by Stefan Chiarantano, Aug 30, 2005 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

I love visiting second hand stores and flea markets. It's an opportunity to examine what people have given away and is now up for sale. Many cities and towns now hold regular flea markets and there is a crop of second hand stores springing up in many locations throughout Japan as I can personally attest to. Sometimes, I buy something and when I do, I buy something that appeals to me on some level and/or would make a nice souvenir for a friend and/or family member. I only buy things Japanese and nothing costing more than a few dollars.

This is how I came to discover kokeshi dolls. When I first spotted them, I was intrigued and my interest was piqued. They reminded me of the Ukrainian wooden dolls. Was there a connection? I had to find out.

What are kokeshi? Well, they are handcrafted dolls made of wood. They don't have arms or legs. Their heads and bodies are cylindrical in shape. Actually, I did find a kokeshi doll with arms and legs. Perhaps, this is an exception to the rule. Their faces and bodies are hand painted. Today, they are sold as souvenirs or decorative objects. They have now become collector's items and you can even buy them on e-bay. There is even a kokeshi museum in Japan. While they are made today as souvenirs and sold in many parts of Japan, their original purpose is rooted in sadness.

During the Edo and even early Meiji period and most likely dating from previous eras, kokeshi served as reminders of newborn children who were put down by their very poor families who hadn't the means to look after them. This practice was outlawed in the Meiji period and made a punishable offence. It's hard to believe but infanticide was once practiced in Japan. Some of my Japanese acquaintances have told me that infanticide was a form of family planning. As food was scarce and given that some areas were poverty stricken, the practice arose out of necessity. I won't go into details on how the earlier Japanese went about the business of putting down their infants. There were no other means available to the very poor to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. There are testimonials on public record that provide the gruesome details and one could seek them out should one be so inclined to do so.

The earlier Japanese weren't without feeling and regretted their actions and so the tradition of kokeshi dolls came about. Kokeshi were reminders of the dead children to whom the Japanese offered prayers and asked for forgiveness for terminating their lives.

So, kokeshi come from a tradition of remembering the spirits of children whose lives were cut short because of poverty and lack of food. The earlier dolls were cruder and not as fancy as the present ones that are now available throughout Japan.

By rummaging through second hand stores and checking out flea markets, I was able to pick up quite a few kokeshi. Some I learned date to the Taisho period and got for a few hundred yen. Now, that's a bargain.

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