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Culture

A Breakdown of 7 Japanese Dolls for Girls’ Day 

Hinamatsuri is a special day in Japan on Mar. 3 made especially for girls and dolls. Here are seven kinds of popular dolls you'll find in Japan.

By 5 min read

Hinamatsuri is an ancient Japanese tradition that puts dolls (and girls) in the spotlight. Along with Children’s Day, families take this opportunity to shower their younger members with toys and—as you may have guessed—dolls.

Japan has a long history of ningyo (dolls), and these almost-forgotten handicrafts are still passed down from generation to generation in remote mountain towns. From dolls that grant wishes to those that can serve you tea, you’ll soon discover that Hinamatsuri isn’t the only festival to celebrate dolls.

Here are seven kinds of dolls you’ll find in Japan.

1. Hina dolls

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The dolls that give Hinamatsuri its name.

Despite the figures being donned in court regalia from the Heian Period (794-1185), the tradition of displaying hina dolls on Mar. 3 (Hinamatsuri) didn’t commence until the 1600s. Traditionally an act for mother-daughter bonding, families would—and still do—set up their dolls together every year.

A hina doll set can consist of anything from a modest-scale display of only a sitting emperor and empress to a seven-tiered masterpiece that includes courtiers, musicians, miniature furniture and even foliage. These luxurious embellishments were added throughout the centuries and continue to grow in size. Konosu in Saitama is famous for having an impressive 31 platforms.

2. Kokeshi dolls

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Doll or perfectly shaped back massager?

These limbless wooden dolls are popular worldwide for their simplistic design and as potential gifts. Originating in Tohoku in the Edo period, the origin of the name kokeshi, potentially read as “erased children” in Japanese, has fueled a morbid urban legend of their original purpose. Don’t worry. These rumors ceased with the de-kanjifying of the name—only hiragana or romaji allowed.

There are 12 types of kokeshi from around Japan, each with its own distinct attributes, but it’s hard to miss the elongated bodies, floral torso, jet-black hair and squeaky heads of the dolls from Naruko in Miyagi. They also hold the annual All Japan Kokeshi Festival, where giant kokeshi dolls line the roads and piles are burned in celebration. Something of a running tradition in Japan.

Reputable traditional makers, like Usaburo Kokeshi, have many collectors pining after (pun intended) their diligently crafted kokeshi. Or you could always try designing your own.

3. Daruma dolls

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They get knocked down, but they get up again.

There’s certainly a pattern forming of dolls with no arms or legs. However, these loveable, round dolls are lucky for a reason; their poignant expressions and encompassing vivid red robes resemble the legendary image of Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism. The tale goes that he meditated with such vigor that all his appendages fell off—think about that the next time you’re trying to find inner peace.

When you purchase a daruma, its eyes will be vacant and awaiting you to make a wish. Once you do, fill in the right eye (“my right or your right?”), and when all your dreams come true, fill in the left. Of course, this means you might be stuck with your bearded genie for a while. Well, that’s if you don’t throw them on the pyre at the annual daruma burning festival—stop the doll massacres!

4. Gosho dolls

These squishy cherubs belong in a renaissance painting.

Gosho dolls, also known as “palace dolls” after the ancient Kyoto Imperial Palace, are a long-standing Japanese court tradition that was often gifted to visiting dignitaries. Their larger-than-life heads and chubby baby bodies promote prosperity and long life.

Their form is molded—not by the gods—but by mixing sawdust and resin. After that, they are encased layer upon layer of gofun (chalk from crushed shells), giving the dolls their distinctive pure-white coating. Then, finally, the finishing touches: detailed facial features and a touch of ruby red.

5. Anesama dolls

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Look out for paper cuts.

Made from washi (Japanese paper) or chiyogami (Edo-period patterned paper), these easy-to-make dolls were played with by the ruling and commoner class alike. They get their name, anesama, from the tradition that the “older sister” in a family should be the one to fold them into existence. There are different characteristics and hairstyles for varying regions in Japan, but they will have blank faces most of the time.

You will also find shiori (bookmark) dolls, known as bookmark dolls, which you can rightly assume are meant to be slid into a book. However, they can be made by yourself with a simple origami tutorial.

6. Ball-jointed dolls (BJD)

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Don’t get it twisted.

Creepy or cute? You be the judge.

Though they may not have invented the ball-jointed doll, Japanese artists were inspired by the BJD in France and Germany and have since gone on to create a plethora of options for the doll-hungry Japanese market.

The mammoth doll company Volks is the most well-known maker of BJDs in Japan with their original customizable doll series, Dollfie and Super Dollfie. They regularly hold events and meetups for doll enthusiasts, and you’ll see many collectors clutching their BJDs and doing photoshoots. However, they can become quite expensive, so make sure to check the price tag.

7. Puppets

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Give them a hand.

Let’s meet the puppets of kabuki (Japanese theater) known as bunraku (puppet theater), born hundreds of years ago in an Osaka theater. Thousands still travel to the National Bunraku Theater to this day to witness child-sized hand-rod puppets grace the stage with around three trained master puppeteers. They perform plays in the style of kabuki without skimping on the dramatic flair.

Another Japanese puppet is the meticulously crafted karakuri (mechanisms or trick). It is a mechanical doll with clockwork-like parts. There are even giant karakuri designed for parades and festivals, human-scaled dolls that belong on the stage and—the most common—small tea-serving dolls that were usually reserved for the ruling classes.

Honorable mentions

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Tower of the dolls.

Still hanging on like a marionette? Then you might enjoy learning about these dolls:

  • Kimekomi dolls: wood dolls where fabric is folded (molded) into carefully placed cuts on the body
  • Hakata dolls: clay dolls hailing from Fukuoka
  • Hoko dolls: a crawling child often used as an amulet for expecting mothers
  • Iki dolls: hauntingly accurate “true-to-life dolls”

If you feel like visiting any of these dolls in their natural habitat, why not try visiting a toy or doll museum such as Yokohama Doll Museum or Zao Kokeshi Museum.

Will you be investing in a daruma the next time you’re at a shrine? Have BJDs caught your eye? We want to hear about all your new doll obsessions, but let’s keep it PG. 

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