Kokeshi: From Tohoku with Love by Manami Okazaki

Six years after the 3/11 triple disaster of Tohoku, Okazaki’s book continues to shine a light on the art and culture behind the region’s charming, endangered Kokeshi doll-making tradition.


Author info

Manami Okazaki is an author and journalist. She has produced 10 books on Japanese culture, art, crafts and fashion, which have been widely acclaimed by international media. She specializes in traditional Japanese culture, popular culture, travel, style, fashion and subcultures.


When it was first published in 2012, Manami Okazaki’s coffee table book, Kokeshi: From Tohoku with Love, highlighted traditional artisans from Tohoku, the region hit hard by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters of March 11, 2011. Proceeds from the first printing were donated to Tohoku-related charities, organizations that brought relief to locals afflicted by the disaster. The hardbound, full-colour reprint brings attention once again to an art form in danger of extinction, and to the people still struggling with the fallout of the triple disaster of 3/11, which resulted in 15,891 initial deaths and 2,579 missing persons. Tohoku residents have continued to suffer physical and psychological effects, and many displaced residents were forced to relocate to new communities, where they have suffered bullying and stigmatization in schools and at work. Okazaki’s book is an important reminder of Tohoku’s humanity and artistry.

Okazaki focuses on the production of Kokeshi, traditional handmade wooden dolls known for their lack of arms and legs and their charming painted faces. Kokeshi disciples spend a decade training to become official artisans, and because each doll is custom made with the greatest care, the process of ordering a doll to getting one in hand can take months. Kokeshi artisan numbers have dwindled since the advent of mass-produced, disposable plastic toys, but there’s currently a boom in interest among collectors who appreciate the Kokeshi’s craftsmanship and durability, and the rich beauty that each doll gains with age.

Originally, Kokeshi were children’s toys created out of scrap wood in hot spring towns during the 1800s. The dolls eventually became symbols of healing and rejuvenation, as visitors and workers travelled to the hot springs for the healing power of the natural waters. Okazaki’s book balances the history and variety of Kokeshi production with plenty of full-colour photos.

The photos also give us a glimpse into the workshops of contemporary Kokeshi artisans, and a step-by-step explanation of their process, transforming untreated wood (dogwood, camellia, painted maple, melon maple, zelkova and cherry, to name a few) into delicately painted Kokeshi dolls.

The book details 11 styles of traditional Kokeshi, as well as more contemporary styles. Okazaki also interviews 23 artisans, highlighting interesting differences in their personalities and styles. No interview asks exactly the same questions, so the chapters don’t get repetitive, and each interview includes pictures of the artist’s own Kokeshi. The overall picture is compelling for anyone interested in traditional Japanese culture, but will be especially great for readers who are also artists in their own right.

Of course, you don’t have to be an artist to appreciate the book. Okazaki includes resources for people who are interested in travelling to Tohoku to get their hands on a Kokeshi, as well as instructions for those who want to order one from abroad. One chapter lays out the directions to famous hot spring towns and museums where Kokeshi dolls are made, complete with an adorable illustrated map of the famous artistic and cultural symbols of Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Miyagi, Yamagata and Fukushima Prefectures. The nal chapters are devoted to introducing Tohoku’s famous hot springs and raucous culture festivals, an ideal primer for anyone planning to visit the region in the near future.


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