Book review – Ningyo: The Art of the Japanese Doll


NINGYOI received an absolute treat in the post last week; an absolutely beautiful book about the history of Japanese dolls, ningyo.

Japanese ningyo are instantly recognisably by the mysterious and intricate beauty, and you are inevitably drawn to the tiniest details in the face, clothes or item they are holding. They have played a very important part in Japanese history and culture, and still do today. I knew very little about the ningyo themselves, so this book is an absolute treasure trove of information.

‘Ningyo: The Art of the Japanese Doll’  is the first comprehensive book on these dolls published in English and focuses on six of the primary categories of dolls:

Gosho-ningyo: Palace Dolls and Auspicious Wishes

Hina-ningyo: Dolls for Girl’s Day Festival

Musha-ningyo: Warrior Dolls for the Boy’s Day Festival

Isho-ningyo: Fashion Dolls and Popular Culture

Ningyo in the theatre: Entertaining the Gods and Man

Ningyo and health: Dolls as Talisman and Tool

As soon as I unboxed this book, I could tell it was a labour of love. With 275 pictures of various ningyo and other familiar Japanese scenes and an immaculate hardback cover, it is a book you can return to again and again knowing you will always read and spot something new. It’s definitely too big to fit on your bookshelf, nestled among (I assume) your Haruki Murakami and manga, but it’s perfect for displaying on the coffee table and showing off to your guests. This is a book that needs to be seen and have pride and place in your reading area, wherever that may be.

That said, this isn’t just a pretty picture book but also a history book (and a very thorough one at that). ‘Ningyo’ explores everything from the nature of materials used to create the dolls, to what they teach us about people from that period, to their spiritual purpose. Japanese doll culture raises three important historical and cultural issues: worship, play and visual appreciation. The earliest ningyo date back to 12000-250BC but most surviving dolls, and the focus of this book, are from the Edo period. As a history graduate and Japanophile, this is the pretty much for the perfect book for me.

The brains behind this book are Alan Scott Pate, a leading expert on Japanese dolls in the US and owner of the Japanese antique firm Akanezumiya in Montana, and Lynton Gardiner, a Manhattan-based photographer specialising in arts and culture material. Alan has an MA in East Asian Studies from Harvard University, curated exhibitions and lectured extensively on Japanese dolls, and Lynton has photographed for big name clients all over the world. So, we know we’re in safe, knowledgeable hands.

Because there’s so much brilliant information in ‘Ningyo’, and I’m still reading through it myself, I thought the best way to review this would be to work briefly through each of the six sections and tell you a little bit about the dolls.

 Gosho-ningyo 

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Ningyo, including gosho-ningyo, or ‘palace dolls’, are unusual in the doll world as, rather than being playthings for children, they are set pieces for adults. They depict children pretending to be adults, which is why the dolls in this section of the book really do look ‘child-like’. Gosho-ningyo reflect the Japanese appreciation for childlike innocence. Also, visiting daimyo, samurai warlords, to the imperial court were required to bring gifts as tribute and often gave gosho-ningyo holding particular items to convey a particular message or wish for the recipient; such as health, fertility or success for a son. In later history, they also depicted gods and figures of legends, often appearing in sets. Importantly, gasho-ningyo were received as gifts and kept as talismans.

Hina-ningyo

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Literally meaning ‘girl dolls’, hina-ningyo are special dolls made for the Girl’s Festival (hina matsuri) in Japan. The hina matsuri, seen as a day of purification and steeped in talisman and ritual history, is linked with the traditions of the Japanese court; court practices and government restrictions played a role in the development of these dolls. The earliest festivals were effectively a mock court wedding, preparing girls for married life. Dolls were seen to help protect children and newborn babies from disease and evil forces in ages where the infant mortality rate was high. This is why ‘amagatsu’ were placed alongside the hina-ningyo at the hina matsuri as they were believed to carry away the evil spirits from the afterworld afflicting children. Hina dolls were usually depicted in pairs, as male and female.

Musha-ningyo

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Where the hina-ningyo are symbols of the hina matsuri, musha-ningyo are symbols of the Boy’s Festival (Gogatsu-no-getsu). These figures typically depicted figures of Japan’s martial past and also served as temporary vessels for their spirits, protecting and purifying the houses that welcomed them. The Gogatsu-no-getsu festival was a celebration of samurai as protectors, as well as boy’s courage and determination. Famous samurai such as Musashibo Benkei, Minamoto no Yoshitsune and Toyotomi Hideyoshi all received the musha-ningyo treatment.

Isho-ningyo

As we’ve already read, ningyo weren’t so much playthings as they were informative. What began in the seventeenth century as wood-carved figures depicting lively costuming and hairstyles of the day evolved into a sophisticated illustration of nearly every topic from kimono fashion to plays on the kabuki stage. These were the isho-ningyo. Clothing was the focus of the earlier Edo period isho-ningyo, and dolls were designed to be eye-catching and beautiful, but by the end of the seventeenth century they had evolved to depict characters from popular stories and legends.

Ningyo in the theatre

Ningyo were not necessarily always stationary, they were also used for entertainment. Mechanical dolls were originally imported from China and the establishment of the establishment of a theatres in Osaka saw the rise of elaborate plays involving large mechanical dolls, which delighted audiences. This form of puppetry was known as ningyo joruri, or bunraku, which was influenced by early Buddhist traditions  of using puppets to help monks communicate with the gods. Bunraku puppet plays often involved the most dramatic and complex stories, and yet they were expertly communicated not through human actors but elaborately constructed puppets.

Ningyo and health

We’ve already read that ningyo were often used to ward off evil and act as vessels of the dead, so it not a big surprise that they also performed duties as health talismans. Ningyo were culturally empowered to absorb or divert disease and the malevolent, thereby purifying the individual.  Red-coloured ningyo, hoso-ningyo, primarily protected children from smallpox and measles as the colour had much symbolic power attached to it. Other examples of ningyo used to aid health include those allowing people to study the human body as early as the sixteenth century, and even mechanical sex dolls.

So, today we’ve learned that ningyo were not merely playthings but symbolic works of art in Japanese culture. I’d go so far as to say that this is the best thing I have received through my Japan blogging journey. A massive thank you to Jo and Tuttle Publishing for giving me a rare opportunity to review such an amazing book. You can expect a few more ningyo-related blog posts from me in the next few weeks, as there are many more things in this book I want to share!

This beautiful book is a must-have for any fan of Japanese culture (I’m looking at all my fellow Japan bloggers)! It really is worth buying and displaying proudly in your home and seeing for yourself, or buying for a Japan-loving friend as a birthday/Christmas present. At $52.94 (£32.11), it’s 200% worth the money! Click here to get yours!

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