Traditional Japanese Crafts: The Complete Guide to Japanese Dolls

Japanese dolls are a traditional craft that Japan takes great pride in. From charmingly simple "kokeshi dolls" to intricate "hina dolls," there are various types of Japanese dolls that can be found across the country. There are even dolls specific to certain locations, such as the "Hakata dolls" from Hakata, Fukuoka that have a dedicated fan base thanks to their delicate beauty. In this article, we will delve deep into the world of Japanese dolls, introducing and giving explanations for each one.


Japanese Culture

Hakata Dolls

The Characteristics of Hakata Dolls

Hakata dolls are a type of traditional, unglazed clay figure that is classified as a traditional Japanese craft. However, you wouldn’t think that they were unglazed due to their beautiful, curvy shapes and fine details. The characteristic delicate features of the dolls are enough to captivate anyone.
The most famous Hakata dolls are those of beautiful women whose realistic expressions, skin, and curvy kimono lines have perfectly captured the beauty of Japanese women through the ages.
Hakata dolls are known for being some of the most delicately-made Japanese clay figurines. In contrast to most clay dolls in Japan, which are made using a single, two-part mold, Hakata dolls’ hands, fingers, and other fine parts are sculpted separately and then attached to the figures. This is what allows them to be so intricately expressive.
Hakata dolls are made from white clay and are mainly produced in the Hakata area of Fukuoka in northern Kyushu. After creating a clay model of the doll, the artist uses plaster to create a mold which is then filled with clay and biscuit-fired (without glaze). Next, the artist paints the doll using gofun (a whitewash powder made from fired seashells, used in traditional Japanese paintings), distemper (powdery paint mixed with gofun), and natural mineral pigments. Even today, the painting process, including the painting of the facial expressions, is done by hand.

Another characteristic of Hakata dolls is that they come in many different varieties, depicting everything from beautiful women (bijin mono), to the subject matters of traditional Japanese kabuki and noh theater (kabuki mono and noh mono), to the figures of children (wappa mono).
Particularly popular Hakata dolls include those of Fukusuke (seen above), a man with a big head kneeling “seiza” style, as well as those of Fukujo (a female version of Fukusuke), both of which are said to bring good luck.

The History of Hakata Dolls

The Hakata area has long had contact with the Asian mainland thanks to their relative proximity. Because of this, many parts of the continent’s culture made their way to Hakata, including a love for unglazed clay dolls, which have existed in Japan for over 800 years (arriving around the year 1200).
In the year 1600, Nagamasa Kuroda was appointed the new feudal lord of Fukuoka Prefecture (then known as Chikuzen Province), which includes Hakata. He gathered many craftsmen to build his new residence, the Fukuoka Maizuru Castle. Among them was the person said to have created the first Hakata dolls: Soshichi Masaki III, a clay roof tile craftsman.
He used the roof tile clay to create Noh theater masks (called omen) and dolls (called Soshichi-yaki), the best of which were presented to Nagamasa Kuroda as gifts and were considered the first Hakata dolls. At the time, Hakata dolls were high-quality items, beyond the reach of commoners. But around 1818 to 1830, a craftsman named Kichibe Nakanoko started producing painted, unglazed dolls made especially for commoners. They became the model for the Hakata dolls that we know today. Thanks to the later efforts of Nakanoko and his contemporary Buhei Shirouzu, Hakata dolls became known all over Japan.

In the second half of the 19th century, Japan finally opened itself to the world after years of no contact with all but a few countries. Thanks to this, in 1900, Japan was able to take part in the Paris World Expo, where many Japanese antiques and traditional crafts were displayed, including Hakata dolls. They were very well received, and Hakata dolls later appeared at other international exhibitions as well, such as the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris, where Hakata doll craftsman Yoichi Kojima won a silver medal for his Three Maiko*. After that, Hakata dolls became world-famous.    
* The picture above shows a bronze statue inspired by the Three Maiko dolls that won a silver medal at the Paris exhibition.
On a side note, people only started calling these dolls “Hakata dolls” around 1890. Before, when they had been presented at National Industrial Exhibitions held across Japan, they were identified as “Hakata Biscuit-Fired Dolls.” At the third National Industrial Exhibition, however, the “biscuit-fired” part was dropped and the figurines have been known as Hakata dolls ever since.

Hakata Dolls Today

Until 50 years ago or so, it wasn’t common for Japanese people to travel abroad. Even most newlyweds tended to choose somewhere in Japan for their honeymoon. It was also a time when many people lived in traditional Japanese-style houses which had “tokonoma” alcoves (the dark stand seen above) and “kazaridana,” cabinets for displaying ornaments. Many of them used to display Hakata dolls which Japanese people got for each other as souvenirs or as gifts to celebrate the birth of a child.
However, nowadays, many people travel abroad for their holidays and most live in apartments and other Western-style homes instead of Japanese-style houses. Many lack spaces for displaying traditional decorations, leading to a decline in demand for items like the relatively large Japanese dolls. That’s not to say that Hakata dolls have disappeared completely from Japanese homes, however. To be better suited to modern needs, the dolls have begun to evolve without losing their traditional value.

Hina Dolls

In Japan, March 3rd is called "Momo no Sekku," meaning "Festival of Peaches." This day, often called "Hinamatsuri," is a day to pray for the happiness and healthy upbringing of young girls. An indispensable part of this tradition is the gorgeous dolls, called "hina dolls," which are stunning examples of traditional Japanese crafts.

Types of Hina Dolls

Hina dolls are displayed in a pair, with a male doll called the "obina" and a female doll called the "mebina." Together, they are called the "dairibina" or "odairisama," and represent the Emperor and Empress. The dolls are divided into two main categories: "kimekomi-ningyo" and "ishogi-hina-ningyo." These types of hina dolls will be explained below.


These dolls are made by creating a shape out of wood or clay, carving the folds and wrinkles of the kimono into the mold, and then tucking the edges of the cloth into the grooves. This type of manufacturing process produces dolls that are known for their round shape. A famous example of the kimekomi-ningyo is the "Edo-kimekomi-ningyo" (Edo wooden doll). The eyes of the doll are handpainted, so the doll's expressions can vary from artisan to artisan.


This type of doll is widely popular nationwide and is made by layering kimono to build up the shape over a base of wood or straw. These hina dolls are known for their mature, realistic faces that highly resemble a real human face. In this article, we will delve deeper into the world of these popular ishogi-hina-ningyo.

Arrangement of the Hina Dolls and the Meanings Behind It

The arrangement as seen in the above picture is often called "nanadan kazari" (seven-level display) or "jugonin kazari" (fifteen-person display) and is the most extravagant way to display the dolls.

A red cloth called a "himosen" is laid over the staircase-like platform, and the obina and mebina sit on pedestals called "shinnodai" atop the highest level. "Bonbori" (paper-covered lanterns used as lighting fixtures for candles) are set on each side, and a golden "byobu" (folding screens that are used as partitions or decorations) is placed behind the dairibina.

On the second level are the "sannin-kanjo," the three court ladies that attend the odairisama. The third level hosts the "gonin-bayashi," the three male musicians who play traditional Japanese music called "gagaku." On the fourth level are the martial arts specialists, the imperial guard major general (on the left side of the photo; commonly called "udaijin") and the imperial guard lieutenant general (on the right side of the photo; commonly called "sadaijin"). The fifth level holds three male local workers called the "shicho."

The sixth and seventh levels are not decorated by any dolls, but instead by "yome-iri-dogu," which are tools and furniture such as dressers that the daughter will need when she marries and moves away. One of the most famous of these decorations is a craft called "suruga-bina-gu." All these decorations are made in the same way the real items are made, down to the smallest detail.

The obina holds a sword, the mebina holds a fan, and each of the other dolls holds an exquisite miniature-sized prop that is related to its profession. The tiny swords can even be removed from their sheaths. The clothing that the dolls wear is an accurate recreation of aristocrats' formal wear during the Heian period (794 - 1192). The gorgeous, vividly-colored 12-layer robe that adorns the mebina is called "itsutsuginu-karaginumo" (commonly known as "juni-hitoe") and weighed between 10 - 20 kilograms in real life.

History of the Hina Doll Shape

The origins of the hina doll date far back in history, with its exact beginnings unknown. Around 11,000 years ago, however, the first human-shaped doll figures were made out of clay, and these are believed to have gradually developed into the prototype for hina dolls. It is unclear exactly what these clay figurines were used for, but it is thought that they were likely used for occultic purposes.

This changed during the Heian period (794 - 1192) when the aristocratic culture of Japan flourished and the aristocracy began using human-shaped paper dolls called "hitokata" and "katashiro."

By breathing on or touching the hitokata and katashiro dolls, it was believed that the doll would take one's place and all the bad energy would be transferred to the doll. There was an occult ritual where the dolls would then be sent away in the rivers or oceans, washing away your misfortunes such as disease or calamities with it. The custom of washing away the doll in water was called "nagashi-bina," and at some point the dolls would no longer be sent away but instead decorated alongside a river or ocean, becoming a protective charm in order to avoid disaster. This is considered to be one of the origins of the hina doll.

However, during the same era, there were two other dolls called "amagatsu" and "hoko" that would also make an appearance.

These dolls had the same use as the katashiro and hitokata, but served as substitutions for young children. By placing the dolls next to the children, any impending disaster awaiting the child would be transferred to the doll instead. During the Heian period, this occult custom was mainly practiced among the aristocrats, but it also spread to the common people in the 265 years between 1603 and 1867. Amagatsu were decorated to represent boys, and hoko were decorated to represent girls. These were some of the prototypes for the current obina and mebina.

Hina Dolls in the Current Day

Even today, the tradition to gift hina dolls when a baby girl is born remains, and due to this, the dolls can be bought at a relatively inexpensive price. However, because these are products that are meant to be used for an entire lifetime, many people buy dolls made by craftsmen from specialty doll stores.

Additionally, many people pay special attention to the mebina's face when ordering hina dolls, for even if the shape of the doll a craftsman makes is from the same mold, the minute details such as the eye shape can be adjusted by hand with a chisel. Even the eyelashes, eyebrows, and the growth of the hair from the roots to the nape of the neck are drawn on one strand at a time with a brush. That is why it is said no two hina dolls look the same, and there are many people who order hina dolls to resemble the newborn baby girl for whom the dolls are for.

There is a superstition that if you leave the hina dolls on display later than March 3rd, your daughter will not be able to get married for a long time. Because of this, "shinno-kazari" hina dolls are very popular as they consist of just the obina and mebina in a clear case, making them easy to buy and easy to clean up. Another reason for their popularity is the size of current apartments and houses, with some households not having enough room to display an entire set.


Hina dolls are one of Japan's foremost traditional crafts, with their shape gradually changing over time. Current hina dolls contain the essence of the craftsmen's skills that they have honed over time, as well as the wishes of the families hoping for the happiness and healthy upbringing of their newborn daughters.


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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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