Interesting Japanese wooden kokeshi doll depicting a mythical Japanese Kappa water imp. This small doll is less than 40 years old and is in fair condition with marks and scratches from handling and discoloration and stains from age and display. Please read below to learn about the history of kokeshi dolls, one of Japan’s most unique and distinctive folk crafts.
Do you remember how you felt after the first time you saw the film “Jaws”? If you lived near the ocean then you likely never swam quite as far from shore after seeing the movie than you may have before. That feeling is probably precisely what most pre-modern Japanese felt whenever they even approached a river, lake or stream. This is because the “Jaws” of old Japan was not any huge man-eating shark, but instead was a rather small water imp called Kappa who lived in family groups wherever fresh water ran quiet and deep. Though small in stature (about the size of an 8 to 10 year old child) the average Kappa was nevertheless very strong and capable of grabbing and dragging into the water animals much larger than itself including horses, cattle and of course, unwary people. Though mischievous and slightly evil, Kappa were nevertheless thought to respect the authority of those they deemed virtuous (especially any who could overcome them) and may become loyal and helpful to such individuals.
Kappa are members of the Suijin group of Japanese Shinto (native religion of Japan) water deities which include enchanted serpents, fish and freshwater eels. Looking stranger than a platypus, Kappa appear to be assembled from the body of a tortoise with the head of an ape, and sport webbed-feet, blue-green skin and scales and an unusual donut-shaped hair style surrounding a flat depression at the top of the kappa’s skull. It is thought that when Kappa leave the water they remain powerful as long as their head depression is filled with strength-giving fluid. Japanese folklore advises us to bow deeply when we encounter a Kappa on dry land, as the creatures do appreciate good manners (though they may be scheming to kill you) and will likely bow in return, spilling their strength-giving fluid in the process. When their head depression is dry Kappa quickly become weak and must return to water in order to regain their strength (giving the clever human a chance to escape!). In modern times the Kappa’s image has suffered a fate similar to that of the European Ogre (think Shrek), as no one really believes in them any more and their image in art has changed from frightening monster to cute mascot. Adorable little Kappa images are today used in Japan to promote a variety of commercial products and even as the heroes of animated cartoons.
Height: 3.1 inches (8.0 centimeters)
Weight: 1.5 ounces (43 grams)
Images of the kokeshi we list are often uploaded to our Japan Vintage Kokeshi Blog which is an on-line gallery of unique and interesting kokeshi dolls. The purpose of this blog is strictly to share images of some of the wonderful dolls we encounter in the course of our work, and to provide a digital archive to preserve these images into the future. If you purchase a kokeshi from us and do not want a digital copy of your doll displayed in the photo blog or archive then please simply send us an email indicating your preference and we will promptly remove the image.
More about Kokeshi
Kokeshi wooden dolls are one of the most unique and interesting of Japan’s many traditional folk crafts. Originating in the early 19th century in the northern spa towns of Miyagi prefecture, kokeshi are thought to have first been produced as toys for children from leftover bits of scrap wood. These early dolls were made by craftsmen who earned their living producing other types of woodcraft, but who eventually began to create kokeshi to be sold as souvenirs in the area’s many local hot spring resorts. Over time the craft was refined, with many regional varieties appearing reflecting a wide range of technical and artistic variation. Today there are several schools of kokeshi design led by master craftsmen who often pass their trade to succeeding generations within their own family.
When collecting kokeshi it is important to note that you will likely encounter two main types; dolls which are made by artists and those which are mass-produced to be sold as souvenirs. The former are usually one-of-a-kind originals created by dedicated artisans who take their work very seriously and place great emphasis on traditional design and appearance. The other type of kokeshi are those which are manufactured specifically to be sold as souvenirs of famous or interesting places such as resorts or hot springs. These are produced en-mass, and while often attractive and interesting memorabilia they are not as frequently sought after by collectors and usually command a lower selling price. How can you determine if a kokeshi is an ‘artist’ or ‘craftsman’ style doll? This is actually quite easy as artist dolls are normally signed (on the bottom) by the maker, and may have no other writing on the body of the doll besides decorative calligraphy. Souvenir types on the other hand are normally unsigned and may have the name of the place which sold them conspicuously visible on the body of the doll. Collectors of Kokeshi typically place special emphasis on the facial quality of the dolls, desiring certain types – gentle or mischievous for example – over others. One interesting Japanese Kokeshi collector we previously met expressed a preference for newer dolls over older ones, fearing the older dolls may be haunted.
item code: R4S4-0004529
ship code: L1650