Most of us are quite familiar with fine European porcelain dolls but I doubt many people realize just how old the tradition of doll making, even porcelain dolls, is in Japan.
Ancient temple records indicate small grass dolls were used in a religious ceremony and placed in the river even before the birth of Christ. There is no question doll making and the use of humanoid figures dates back even further this grass doll tradition is important as it eventually evolved into the Japanese doll festival known as Hinamatsuri.
As the doll making craft evolved so did the diversity of dolls and their uses. By the 11th Century dolls were regular household items and by the 14th even papier-mâché dolls were introduced but things were about to get a whole lot better.
Sometime in the late 16th century the powerful Japanese leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Korea. Although shrouded in the mists of time legend tells that the Korean artist known as Ri Sampei was brought back to japan during this period. Being a skilled artist he discovered local materials and Japanese porcelain crafts and doll making began in earnest.
As the art grew the new porcelain dolls became a status symbol with Japanese society and often were displayed in a place of prominence in the home. In the early part of this period Dutch traders introduced these works of art to Europeans and they quickly became quite prized and cherished.
Although the Dutch helped the porcelain trade and crafts flourish this was by no means the only type of dolls that had an important place in Japanese society.
Warrior dolls known as ‘Musha’ were quite intricate even using lacquered paper to make armor, and metal to make miniature weapons. The Hinamatsuri was an important cultural event and specialized dolls called ‘Hina’ were made for the occasion. Although very deatialed they were not quite as intricate as the Musha dolls but were still a centerpiece and prominently displayed in any home. Goshu dolls were simple one piece items that generally depicted a small fat boy. Musha, Hina and Goshu dolls but scratch the surface of the Japanese doll making art of that time.
Sometime in the early 20th century the Japanese began making bisque dolls that are a little more familiar to western collectors. It is a tribute to the Japanese craftsmanship and tradition that even though their history with these dolls is rather short they are still highly valuable and very prized amongst collectors.
Elizabeth Ann Washington