Dolls and tales

January 16, 2022

An exhibition showcases the traditional art of doll making and its significance in Japan

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Deep love for Ningyo dolls is a major aspect of Japanese culture. The culture of dolls bloomed in the 17th Century and became a part of every facet of the society. Amagatsu dolls were used as talismans by the Japanese imperial court for over a century. Every doll has a unique story related to Japanese culture and customs. In the early 7th Century, simple dolls made from wooden planks were thought to have the power to protect against future misfortunes. These dolls were later left to float in rivers.

The exhibition, titled Ningyo: Art and Beauty of Japanese Dolls, opened at the National Art Gallery in Islamabad on January 11. Literally, ningyo which means “human shape.” The travelling exhibition shows shapes of prayer and embodiments of love through dolls. Initially, 67 dolls, reflecting Japanese customs and possessing distinctive regional attributes, were showcased.

The event was inaugurated by Ambassador Wada Mitsuhiro and Andleeb Abbas the parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs.

Amagatsu and Hoko dolls are usually made before the birth of babies. They are placed near the pillow with a belief that they will ward off evil. The reason behind the T shape of dolls is that they are also used as hangers for the newborn’s clothes.

Zarak Khan, from Quetta, observed, “Japanese people are presenting their history in a modern way through such exhibitions. Japanese culture is rich in every aspect. They love to promote dolls. During my recent visit to Japan, I noticed such dolls in local markets.”

“Here, I see several unique pieces like Tachi-bina and Jimmu, each with a concept and history. It’s delightful that even in the 21st Century, Japan is promoting its age-old culture, arts and artists,” he added.

The left corner of the exhibition venue showcased two dolls standing together. These were Tachi-bina dolls that represent a standing couple. The dolls wore traditional Japanese dress, considered one of the oldest forms taken by Hina-Ningyo, also known as girls’ festive dolls. Another doll couple represented a young warrior and his wife from about 500 years ago.

Amina Asad, an artist, said this was not just an exhibition related to dolls but also a showcasing of Japanese beliefs and love for dolls.

“Today I realised how rich Japan’s culture is and what these dolls mean in their society. The information about the first Japanese emperor and his role was an additional benefit for me,” she said.

The exhibition also depicted the imperial age and customs. Sannin-Kanjo, the three female maid dolls, represent the role of female servants to the emperor and empresses belonging to the Edo period (1603-1868). The dolls hold traditional Shimadai, Nagae and Kuwae, items used during weddings and functions.

A bearded man with a crown, named Emperor Jimmu, was the first known emperor of Japan. The doll depicted a legend about his rise. It showed that during a battle against his enemies, a shining golden hawk appeared and landed on the tip of his spear, blinding his enemies and bringing victory for him.

Sanae, an elderly visitor, said she has great love for art, culture and puppets. She said that Japanese culture was very creative and engaging. “They are working on dolls and pursuing their culture even in the current digital age. The dolls are crafted with love and using a technique that shows their affection and love for their heritage,” she said.

Kintaro possesses superhuman strength and is a friend of animals, especially bears. The Kintaro doll represents a youth who resided in the mountains during the Hein period (794-1185). The Japanese believe that Kintaro grew up as a legendary, distinguished warrior who protected the people of the city. These dolls are often gifted as a symbol of healthy and happy growth of male children.

Ambassador Wada mentioned that the dolls have been an important part of Japanese culture for centuries and reflect the history of Japan from prehistoric to modern times. “The main purpose of this exhibition is to give visitors a closer glimpse at the versatility and individuality of traditional and cultural life of Japanese people” he concluded.

In Japan ningyo is considered a fine art. The members of the upper class and the Japanese imperial court had a particular love for dolls, especially those with refined craftsmanship. Gosho-Ningyo dolls, that signify exemplary health, were popular gifts during celebrations at the imperial court. The general shapes are made from wood or sawdust. The finishing touches are employed with a thick white paint made from crushed shells, giving them a noticeable lustre.

Japan began modernising in the late 19th Century. 13,000 dolls were then sent by the United States as gifts for the children of Japan in 1927. These were greatly welcomed. Eventually Japan sent 58 dolls to the United States.

The ningyo doll culture is also associated with traditional performing arts. Joruri is used for traditional puppet theatre. Three people operate a single doll and recite a story using impressive voices. The Japanese believe that the art of ningyo has the power to bridge differences of race and ethnicity. So far, it has appealed to the whimsical child in all of us.


The writer is an Islamabad based journalist and documentary producer.

Email: jranasahmed18yahoo.com



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