Ningyo Dolls of Japan

By Karen Parr-Moody


A group of exquisitely made, antique Ningyo dolls have found their way from Japan to GasLamp Antiques and Decorating Mall.


Interestingly, the arrival coincides with a traveling doll exhibit at the Tennessee Art League called “Dolls of Japan: Shapes of Prayer, Embodiments of Love,” which runs through April 30. "Nashville Arts" magazine featured the exhibit in its February issue. Fans of the ningyo craft can learn about the dolls at the exhibit, then peruse GasLamp should they desire to have one of their own.


In Japanese, the word Ningyo translates to “human shape,” and these dolls were once believed to possess the power to keep bad spirits at bay. Such ideas trace back to the 11th-century Heian Period, when there was a custom called hina-nagashi, or “doll floating.” With this, dolls were sent down a river to the sea by boat, thought to take away troubles or bad spirits with them.


By the time of the Edo period (about 1603-1867), the craft of creating dolls had evolved into an art form, with the knowledge and skills shared between generations in artisan families. Wealthy individuals would buy beautiful dolls to display in their homes, as toys for noble children, or as valuable gifts. These dolls are carved of wood and covered with a white substance called “gofun.” Made of crushed oyster and clamshells combined with glue, gofun is applied in layers and mimics porcelain.


In the photo, above right, a boy is all done up in a samurai’s trappings ($585, Booth B-225). This is part of a longstanding tradition called Tango no-sekku, or Boy’s Day, which takes place annually on May 5. During the festival, dolls of a certain type are displayed: They are called musha-ningyo or gogatsu-ningyo, translated as "warrior dolls." It is customary to display such dolls on Boy's Day in hopes that boys will become as brave and strong as these warriors. This doll rides a white horse, which was believed to come from the union of a dragon and a mare, thus suited for a hero. (Tango no-sekku translates literally to “Feast of the First Day of the White Horse”). 


Another type of dolls one sees on Boy’s Day are those included in a pantheon of heroes from popular legends. Such include Momotaro, the Peach Boy, and Kintaro, the Golden Boy. In the photo, left, is a doll known as Shoki the Demon-Queller (or “Shoki-Sama”). This fearsome-looking character is actually a divine spirit said to scare demons away from hapless human victims.  He is also credited with curing those who have fallen ill. According to Kikoku Hilbun, who helped transcribe some of the Japanese for this article, Shoki-Sama is seen as “a protector, or guardian angel, for boys.” Visitors to Japan will see images of Shoki-Sama on rooftop tiles. 


There is also a Girl’s Day festival in Japan, called Hina-matsuri, on March 3, during which tiered platforms are set up in homes to display hina ningyo. These are dolls that represent the emperor and empress, and their attendants and musicians, all wearing ancient court dress. A full set comprises at least 15 dolls.





Kabuki dolls, called takeda-ningyo, were another type of ningyo, inspired by famous theatre scenes. The doll in the photo, right, is Kagamijishi, a young castle maid who was transformed into a lion by the spirit of a wooden lion head ($285). This is one of the classics of the Kabuki theatre. Dolls of this ilk represent their roles with dramatic details and expressions.





Another Kabuki doll is seen in the photo at left. With her black-lacquered bamboo hat, this doll is unmistakably the Wisteria Maiden, or Fuji Musume, a heroine of a classic dance ($195). First performed in 1826, the story is that of a maiden in a painting who jumps into life for love of a passerby. This doll wears a beautiful furisode kimono, a formal style only worn by young, unmarried women.




With her lovely silk kimono, brocade obi, and "split peach" hairstyle, and long, rooted eyelashes, the doll pictured at right is obviously a geisha ($195). While most ningyo are made with gofun faces, a few are made with a technique called “silk-skinned” or "mask-face,” as this doll is. This was a method for making doll faces from fine cloth; it was popularized in the 1920s and 1930s by designer Kamimura Tsuyuko, who was said to have gotten the idea from the French. These were originally called furansu ningyo (“French doll”), but were renamed sakura ningyo ("cherry-blossom doll”) during World War II, when they found a ready market with military personnel.


The beauty of Japanese ningyo is that their range is as broad as the artist’s imagination – which, clearly, was virtually limitless. Added to that, there is an incredible amount of detail given to the clothing and various accoutrements included with each doll. These are truly treasures for adults, even if they were once the playthings of noble children.



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