Traditional Handicraft of Kyoto: Kyo Ningyo

Dolls have always played a very important role in the Japanese culture. Among the various types of Japanese dolls, Kyo Ningyo, or Kyoto dolls, are known as premium-quality pieces made by craftsmen in Kyoto using the traditional techniques handed down in the region. In order to shed light on Kyo Ningyo, we interviewed Mr. Bunzo Moriguchi, the president of the Kyo-Ningyo Commerce and Industry Cooperative.










From Objects of Black Magic to Children’s Toys: A History of Japanese Dolls

The history of Japanese dolls dates back to the clay figures of the Jomon era and burial-mound figures of the Kofun era. Evidence shows that these figures were employed in religious rituals and black magic. During the Heian era, dolls and other forms of human figures were sacrificed as effigies in order to drive away disease and bad luck. The custom of Nagashi Bina, or floating paper dolls downriver in the hope of washing away impurities, continues today in some parts of Japan.

Gradually, these “human figures” were dissociated with the customs and rituals of casting spells and became toys for young girls. During the Heian era, when the Culture of the Court Salon was flowering, playing with dolls became a popular pastime among the daughters of noble families. Dolls made by craftsmen in Kyoto were loved by noble children, and naturally their skills were honed in the city known as the home of aristocratic culture.


What Are Kyo Ningyo?

Given such a background, the evolution of Japanese dolls has a strong correlation to Kyoto. Even in the Edo period, when the seat of government moved to what is now Tokyo, Kyoto remained the home of Japan’s doll culture, which continued to evolve. Thus the long handicraft history of Kyoto and the sophisticated artisan skills available in the region have always supported the high quality of Kyo Ningyo.

A Kyo Ningyo primarily consists of a head, hair, hands and legs, gadgetry and clothes, which are all made by different artisans.

The head is made through a series of steps that include the creation of the original head form, drawing the eyes, brushing on the eyebrows, lips and nape, and polishing. The hair expert then chisels narrow grooves in the head and implants hairs, after which Japanese paper is pasted in with starch to create the hairstyle. The hair is then bonded with gelatin and decorated with combs, ornaments, etc. It is then forwarded to the clothing expert.

The hands and legs are made by the hand-and-leg expert. The making of gadgetry involves such steps as molding, powder painting, upholstering and painting.

The clothing expert makes the torso of the doll, secures it, and attaches the hands and legs by inserting wires into the torso. The head is then attached to the clothed figure, bringing the doll to completion. The bending of the arms is considered the most difficult part of clothing the doll.


Five Representative Types of Kyo Ningyo

Hina Ningyo

As the mainstream type of Kyo Ningyo, the Hina Ningyo doll–traditionally dressed in a beautiful costume–is produced in the largest quantities today. The long history of Hina Ningyo dates back to the middle of the Heian era (approximately 1,000 years ago). Dolls originally used as tools in sacred purification ceremonies became the favorite Hiina (small, paper-made) toys among the daughters of noble families, which subsequently evolved into beautifully dressed Hina Ningyo.

Gogatsu Ningyo

These dolls decorate houses on and around the day of the Boys’ Festival. Gogatsu Ningyo is the general term for dolls made after famous war commanders and heroes in history, and body-armor, a helmet and ornaments are displayed along with the doll. The armor and helmets for dolls made in Kyoto for the Boys’ Festival have very high artistic value, as they are accurate miniature representations of the actual items.

Gosyo Ningyo

Many of these powder-glue dolls, shaped in the figures of small children, are known for their rounded bodies and white, glowing skin.

The production of Gosyo Ningyo began in the Edo period as gifts from the Court, and these dolls were known by many different names, such as Hairyo Ningyo, Ouchi Ningyo, Shirajishi and Zudai. In the Taisho era, Gosyo Ningyo was adopted as the standard name for these dolls. Because the production process takes as long as a year, very few Gosyo Ningyo dolls are made. These dolls command great respect in the market and culture.

Ichimatsu Ningyo

These clothed child dolls are also called Yamato Ningyo. A boy doll wears a formal half-length coat and pleated trousers, while a girl doll generally has bobbed hair and a long-sleeved kimono. Ichimatsu Ningyo were originally made as good-luck charms for children, being known as Amagatsu and Houko. They were also called Migawari Ningyo, or scapegoat dolls, due to their role of shouldering the bad luck the children can experience. Today, Ichimatsu Ningyo are popular not only as decorative dolls but also as practical toys.

Fuzoku Ningyo

Fuzoku Ningyo, often displayed in a glass case, is, along with Hina Ningyo, the most representative form of Kyo Ningyo.

Many of these dolls are themed after the trends and cultures of the times, especially Noh, Kyogen, theatrical plays and popular dances, with Harukoma, Osanrin, Dojoji, Shiokumi and Fujimusume being the popular stories that inspired Fuzoku Ningyo designs.


Interview with President Bunzo Moriguchi 

TheKyo-Ningyo Commerce and Industry Cooperative now counts a membership of 32 establishments. Dolls are deeply rooted in the cultures and customs of five seasonal festivals in Japan, including the Festival of the Seven Herbs of Health on January 7 (Jinjitsu), the Doll Festival on March 3 (Joshi), the Boys’ Festival on May 5 (Tango), the Star Festival on July 7 (Shichiseki) and the Chrysanthemum Festival on September 9 (Choyo), all of which are celebrated throughout Japan. The cooperative organizes events and programs in order to promote the Doll Festival and Boys’ Festival against the decrease in the number of children, and will host a doll fair next fall to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the organization. The Cooperative continues its interaction with different groups and parties in order to preserve the traditional handicraft of Kyoto.


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