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Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Japanese Doll Festival Celebrates Early this Year; Theriault's Cabaret

See, below, from Florence Theriault.  I have collected Japanese doll my entire life, and I have a doll from Kyoto that dates to the Korean War, brought to me by my uncle.  Great essay, and a wonderful auction upcoming!

It is a mystery to me that this rich and highly artistic genre of doll collecting has remained largely unexplored by Western world doll collectors. Perhaps it’s something as simple as language barriers, for, admittedly, Japanese is not a common language taught in American schools. Yet, how easy to start from this simple lesson. Ningyō means doll. Say the word. Ningyō. Ning rhymes with ring. Yo rhymes with go. Ningyō. Say the word ten times. Now you’re on your way.

Perhaps it is feeling that these dolls are too strange, too apart from the common doll “experience” of Western children and Western doll collectors. We are taught that they are formal, stylized, historic, and never, never, play dolls. But consider these commonalities with the European dolls that American collectors so avidly seek.

• Just as Paris was the center of French doll-making in the 18th and 19th centuries, so was Kyoto the center of Japanese doll-making at that time. Small studios buzzed with activity throughout both cities – and, not incidentally, both cities were considered the apex of artistic and intellectual pursuits in their respective countries.

• Just as the Parisian (and English and German) dolls were constructed of wood or paper-mache in the 1700s and early 1800s, so, too, were those of Japan. In both cultures, the sculpting and painting of the dolls reflected current notions of elegance or refinement: the aquiline nose of the European aristocracy, and the distinctive “sky-brows” of dolls of Japanese nobility, as examples.

• Just as the Paris doll world was composed of a number of small ateliers, so was that of Kyoto. Even the construction of the dolls – largely a matter of assembly of parts from various specialists, wigs from one atelier, textiles and costumes from another, carved wooden parts from still one more – was a similar pattern in both cities. As a result, early 1800s dolls from both cultures were largely identified by the shop which sold the doll rather than the assembler; collectors of French poupees speak, for example, of their Simonne doll, although Simonne was a doll shop, not a doll maker. Although in France, by the end of the 1800s, large named doll-making firms, notably Jumeau, presented dolls under their own name, Parisian doll shops such as Au Nain Bleu, and even Parisian department stores such as Au Bon Marche who offered their Bebe Au Bon Marche, continued to offer assembled dolls, and in Japan, according to scholar Alan Scott Pate (Japanese Dolls, The Fascinating World of Ningyo, page 240) “Meiji-era manufacturing...was executed mostly by anonymous artists working closely with wholesalers and dolls shops which sold them under their own brand names”.

• Costuming was of utmost concern in both worlds. So it can be of no small coincidence that in both cultures, the bodies of early dolls (except exposed hands and feet) were crude and simplistic: for these early dolls, swathed with luxury fabrics that were permanently affixed, the hidden body was of little consequence except that it be durable. Then, beginning in the late 1700s, dolls of both cultures were designed with the notion of dress/undress/re-dress and the style of body began to change to accommodate this. In Japan, the flexible padded upper arm was introduced to allow the doll to be easily undressed, as well as the mitsuore-ningyō or triple-jointed doll, designed for articulated play; in France, the early notion of tacking-on or stitching the costume to the body evolved into costumes with drawstrings or hooks and eyes, and the construction of a doll body that was realistic as well as malleable became an industry obsession, hence the development of the articulated wooden body. In a delightful confluence of the two worlds, it was the Japanese mitsuore-ningyō, presented at the London Universal Exhibition of 1851, that is said to have been the major influence on the development of the Western articulated child doll.

• Entire industries concerning the costuming of the doll grew up in each culture. It is often remarked upon by admiring collectors of 18th/19th century Western dolls that even the scale of woven pattern was miniaturized to match the size of the doll. So, too, is this true with Japanese dolls. The use of woven symbols (fleur-de-lis in France, chrysanthemum in Japan, for example) is a commonality, just as the presence of luxury fabrics signaled the importance of a doll; in both cultures, velvets, brocades, or other fabrics with interwoven gold or silver threads were important statements of prestige.

• Just as the Western dolls celebrated their heroes and heroines in the form of dolls – from Empress Eugenie to George Washington – so, too, did the Japanese – from Empress Jingu to military warlord Hideyoshi.

• And what of play? There is a commonly-held belief that Japanese ningyō were not play dolls. True, and yet not true. They were not play dolls in the rough-and-tumble sense that we often associate with American play. Yet, they were play in that they were designed to visually stir the imagination, to teach proper societal roles, to instill a sense of fashion and style. Not unlike, in fact, their counterpart English wooden court dolls or French bisque poupees with fashionable trousseaux and elaborate coiffures. Further, the notion that Western world dolls were all subjected to vigorous play is distorted; in fact, in the 1800s owning a “store-bought” doll was a luxury and many a story has been recounted that “My doll was kept stored away and I was only allowed throughout my childhood to bring it out of its box at Christmas to display it under the holiday tree”. Not so very different than the Japanese hina matsuri or Girl’s Day dolls!

Finally, in both cultures, there is a desire for preservation, a link with the past. Most simply, for the doll to remain in the family, to pass from generation to generation. As collectors know, this is not always possible. There, then, remains the next best choice. That is for dolls – for ningyō – to pass into the hands of other caring people who will preserve their significance, their beauty, their history. That is what Norman Carabet achieved over his decades of collecting, and the opportunity that he now offers to a new generation of those who cherish the past.

– Florence Theriault

Traveling & Information
The Fairmont Hotel is located at 4500 MacArthur Boulevard, Newport Beach, California 92660. For hotel information or reservations call 949-476-2001. Ask for the special Theriault’s room rate. For auction information call Theriault’s at 800-638-0422 or online at

Coming to the auction is the most fun. Choose the dolls that “speak” to you, and have the fun of bidding and winning in person. Meet new friends. Convene with old friends. Laugh and enjoy, and don’t forget the hot fudge sundaes! And if you absolutely can't be there to bid, remember that you can bid absentee, bid live on the telephone, or bid live on the internet. For more information, please contact us at 800-638-0422, email us at or

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