Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Japan on My Mind

The terrible events in Japan have weighed heavily on my mind these last few days. In the mountains we know about flooding and its devastation. I remember well a flood in Ripley, the town nearest to me, that occurred at the beginning of winter. Houses were inundated, and then it snowed; ice covered the frozen water and mud and people struggled to clean up their homes in frigid weather. Now I see that in Japan, it has snowed in some areas and rescue workers must contend with snow and ice on top of the monstrous tasks they already face. We all know the Japanese are resourceful, tough and determined people. They will get through this and I hope the international community will be working by their side. Still, my heart goes out to them.

I have been reading Japanese folktales and delving a bit into their culture as I prepare for this year's summer reading programs at libraries. I learned about Girl's Day and Boy's Day celebrations, and about the many dolls that are traditional in Japan. I began reading about Japanese dolls called kokeshi after finding these two small wooden dolls at Goodwill:

I felt sure they were Japanese but there were no markings to guide me. After a few futile searches, I learned that these were called kokeshi dolls and that there were many different styles, depending on the part of Japan from which the dolls came and the family that made them.

My particular dolls are called Ouchi bina dolls and come from Yamaguchi on the island of Honshu. I think this pair ended up in Ripley as a souvenir that came home with a military family. Ouchi bina dolls are painted to represent an emperor and empress, and according to the website of a company that makes them today, they are in memory of an emperor who married a lady from Kyoto. The lady missed her homeland, according to the story on the the Yamaguchi Furusato Heritage Center's site, and stayed indoors always. So her husband made a room for her and filled it with dolls. Dollmakers came to Yamaguchi to make more dolls for the empress and these dolls came to be called Ouchi dolls after the name of the emperor. They were made in pairs to as the emperor and his wife.

One feature of the dolls is that the empress always carries a fan. I had to look at my dolls to see, and sure enough, there was her fan ( on the right doll, right side below her face).

My little dolls cost me 25 cents each, but surprisingly they are valued at between $60 and $200 depending on their size. This little pair is almost 3" tall, which is tall for the type of doll, but they are not as round as many I found online, being less than 2" in diameter. The dolls are made of turned wood and painted with a special lacquer technique that has been around since about 1300 AD. They feel smooth and very nice in my hand.

I also found a third doll with these two: I think he must be a trickster of some sort because I tried several times to get a clear photo and this was the best I could do. He's also been giving me a pain trying to position his photo on this page. I have not yet identified exactly what type of kokeshi doll he is; if you know, please do tell!

In the course of looking for information about the Japanese dolls, I learned that my Russian nesting dolls called Matryoshka dolls were actually modeled on a Japanese nesting doll called a Fukuruma. The Russian dolls were presented at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900 and became immediately popular. My two dolls represent two different types of artwork. Both were made in 1993 and are signed by the artists on the bottom: the one on the left represents a folklife type of art with flowers and chickens while the one on the right is more detailed and finely crafted, with scenes from a Russian folktale. This second type is probably  what is called a "Pushkin" doll, with images based on Pushkin's fairy tales. She has beautiful gold leaf decorations. 

I have a third Russian doll which is not as well detailed as these two; according to what I have read she was probably made in the 1950's. Three things indicate this: the apron with flowers; her eyes, which are black while later dolls had blue eyes, and the simpler style of artwork.

It's funny how one small thing like a little wooden doll can lead a person down so many paths. I am not a doll collector by any means but these little pieces of folk art are intriguing. Their link to folklore and stories is what drew me but their history is really a story too.


TheresaandJay said...

Japan has been on my mind as well Sue. Such a tradegy, but the people are amazing. I have not heard one report of looting or crime, just a statement of needs, incredible. I like the dolls from Japan, although the last doll gave me quite a start, he (I assume he) is pretty scary looking! Keeping Japan in my prayers. Love you

Granny Sue said...

I almost didn't buy him because he was so angry looking, Theresa. I would like to find out more about this one. I thought he was a daruma doll at first. They're pretty cool. They come withblank white eyes; you color in one eye when you make a wish or set a goal, then fill in the other when the wish or goal is met. He doesn't quite fit the description though.


Fascinating account of your folk dolls. Our world is becoming smaller as we march along our time line. It is good to know the folk tales of other countries to help us understand one another. Being you are a professional story teller, I would think that what better way to show the humanness of others than through folk pieces such as you have.

I too cannot stop thinking of the Japanese people and the ultimate trauma that they are going through.

Excellent post -- barbara

Granny Sue said...

I will be posting a Japanese story tomorrow, Barbara. Their folktales are fascinating. I think if each of us could send a donation to Red Cross,that could surely make some difference. Money doesn't buy back lives or lost treasures but it can help make the pain of loss more bearable.

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