Carvings Of Color: Kokeshi

You’ve likely already seen a Kokeshi, even if you find yourself reading the title above and wondering what exactly it means. The little wooden dolls have been around since Japan’s Edo period (1600 – 1868) and have remained around ever since. Beautiful in their simplicity, they are created out of a simple foundation consisting of a single piece of wood and then handpainted. Kokeshi traditionally do not have arms or legs and are signed by the artist on the base.

While current forms of Kokeshi come in all varieties, the first Kokeshi looked very much like what they were: folk art. First produced by wood artisians known as Kiji-shi, they were sold to visitors to the hot springs. Yep, it’s what you’re thinking — at one time Kokeshi were actually cheap souvenirs. You can certainly see the simplicity — I almost feel as if these originals are truer symbols of Japanese culture than the geisha-styled Kokeshi.

five.jpgPhoto by geishaboy500

Eventually, the patterns and shapes of Kokeshi became associated with the areas of Japan they were produced in. The eleven major classifications include Tsuchiyu, Togatta, Yajiro, Naruko, Sakunami, Yamagata, Kijiyama, Nanbu, Tsugaru, Zao-takayu, and Hijioro, the most popular being the Naruko style — the main street of the Naruko Hot Spring resort is actually known as Kokeshi Street!

Photo by Abbey Hendrickson

The creative form of Kokeshi, called Shingata, came about after World War II. At this point the appearance of the Kokeshi began to vary wildly. If you’d like to watch a Kokeshi being created, you can do so here.

Photo by chotda

If you have ever seen the Red Geisha (pictured above) from toy company tokyoplastic, you will notice that it is very much inspired by the clean lines of Kokeshi. Much to my delight, other modern designer vinyl artists are using the medium as well, including Julie West and M!ng. There was even an entire custom show last year dedicated to the dolls. I hope to see more of these creative takes on the classic doll in the future.

Photo by bluemodern

If you aren’t in the mood to go scouting for Kokeshi antiques, you can always check out Momiji, who do a beautiful modern take on the dolls at a very affordable price point. If you’re looking for something a little closer to the original pieces, Kokeshi Designs is a good resource. Either way, you’ll find these dolls bring a little bit of colorful joy wherever you choose to place them.

More photos of kokeshi:

Photo by Dolls of Japan

Photo by Teddy Setiawan

Photo by Michael Levy

Photo by Vinsen Junior

Photo by Majeak Ann

Colette has written for a number of video game websites including Gamasutra, Kotaku, and Destructoid and co-hosted one hundred episodes of gaming podcast RetroforceGo! She also founded her own collectible toy culture blog in 2008,, which has since served the needs of over 2 million plastic-obsessed readers.