Gogatsu Ningyo

Gogatsu Ningyō & Hina - the century-old craft of doll making

Gogatsu Ningyo

‘Children’s Day’ (kodomo no hi) is celebrated in Japan every year on 5 May. Originally a celebration for boys and known as tango-no-sekku, the day is honoured by displaying Gogatsu Ningyō (lit. ‘May dolls’) made specially for this festival to wish for boys’ good health and fortune.

In addition, Japan celebrates ‘Girls Day’ (hinamatsuri) on the 3 March every year, which is marked by displaying hina dolls, typically a male and female doll seated together.

Believing that dolls can ward off evil spirits and protect children, the custom of presenting them dates back to ancient times when dolls would be displayed at any point throughout the year to pray for safe childbirth or the wellbeing of children. Some dolls, such as amagatsu guardian dolls, date back to the Heian period (794 – 1185 CE).

To this day, these dolls are handmade, often involving several specialist artisans for each of their parts.

To make the head of the doll, known as kashira, a silicon mould is created and plaster is poured into it. Once dry, the plaster head is sprayed with a mix of gofun, a powdered shell pigment dating back to the Heian period, and glue dissolved in hot water. This will create the radiant white porcelain skin the dolls are known for.

Using a very fine brush called mensou, the eyebrows, eyes, mouth and hairline are painted onto the doll’s head. The eyes are refined by applying several different shades of ink in fine lines, layered on top of each other using the mensou brush. This technique requires a high level of skill, and it takes an artisan several years to perfect it.

The next step is keppatu, hairdressing. The doll's hair is made of black-dyed silk thread called suga. A specialist artisan applies glue to the ends of the suga threads and carefully embeds them into grooves carved into the doll’s head, creating elegant hairstyles including topknots (mage).

For the production of the doll’s body (doutai), paulownia tree powder and glue are mixed and applied to a mould. Once dry, the form is sprayed with the same gofun mix that was previously used for the face. The torso is then indented with a knife to create grooves that will later accentuate kimono seams and the movement of the body.

The next step is called kimekomi, whereby the maker carefully starts dressing the doll in silk fabric by applying glue to the previously carved grooves and pressing pieces of cloth into the grooves using a wooden spatula.

Finally, the finished head, hands and feet are carefully attached to the dressed body. Once the head and torso are assembled, accessories and hair ornaments are added.