Ancient Art of Japan: Kokeishi Dolls
Kokeishi are a simplistic form of wooden dolls found only in the Tohoku area of Japan. The “ko” of
Kokeishi means “child”and “keishi” means erasing. These special dolls are surrounded by an air of
mystery, as their point of origin is somewhat unknown.
There are several theories about how the Kokeishi dolls came to be. The first is the most controversial.
About 100 years or so ago it was not uncommon for peasant families to have to abort children or sell
them into slavery in order to ensure their family’s survival. It is said (very quietly) that these Kokeishi
dolls were created to comfort grieving mothers and/or to console the spirits of the erased children. The
doll’s head often squeaks when twisted gently, to mimic the cries of a child. There is very little written
literature in print today to substantiate this theory as the guild of Kokeishi makers controls what is
published about them.
The next theory comes from the worship of a deity called “Oshira-sama.” This deity, in the shape of a
stick with a simple face painted at one end and wrapped in a piece of cloth, was believed to ward off evil
spirits from a family’s home. It is a popular belief that the worship of this deity ultimately resulted in the
creation of Kokeishi dolls.
The history of the Kokeishi dolls is surprisingly new - only about 100 years old. This leads to the final
theory regarding the origin of Kokeishi dolls. These dolls are only found in the Tohoku area of Japan.
Oddly enough, Japanese wood craftsmen have been settled in this area, where hot springs abound, since
the seventh century. However, it has only been in the last one hundred years that Kokeishi dolls have
been sold to tourists visiting these hot springs of Tohoku. Why do the Kokeishi seem to suddenly appear
only in this area for such a short amount of time? Well, that remains a mystery.