal that the bodies remained of one-piece, hard, construction. (Fig. 4)



Fig. 4 Detail, Woodblock print image of a doll shop,
from Shokoku zue nenju gyoji, 1806.
Courtesy of Yoshitoku Doll Company, Tokyo.

Edo period doll shops and the manufacturers that supplied them were relentlessly creative and self-promoting. The one-upmanship of the period is legendary, forcing the government to periodically step in and issue sumptuary laws curtailing the more extravagant excesses in doll manufacturing! The application of voice boxes in dolls dates from the turn of the 18th century.

Ichimatsu-ningyô, Miss Fukushima
Japanese Friendship Doll by
Takizaku Koryu-ai with voice box.
Showa era, 1927. 33" tall
Author s Collection
Papier maché nodder Mitsuore gosho-ningyô
Edo period, early 19th century, 20" tall Carabet Collection

The celebrated doll shop Kiyomizu-ya located in Kyoto published a book touting their dolls and their marvellous innovations. In the section on play dolls, they boast that they could create a doll with a noisemaker that could make any sound desired by the client. (Fig. 5)

Another popular 18th century innovation included nodding heads with tongues that pop in and out. (Fig. 6) The early 19th century witnessed the expansion of accessories sold with these dolls. Most notable were the wig doll sets which included a wide variety of interchangeable wigs. (Fig. 7)

Fig. 7 Mitsuore-ningyô with set of 21 wigs,
Late Edo period, Early Meiji Era,
Mid 19th Century, 10" tall.
Courtesy of Toy & Miniature Museum of Kansas City


The cultural historian Kitagawa Morisada left us with an invaluable roadmap to the state of the doll industry in late Edo Japan. His Morisada manko (Morisada's Manual on Customs of the Edo Period) published in 1853, describes in detail the construction techniques, sizes, materials used, and recent innovations in Edo doll manufacture. He notes the prevalent use of papier maché bodies with soft arm and leg joints as described for our Doll Zero.

By the time of the 1851 Exhibition in London, we can see that the sophistication of the Japanese doll market and culture was far greater than anything imagined in Europe at that time. But with the door opening rapidly the cross-fertilization of doll cultures both East and West began in earnest.

Doll Zero" is just one point of departure for learning more about Japanese doll culture, both as it resonated within Japan, and its impact on the world at large.

Alan Scott Pate is owner of Alan Scott Pate Antique Japanese Dolls specializing in Japanese dolls of the Edo period. Author of the two most authoritative works in English on antique Japanese dolls, (Ningyô: The Art of the Japanese Doll, Tuttle, 2005 and Japanese Dolls: The Fascinating World of Ningyô, Tuttle, 2008). His home is in St. Ignatius, MT, USA.


The author, Alan Pate, is the owner of Antique Japanese Dolls in McIntosh, Florida, USA,
Tel +1 (858)-775-6717
E-mail: info@antiquejapanesedolls.com

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


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