Dolls have played an important role in everyday life throughout human history. This is true not only of Japan but of other cultures as well. In earlier times, dolls were produced both as toys and for decorative purposes, but, most importantly of all, as objects for use in religious or magic rituals. As the significance of ceremonies and festivals has declined over time, the use of dolls in curses and spells has also faded, but the close relationship between dolls and man has remained.
The clay and wooden figurines of ancient times were transformed with the development of new modelling techniques and the use of costumes made of colourful dyed and woven textiles.
An episode in the Tale of Genji in which children are described as playing with dolls proves that dolls were already part of life in the Heian period (794-1185). It was not until the Edo period (1615-1868), however, that Japanese dolls reached the height of their development. This long and peaceful era fostered the growth of doll-making, and the emerging class of townsmen supported the doll industry in many ways. It was in the mid-Edo period that the Dolls Festival (Hina-matsuri) was popularized, and every aspect of everyday life, customs, dance and theatre came to be represented in dolls. Dolls with specific regional characteristics were produced in many parts of the country, leading to a great increase in the variety of dolls made.
In parallel with the continuation of doll-making by master craftsmen using highly developed skills passed down from the Edo period, the early years of the Showa period (1926-1989) saw the widespread growth of amateur doll-making.
New concepts and ideas were introduced, and when works by six doll makers qualified for inclusion in the first Teiten (Imperial Arts Exhibition) in 1936, dolls became widely recognised as a form of artistic expression.
Traditional Japanese doll production includes the making of dolls by individual artists who carry out all the stages of the making process by themselves, the making of seasonal festival dolls (Sekku ningyo) such as hina-ningyo for the Girls Festival in March and musha-ningyo for the Boys Festival in May by groups of artisans specialising in different stages of the production process, and the regional production of toy dolls.
Most dolls produced today are made either from wood or from toso, a modelling compound consisting of a mixture of wheat starch and paulownia sawdust.
There are two techniques used to make dolls from wood: carving from a single block and joint block (yosegi) construction.
In joint block construction the head is carved first, then the torso, hands and feet. When working on the hands and feet, it is important to take into consideration the thickness of the costume with which the doll will be dressed and to ensure that they are in balance with the body.
Some dolls are made from katsura (Katsura or Judas tree), ho-no-ki(Magnolia hypoleuca) or yanagi (willow), in which case the wood grain is left visible. For dolls with painted details, however, the usual practice is to use kiri (paulownia) covered with gofun (crushed seashell powder). Paulownia is light, has a low oil content and is moisture-resistant. It also has the merit of not warping once it is dry.
Exposed areas such as the hands and feet are covered in gofun and painted. The doll is then adorned either by dressing with clothes or by the pasting on of sections of fabric with their edges inserted into grooves carved into the body (kimekomi).
Gofun is powdered seashell mixed with animal glue. It is applied by brush to add beauty to the doll as well as to make it sturdier and more robust. After the application of a base coat, the features to be highlighted such as face, hands and feet are built up (okiage) by applying successive layers of gofun. A middle coat is then applied and any areas of unevenness are made smooth. A final coat using fine gofun, which can be coloured by mixing with pigments, is applied with a special brush and burnished with a cloth. Hair, eyes, eyebrows and mouth are then painted on to complete the doll-making process.
Toso dolls are those in which toso, the material traditionally used for the faces of mass-produced cast dolls, is used to create the overall shape of the doll.
Mokushin toso ningyo (Dolls with toso over a wooden core) Toso is a modelling material made from paulownia sawdust mixed with different kinds of wheat starch. It is blended with a bamboo spatula and becomes very hard when dry. It is highly plastic and well-suited for the making of the bodies of dolls and the building up of details.
Toso is applied to a core carved from paulownia wood and modelled into shape. The figure is then left to dry. This is followed by the carving of detailed features.
Gofun (crushed seashell powder) or washi paper is applied to exposed areas such as head, face, arms and legs, and the torso is then adorned with washi paper or fabric.
Shiso dolls are made either by casting into an outer mould made of plaster or by building up the form as in clay modelling. Shiso is made from mulberry fibre, the material used in washi paper, mixed with sawdust, gofun (crushed seashell powder) and glue. It is ground in a mortar for many hours to produce a clay-like substance with high plasticity.
Gosho Ningyo (Imperial Palace dolls) derive their name from the fact that they were used by aristocrats and the Imperial family in Kyoto as gifts to Japan's feudal lords. There are made either clothed or unclothed. In either case they have the proportions of a small child, with beautiful white skin achieved by the use of gofun finishing. As well as being carved from wood or made by the dry lacquer technique (kanshitsu ; cf. Urushi Art), they may be made from papier-mache (harinuki) or from ceramic (totai) with gofun finishing. In all cases they are characterised by the delightful, innocent expression of a young child in festive mood.
In the harinuki (papier-mache) technique, layers of washi paper are pasted on to the inside of an outer mould made from clay. Once it has dried and hardened, the washi form is removed from the mould and details are added using toso and gofun. Paper, fabric or colours are then used to complete the doll.
The best-knowntotai (ceramic) dolls are the enamel-decorated figures from the Arita and Satsuma kilns. The plasticity of clay and the qualities that can be achieved through the use of glazes and colourants give them a very special quality. In the case of Hakata dolls, which are still made in large numbers today, colours are painted on to a biscuit-fired but unglazed ceramic body.