Kokeshi are wooden dolls that originate from the Tōhoku region of north-eastern Japan and which emerged as a folk craft from hot spring mountain villages at the end of the Edo period (1603-1868 CE). They are characterised by their elongated, limbless bodies, disproportionately large heads and delicate hand-painted features. All six prefectures in the Tōhoku region – Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Miyagi, Yamagata and Fukushima – have a heritage of kokeshi making and there are 12 styles of doll across the region, each hailing from a different hot spring (onsen) town or area, and differentiated by head and body shape, facial features and decoration.
Originally, each area in the Tōhoku region had its own local name to describe the wooden dolls they made. However, this had the potential to confuse collectors, so, in the 1940s, makers agreed to use one standard name: ‘kokeshi’, which is written in Japanese hiragana letters and has no widely agreed corresponding kanji (Chinese character).
Kokeshi are part of the focus of WOW: City Lights and Woodland Shade running at Japan House between 21 November 2019 – 22 March 2020.