Dolls, or ningyos, have long been a significant component of Japanese culture. Traditional Japanese dolls are more than souvenirs; they are given as formal gifts, displayed in the home, and used during festivals. There is a wide variety of types of Japanese dolls, some being more abstract and others being very lifelike. In this article, we’re going to take a look at ten types of traditional Japanese dolls.
1. Hina Dolls
Hina dolls are ornamental dolls that date back to Japan’s Heian period. As such, they wear outfits inspired by the Heian period. Hina dolls are used to celebrate Japan’s Girls’ Day (otherwise known as Hinamatsuri), a festival that is celebrated annually on 3rd March. Many families display Hina dolls on tiered platforms that are draped in red cloth. The arrangement of the dolls is important as the top tier always displays the Emperor and Empress. The number of platforms can vary, but typically there are six levels.
2. Daruma Dolls
Daruma dolls originated in 18th-century Japan and are meant to be an abstract representation of the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma. These stout and round dolls are intended to bring good luck, and are often bought around the New Year. Daruma dolls are usually purchased with no pupils – the idea is that you draw one pupil in when you set a goal and draw the second pupil once you achieve the goal. To find out more about the history of Daruma dolls, read our comprehensive guide.
3. Bunraku Puppets
Bunraku puppets are wooden, traditional Japanese dolls that are used in modern theatre performance, but date back to 17th-century Osaka. Since these puppets are used in live, dramatic performances, they need to be able to change emotions quickly. As such, Bunraku puppets are very complex, and typically require three puppeteers to operate. The puppeteers often create the costumes for the puppets, too. Due to their complexity, Bunraku puppets are hand-painted by specialists.
4. Gosho Dolls
A staple in Japanese culture for about 400 years, Gosho dolls are distinctive white and chubby figurines with large, round heads. During Japan’s Edo era, Gosho dolls were often gifted by the Imperial Household to diplomatic representatives; in turn, Gosho dolls are also known as palace dolls. The dolls are meant to represent babies and bring good luck to young children. Some dolls are naked; however, some wear bright, colourful garments and carry various objects.
5. Kokeshi Dolls
Another doll that originated in the Edo era is the Kokeshi doll. These dolls are simplistic yet beautiful with stunning painted designs and no arms or legs. Wood is the material used to make Kokeshi dolls and crafting them carefully requires skill. Although Kokeshi dolls are popular Japanese souvenirs, they make gorgeous collectable wooden gifts too. Typically, these minimalist dolls are painted in red, black or blue ink. Read our guide to Japanese Kokeshi dolls for more information on these traditional Japanese dolls.
6. Kimekomi Dolls
Kimekomi dolls are wooden dolls that are crafted using a technique founded in 18th-century Kyoto. Carving Kimekomi dolls is a skilful practice as distinct creases are carved in so that pieces of fabric can be tucked in. The beautifully designed fabrics that Kimekomi dolls wear form their traditional outfits.
7. Karakuri Dolls
Karakuri dolls are one of the most interesting types of Japanese dolls because they are automated. These mechanical dolls were first designed as far back as the 17th-century. In Japanese, karakuri means trick, which denotes the doll’s secret mechanisms to perform movements. Hidden springs and cogs are precisely and artfully layered into the dolls to enable their movements. Karakuri dolls can act out various movements, such as serving tea or dancing.
8. Gogatsu Dolls
Japan doesn’t only celebrate Girls’ Day; it also celebrates Boys’ Day! It is an annual festival that falls on 5th May each year. To celebrate, Japanese families with boys display the Gogatsu doll, also known as the doll warrior, with armour, a helmet and bow and arrow. The Gogatsu doll is thought to bring good luck and a healthy life for boys.
9. Okiagari Koboshi Dolls
Another traditional Japanese doll that was designed as a children’s toy is the Okiagari Koboshi doll. These dolls are roly-poly, papier-mache dolls and are designed to return upright when knocked over. In turn, Okiagari Koboshi dolls are a good luck symbol of resilience in times of adversity.
10. Iki Ningyo Dolls
Iki Ningyo dolls, also known as living dolls, are one of the most lifelike types of Japanese dolls. Expert detail is paid to both their facial features and their facial expressions. Historically, Iki Ningyo dolls were designed to be life-size – they were used by travelling performers, and people paid money to see the hyper-realistic dolls on display.
From Kokeshi dolls to Daruma dolls, there are so many fantastic types of Japanese dolls that are important elements of Japanese culture. Many Japanese dolls hold special meanings and can be displayed beautifully in the home. Take a look at our collection of authentic and intricate Japanese dolls that make amazing gifts or display pieces.