Kokeshi from Japan

the cute world of kokeshi

By Patricia Belyea

The greatest compliment you can give a kijishi, a maker of Japan’s iconic kokeshi, is to call the woodworker’s little dolls “cute”.

The delicately painted faces are filled with innocent joy. The expressions present the most challenging aspect in the making—as the kijishi’s mind needs to be completely free to create the dainty details.

Vintage kokeshi from Japan

Since the 1800s, kokeshi have been made as souvenirs for hot springs in northern Japan. The dolls were originally taken home as gifts for children. Then adults began to collect the adorable wooden figures. 

Vintage kokeshi from Japan

There are 11 different regions where craftsmen make kokeshi. Each area is known for its characteristic body shape, motifs on the torso and crown, facial features, and colors. Within those parameters, the kokeshi workshops specialize in their own distinct style.

Vintage kokeshi from Japan

The photo below shows kokeshi in the Yajiro style. The bodies are straight or curvaceous with a scarf at the neck. These four dolls are decorated with painted lathe lines. The heads, large and inserted, are topped with berets. 

The Yajiro hair has bangs and side fringes. The faces have eyes with one eyelid, small cat or pick-like noses, and blushed cheeks.

Vintage kokeshi from Japan

Below the wide-open eyes, with two eyelids, signal that this kokeshi is in the Kijiyama style. The head is tear-dropped shaped, the body and head are all-in-one, the hair has bangs, and the nose is round. Many kokeshi from this region are dressed in a kimono. This one is decorated with arty chrysanthemum flowers.

Vintage kokeshi from Japan

There are many steps to making a kokeshi:

First the artisan cuts down the tree between Autumn and Spring. The wood is stripped and dried from one half to a full year before it’s cut into pieces.

The kokeshi maker forms the head and body with a lathe—typically with woodworking tools fashioned by the artisan. Next is the painting of the body and then the face. Some styles of kokeshi are waxed to a high sheen.

Vintage kokeshi from Japan

In the last century, an arduous apprentice system was used to train kijishi. Typically it took five or six years before a novice was recognized as a full-fledged kokeshi maker.

Around 1980, the number of kijishi soared due to high demand. Today few craftspeople remain and most are older. Now it’s rare for a young person to dedicate their life to this folk art.

Vintage kokeshi from Japan

Kokeshi are essentially irresistible! Their tradition, design, and overall atmosphere combine to make them charming and collectible.

Meet Sally Crowe and her remarkable kokeshi family +here

Shop for traditional kokeshi in the Okan Arts Shop +here

Vintage kokeshi from Japan


ABOUT US: Okan Arts, a petite family business, is co-owned by mother-daughter duo Patricia Belyea and Victoria Stone. Patricia and Victoria sell Japanese textiles online, host creative quilting experiences, and lead quilting & textile tours to Japan.