Dolls, kokeshi

The history of dolls in Japan stretches back to prehistory, when figures known as doguu and haniwa were made. Since then a variety of doll-making traditions have evolved, reflecting the cultures of their specific regions. The process of making a doll consists of fashioning the basic form, dressing it in clothing, and painting a face on it. The body of the doll may be made from paulownia wood; from toso, a clay-like substance made of paulownia sawdust and paste; from numerous sheets of washi paper laid atop one another; or from the same sort of clay used in ceramics. Once the body is complete, gofun, a chalky white pigment, is applied. Then cloth or paper clothing is put on it, and color applied to complete the doll.

General Production Process


photo Wooden dolls

Wooden dolls

Wooden dolls have separate heads, bodies, and arms and legs carved from paulownia wood, which are assembled using bamboo pegs. Paulownia is low in resin, making it less likely to attract insects, and is also lightweight, strong, and does not deform easily, so it is ideally suited to making dolls.

photo Toso dolls

Toso dolls

Toso dolls are made with toso, a clay-like substance made of paulownia sawdust mixed with paste, around a core of paulownia wood. While the substance is soft, it can be fashioned freely, so all kinds of forms can be made. It is important to dry it thoroughly so that the form does not get distorted later.

photo Harinuki (papier-mache) dolls

Harinuki (papier-mache) dolls

There are two ways of making papier-mâché Japanese dolls, uchi (inside) bari and soto (outside) bari. Uchi bari is done by first fashioning the form out of clay and making a plaster mold around it. Washi paper is then layered on the inside of this mold, and once it is dry is it removed from the mold and the form touched up with toso. Then it is coated with gofun, and further decorated with colored paint, cloth or washi paper. Meanwhile, in soto bari paper is layered on top of a wooden form. This technique is used in Japan to make tigers that bob their heads when you touch them, as well as Daruma dolls.

photo Totai (ceramic) dolls

Totai (ceramic) dolls

Clay like that used for pottery is used to fashion the doll, which is then fired in a kiln. The first step is to make the form out of clay, then cut it in half and scoop out the inside, leaving the outside about one centimeter thick. After that you put the two pieces back together and smooth out the edges, then dry it out thoroughly and fire it. In some cases it is biscuit-fired and then has color applied, while in others it is biscuit-fired, has further details applied, and then is fired again at a higher temperature.
If a mold is made around it with plaster, more dolls with the same shape can be made.

photo Nunobari


Different colors of cloth are applied to create designs.

photo Kimekomi


Glue is placed in grooves on the body, then the edges of cloth are wedged into the grooves with a spatula.

photo Hamekomi


Templates are made with washi paper, then cloth is wrapped to create parts which are stuck together.

photo Kamibari


Dyed washi paper is applied to create designs.

photo Saishiki


Paint of many different colors is applied directly to the body.

photo Saicho


Layers of gofun mixed with paint are applied. Designs are created by carving through to expose the colors underneath.

"What Are Traditional Crafts? -A Guidebook to Seeing, Learning, and Enjoying-"
Edited by the Japan Kogei Association Eastern Branch. Published by Unsodo / List of works English translation: Kazuko Todate (Art critic / Art historian)


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Famous local brand

photo Hakataningyo


Hakata Ningyo are clay bisque figurines produced and sold mainly in Fukuoka City, Fukuoka Prefecture; they are characterized by their smooth white skin colored with white gofun, a powdered seashell.