The Marginalian
The Marginalian

New Traditional: Japanese Figurines

The Japanese seem to have a knack for gracefully incorporating tradition with modernity. These three contemporary examples of doll-making based on traditional forms or values celebrate the familiar while reinventing in a way that is relevant to today’s aesthetic, and even environmental, concerns.


As part of a collaboration with the Los Angeles Toy, Doll & Amusements Museum, the Japanese American National Museum is exhibiting a large collection of Kokeshi dolls.

Divided into three parts, the exhibition contains examples of traditional dolls made by farmers in the Tohoku region of northern Japan.

The early versions consist of a simple wooden trunk and a round head with a few lines for eyes and a smile. The second section is comprised of versions by contemporary artists who, based on the simple Koseshi form, have produced everything from Krokeshi (crocheted Kokeshi) to works that explore the artists’ childhood memories of the dolls.

Travis Louis

For the “Custom” section, a reprise of a 2007 show in San Diego, over 100 artists, including David Horvath of Ugly Dolls fame and Amy Sol, were given an unpainted Kokeshi doll.

The result is a surprising array of painted and sometimes resculpted dolls. If you’ve got cash to spend, a number of these are for sale here.

Allison Sommers

The exhibition runs through October 4th.


While based on a painting done by the artist himself rather than on any specific traditional form, Fontana’s nestkeeper dolls are cast from the same silicon form and, like the Kokeshi, represent variations on a theme.

Though the mold is the same, the appearance and mood of the dolls range from benignly serene to menacing — depending both on how they are painted and for how long you stare at them.

The remaining dolls from the run of 30 are for sale on Fontana’s website.


The creation of conceptual artist blattke, the “dauntless gatekeepers” are the latest generation of Mumishi dolls. The dolls are incarnations of the many personalities of Mimushi, a Japanese Sumo kid with multiple personalities, adopted by American parents.

Though previous personalities, ranging from geisha to rasta, were made from vinyl, the dauntless gatekeepers series is hand-crafted from wood harvested from government regulated Amazon plantations.

The dauntless gatekeepers are said to guard Mimushi’s mind from his ever-multiplying and warring personalities. These dolls, dressed in an endless variety of wheat straw “diapers,” as opposed to the traditional sumo belt, are not only eco-friendly and whimsically storied, but also well-designed and beautifully crafted.

Because of the work that goes into each doll, only 80 are produced per month. The first series of 119 Mumishi dolls is still available, with the second series currently in production.

Meghan Walsh has a degree in Anglo-Irish Literature from Trinity College, Dublin and is finishing her thesis on J.P. Donleavy at NYU. She is currently working on two art exhibitions in New York City. For more of her writing check out her cooking blog.

Published September 22, 2009




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