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Antique Japanese Dolls from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Joel Rosen

Text by Alan Pate

Courtesy of Alan Scott Pate - Antique Japanese Dolls, and The Morikami Museum & Japanese Gardens

You will find below the Introduction to the exhibition catalog only.

If you would like to order a copy of the catalog in its entirety, please contact directly:

Alan Pate, Antique Japanese Dolls:
The Morikami Museum:

The Japanese word for “doll” is “ningyô.” Literally translated, “ningyô” means “human shape” or “human figure.” This is an important place to start, for whereas the English word “doll” is largely limited to children’s playthings along the lines of a Malibu Barbie and Ken, the Japanese word “ningyô” touches on a wide variety of figures carved in the human shape which fulfilled a multitude of functions over the course of Japanese history. These included: fertility talisman, ritual substitution in funerary rites, amulet to protect children, temporary lodging place for spirits invoked to bless and protect the home, source of entertainment, object of beauty designed to be admired, special gift conveying auspicious wishes or commemorating specific occasions, as well as child’s plaything and companion. The world of ningyô is vast and multi-layered. It is an aspect of Japanese art and traditional culture which has received, by and large, only cursory treatment in Western languages. It represents a largely unknown world to the Japanese art enthusiast as well as general doll collector.

The current exhibition of Japanese ningyô from the Joel and Judy Rosen Collection represents an excellent opportunity to shine a light on this under-appreciated aspect of Japanese art and culture. The extraordinary breadth and quality of this collection allows us not only to discuss some of the more well-known representatives of this tradition, such as the Girl’s Day display of imperial courtier figures known as hina ningyô or the Boy’s Day display of warrior dolls known as musha ningyô, but also to explore a few of the lesser known aspects. Through the Rosen’s extraordinary collection we can discover how ningyô also relate to larger issues in Edo popular culture and their role in such diverse areas as disease prevention and gift giving, as well as their connections with such well-known theatrical forms as Kabuki and Noh. In this regard, ningyô function as mirrors, reflecting a myriad number of facets of Edo culture. Or maybe more appropriately ningyô function as a looking glass through which we enter a world long since passed, allowing us to glimpse with greater clarity the ideals and values, trends and fads which motivated and propelled Edo culture.

On a more immediate, physical level the textiles employed and the materials used in the creation of this delightful art form create a real connection between the contemporary viewer and these artifacts of a by-gone day. The sumptuous textiles, silks done in figured weaves or gold-laced brocades, the brilliant white visages finely carved, and the lacquered detail elements and accessories all combine to create visually arresting images. For many it is a new world, filled with exotic motifs, unfamiliar references, and unusual vocabulary. Therefore, before discussing some of the pieces in detail, pulling back the curtain of time, discovering their place in Japanese culture, and highlighting some of the symbolism inherent in these figures, it would be appropriate to begin by addressing some of the basic elements that go into the creation of ningyô.

Regarding materials, the newcomer to Japanese dolls is most often struck by the unusual whiteness of the faces which possess an almost porcelaneous sheen. It is generally assumed that the faces, hands, and in some cases entire bodies are made of some sort of high-fired ceramic. Instead, this singular aspect of Japanese ningyô is a quite particular material known as gofun. Basically, gofun is a paste composed of a calcium carbonate powder derived from pulverized oyster shells combined with a nikawa (animal-based glue binder) which is applied in layers to the core surface. The oyster shell element in the gofun allows each layer to be burnished to a high sheen. The result of applying multiple layers is a deep and lustrous white unlike any other material. The gofun also functions as a protective shell, surprisingly durable over time, yet completely water soluble, easily wiped away with a wet rag. The plastic qualities of the gofun also allow for a certain amount of modeling while wet which made it a popular material among lacquer artists and painters alike to achieve various desired raised surfaces. But it is in the realm of ningyô that gofun was used to its greatest effect.
The garments found adorning ningyô are almost invariably made of silk. The Golden Age of the Japanese doll also coincided with the rapid development of Japan’s own textile industry, traditionally centered in the Nishijin section of Kyoto. Kyoto also served as Japan’s traditional doll manufacturing center, making for close collaboration between these two sectors. The rich brocades and complicated weaves of the textiles seen on ningyô had for centuries been considered luxury imports from China. By the early Edo period, however, most of these techniques had been thoroughly mastered by the Nishijin weavers who wasted no time in applying them to a wide variety of woven products, from Buddhist altar cloths, to luxury garments for the nobility and wealthy merchants, to costuming for sophisticated ningyô. As a result, ningyô became as much an issue of textiles as of carving. The kinran brocades using gold leaf-backed paper, the various gauze and compound weaves, and gold-wrapped thread embroidery which were such a part of the development of Edo-period fashion are amply displayed in ningyô of the period. In the case of some 17th and early 18th century examples, ningyô can serve as an excellent source for textile study as well.
Unlike painting or certain sculptural traditions of the period, we know little about the artists who created the ningyô we so admire today. Certain types are named after artists who either invented the form or who were so gifted that their name became closely associated with specific styles or genre of ningyô. But before the advent of the modern era, few ningyô were signed. Names like Jirôzaemon, closely associated with a certain style of hina ningyô, or Izukura Kihei, celebrated for his superlative gosho ningyô, are known largely in abstract terms as recorded in documents from the period with very few extant examples which can be definitively attributed to their hand.

For general discussion purposes we can divide the ningyô of the Rosen collection into five basic categories: hina ningyô, musha ningyô, gosho ningyô, ishô ningyô, and takeda ningyô. Although this does not cover all of the ningyô forms popular during the Edo period, it does allow us to address some of the more important ones. Each form represents a particular facet of the ningyô art form, reflecting different aesthetic principals, different intents, and presenting widely varying visual impact. Using selected examples from the Rosen collection it is possible to gain a great deal of insight into the basic meanings, forms, nomenclature, and history connected with this rich art form.
Hina ningyô are dolls used in the annual Girl’s Day festival, known as the hina matsuri, depicting members of the imperial court arranged on a tiered display and positioned in roughly hierarchical order. Today there are in general fifteen core figures that constitute the display, a lord and lady (dairi-bina), ministers of left and right (zuijin), three ladies-in-waiting (san’nin kanjo), five musician figures (gonin bayashi), and three footmen (shichô). This grouping of figures gradually coalesced over the course of the Edo period, becoming largely codified by the mid-19th century. The central focus however has always been on the dairi-bina, frequently, though mistakenly, referred to in English as the “emperor and empress.” Rather than representing specific personages drawn from history, they can be viewed as a more idealized type, emblematic of the noble classes with their ancestral connections linking them directly to the gods (kami).

The term “hina” itself is a contraction of the word “hiina” meaning “small and lovely,” a term which originally referred to a baby chick but was also applied broadly to a variety of miniature objects. Over time hina came to be most closely associated with the small doll figures used in certain springtime purification rituals. Historically the hina matsuri traces its origins to the third month third day purification ceremonies known as jôshi. Adopted jôshi rituals focused on the purification of the body through the transfer of impurities to a scapegoat, which was then either set a drift or ritually destroyed. The most common forms of scapegoat were small paper doll forms known as nademono (lit. rubbing thing) which were passed over the body before being released. Jôshi-related rituals remained popular well into the Edo period when yin-yang specialists from Kyoto would send special nademono to the shogun in Edo every spring. Over time these early ningyô forms evolved into more substantial forms and the jôshi celebrations, along with traditional cockfights, gradually began to include the display of hina ningyô as part of the festivities. In this context, hina ningyô served as yori shiro (temporary lodging places) for the kami (gods) who were invited down to bless and purify the house during this time of the year.

The celebration of the hina matsuri in a form closely approximating what we know today began to emerge in Kyoto in the first half of the 17th century. The earliest hina forms were standing figures (tachi-bina) which were the direct descendants of the paper cut out shapes of the nademono talismanic figures. These gradually evolved into more sophisticated seated forms. The year 1627 is the date traditionally given as the start of the formal display of dolls as part of the jôshi celebrations. This was held in conjunction with the ascension of the young Empress Meishô to the throne. This practice rapidly spread to Edo where it became an integral part of jôshi festivities at the shogun's court as well.

As the popularity of the doll display spread from the aristocracy in Kyoto to the samurai households in Edo, gradually trickling down to the larger population in the great urban centers, the forms of the ningyô themselves began to change. The kyôho-bina appeared in the early 18th century and is a direct reflection of the emergence of a doll market (hina ichi) in the streets of Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo and the avid participation in the growing hina matsuri, as it came to be known, by the chônin or merchant class. In marked contrast to the early forms which averaged only 5”, kyôho-bina are noted for their large scale, frequently exceeding 30”, and for their sophisticated use of silk brocade textiles to create spectacularly sumptuous costumes, flashing gold, with bold patterns matched on both the male and female dairi-bina. Facial modeling as well developed from the first rudimentarily formed faces to visages containing sophisticated and finely nuanced details of mouth, cheek, and brow.

The 18th century was very much a period of rapid development for the hina matsuri in which the aristocracy, samurai, and merchant classes all participated with equal vigor, each contributing their own forms and shapes to the festival. The early spiritual connotations of the hina matsuri gradually were replaced by a growing emphasis on the material forms of the dolls themselves. Jirôzaemon, yûsoku, and kokin-bina all emerged during this period, each reflecting different aesthetic impulses which will be discussed in greater detail in the corresponding entries below.
Contrasting with the hina matsuri with its refined elements and courtly overtones was the tangu no sekku, generally referred to in English as the Boy’s Day Festival, with its overt martial emphasis. Both festivals were drawn from Chinese seasonal rites designed to insure the health, not only of children, but of the community as a whole. While the hina matsuri revolved around more genteel purification rites, the fifth month fifth day tangu no sekku had a much more physical cast. Early rites entailed the violent beating of the ground with plaited braids of iris leaves to drive away evil, or mock battles involving very real weapons also designed to repel malevolent forces.

The iris (shôbu) was a central element in these festivities, valued for both its medicinal qualities as well as its visual and homonymic connections with swords and military regalia. During its early origins in the Heian period, courtiers would adorn their caps with iris leaves, and sheathes of iris leaves would also be used to decorate the eaves of buildings. By the Edo period the festival featured the outdoor display of weaponry and heraldry of the samurai households along with helmets mounted on tall poles surmounted by small ningyô figures called kabuto ningyô (helmet dolls).

Through a process of natural evolution and periodic government intervention, over the course of the 17th century the outdoor elements of the display gradually moved indoors, with the kabuto ningyô, now largely divorced from their helmet stages, assuming greater prominence. The indoor display of dolls in many ways mimicked the hina matsuri, but whereas hina ningyô represented idealized types, the ningyô employed in the tangu no sekku tended to represent very specific historical characters drawn from Japan’s rich military past. Figures such as Minamoto Yoshitsune, Jingû Kôgô, Minamoto Yoshiie, Taira Atsumori, and Benkei were all well-known characters taken from the various war tales (gunki monogatari) popular since the 14th century. During the Edo period these same characters were also the subject of popular stage performances in both the Kabuki tradition as well as the dynamic puppet theater known as ningyô jôruri.

The ethical codes and qualities reflected in the lives of these historical or legendary figures were used in a pedagogical way to inculcate values to the young boys. In addition, and here again paralleling the hina matsuri, a frequently overlooked aspect of the Boy’s Day musha ningyô (warrior doll) is that it too functioned in a talismanic way, serving as yori shiro (temporary lodging place) for the departed spirits of these individual heroes which were invited down into the homes, given offerings of food and drink, in order to evoke their protection and blessing for the children and the household.

White stoic faces, long black hair, rich silk brocade coats under lacquered paper armor, accompanied by all the accessories befitting a samurai warrior, sword, bow, and arrows, the musha ningyô (warrior dolls) of Boy’s Day evoke a dramatically different image than the hina ningyô. Identities of the individual dolls were established through the use of certain insignia, positioning, and costuming. Yoshitsune, for example, arguably the most popular of all the Boys Day figures, typically sports an elaborate dragon-shaped prow (maedate) on his helmet, a corresponding dragon medallion on his breastplate, and is almost invariably depicted seated on a camp stool with a commander’s fan or battle whisk in his hand. Hideyoshi, in contrast, is usually depicted seated cross-legged, holding a simple folding fan in his hand, his signature kiri (paulownia) crest worked into his armor or his textiles.

The Rosen Collection contains one of the largest groupings of musha ningyô anywhere in the world, with spectacular examples from the 18th through the early 20th centuries, offering a rare glimpse into this extraordinary genre of Japanese doll. The identities and stories of a selection of the most important Boy’s Day figures such will be given below, showing how their individual histories, the value system of the nation, and trends in popular culture worked together to shape this important Edo period festival.
Gosho ningyô represent an altogether different class and category of doll. Originating within the imperial court as an auspicious gift in the 17th and early 18th centuries, gosho ningyô functioned more as display objects, not connected to any specific ritual or festival. The term “gosho ningyô” itself, meaning “palace doll,” was coined in the early 20th century by Japanese scholar/collectors who sought to bring a more coherent and scientific approach to the study of Japanese dolls. Prior to this they were known by many different names, including: zudai ningyô (big-headed dolls), shirakiku ningyô (white chrysanthemum dolls), and omiyage ningyô (souvenir gift dolls), among others. The continuing use of the word “gosho” underlines their close connection with imperial traditions in popular thought and the high regard with which they continue to be viewed today.

Gosho ningyô are distinctive. They traditionally depict young boys between the ages of three and five. Their bodies are executed in full with the head, body, and legs forming approximately three equal segments, making the head seem extraordinarily large and round. The earliest forms were typically seated or kneeling wearing only a simple bib and holding some auspicious object. Over time, however, as the form became more popular, they developed into sophisticated art objects layered in rich silk brocades, positioned standing, sometimes grouped together to form small vignettes or parodies (mitate) on famous Noh performances or characters drawn from popular history and legend.

The Rosen collection contains an exceptional number of very fine gosho ningyô. The popularity of this form during the Edo period and its patronage by the highest echelons of society are reflected in the wide array of figures created and the extraordinary artistry exhibited in many of these images. Examples from the Rosen collection, include standing pairs depicting young prince and princesses (wakagimehimegime) from the samurai households, refined figures in various poses depicting some of the classic heroes of the Noh theater, a theatrical form restricted to the noble and samurai classes, as well as the small jewel-like figures only five inches high, proudly holding some auspicious object. Each in its own way helps to illustrate the depth and range of the gosho ningyô.
The Edo period is noted for its consumer culture, the rapid rise and fall of fads and fashions, and a public obsession with the latest and newest. Although scholars and collectors alike frequently turn to ukiyo-e (woodblock print) as the perfect manifestation of this aspect of Edo culture, ningyô as well offer delightful insights into this dynamic period of Japanese history. Indeed, ningyô have frequently been referred two as three-dimensional ukiyo-e. The ishô ningyô or “fashion doll” developed simultaneously with the other ningyô forms discussed above. Artists looking around them saw the ningyô as a beautiful way to capture the rich tableau of Edo life. Street scenes, Kabuki plays, popular legends, historical figures, gods and goddesses, princes and paupers, all received their due in ishô ningyô form.

Unlike the term gosho ningyô which describes a specific doll physiognomy, or hina and musha ningyô which describe dolls used in specific ritual contexts, ishô ningyô is something of a catch-all phrase describing a wide variety of dolls which focused on any number of aspects of Edo culture. However, certain characteristics tend to hold true for the vast majority of these figures. By and large they are depicted standing, often mounted on a lacquer wood base, not only providing greater stability, but also enhancing their visual impact. Male, female, young, old are all depicted, although, based on extant examples, forms capturing women appear to have been the most popular. An early focus also appears to have been on clothing fads and hairstyles which later gave them their name “fashion doll.” Over time this relatively limited focus expanded greatly to encompass nearly very aspect of Edo society, leaving behind a rich sculptural legacy.

The beauty of ishô ningyô is that their range was limited only by the imagination of the artists themselves. Examples drawn from the Rosen collection testify to the extraordinary diversity of this form. Foreign entertainers depicted on an enormous scale and clothed in exotic garb, a parody of a Taoist immortal shown riding on the back of a leviathan, a Chinese child creatively interpreted, hyper realistic figures depicting scenes drawn from everyday life with all their beauty and their flaws, viewed merely on the surface these are delightful fantasy figures. But by looking at the stories they relate and some of the visual shorthand they employ, ishô ningyô also represent an interesting lens through which we can catch a glimpse into some of the themes and subjects which captured the interests of the Edo public.
Takeda ningyô represent a particularly dynamic sub-category of ishô ningyô. Their dramatic, half-twisting poses, grimacing faces, boldly embroidered textiles, and black lacquered bases make them a readily identifiable genre. The standard description of these figures, with their almost automaton-like appearance, is that they were originally souvenir dolls for the Takeda Mechanical Puppet Theater in Osaka. Mechanical dolls, known as karakuri ningyô, had a long history in Japan and were the focus of numerous theatrical enterprises in Osaka and Kyoto during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Zashiki karakuri or “parlor” karakuri were also popular throughout the Edo period. They generally focused on a single ningyô figure, usually a drummer, providing the accompaniment for the repeated actions of a background figure, frequently an animal, a rat, for example ascending a tower, or, as in the Rosen example, a carp ascending a waterfall. Although certain commonalities exist, recent research seems to point to a closer connection between takeda ningyô and the Edo Kabuki scene of the 19th century, rather than the karakuri movement of the 18th century. Most, if not all, of the figures depicted in takeda form can be traced to specific characters from the vast Kabuki repertoire of 19th century Edo Japan. The contorted facial expressions and dramatic poses seem to come directly from the Kabuki stage, reflecting in ningyô form the rough and tumble world of aragoto-style Kabuki.

Aragoto, which literally means “rough-stuff”, was a style of acting made popular in the 17th century by the formidable Ichikawa Danjûrô I (1660-1704) and his lineage of actors who all went under the Ichikawa Danjûrô name. Marked by violent foot stomping, twisted poses, and freeze-frame eye-crossing (mie), aragoto became an Edo staple. Masculine characters full of intense emotions were often portrayed in this manner. Figures such as Soga no Gorô, Watônai, Benkei, and Taira no Tomomori with their quick tempers and fearsome visages became emblematic of this style of acting.

The Rosen Collection contains a superb grouping of the takeda ningyô genre. Takeda ningyô have long received short shrift in the discussion on Japanese dolls. In Japan, they have been considered a lesser form, receiving little museum or photographic attention in the numerous exhibitions staged and books published on the topic. However, a closer look at this form, using a few of the wonderful examples in the Rosen Collection, not only help us to discover the unique beauty and appeal of the takeda ningyô but also to gain a greater appreciation of their place within Edo ningyô as a whole and its unique tie into the fascinating world of Edo Kabuki.

The author, Alan Pate, is the owner of Antique Japanese Dolls in McIntosh, Florida, USA,
Tel +1 (858)-775-6717

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

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