Japanese Crafts – Hakata dolls

By Mike Sullivan

Dolls have always been a favourite creation of Japanese craftspeople, whether it is the relatively simple Kokeshi dolls from the Onsen towns of north Japan, Gosho dolls from Kyoto in central Japan or Hakata dolls from Fukuoka in the south of the country.

Each kind of doll has its own particular beauty and long history, and interestingly each has a very different purpose to other countries where a doll normally indicates a toy. In some cases they were originally for children, but now most types have become works of art in their own right.

The History of Hakata dolls

Over 400 years ago a fairly normal artisan who was involved in the construction of Fukuoka castle, Soshichi Masaki, was usually making roof tiles and other items from clay and in his own time he used the same clay to make dolls. The original form of Hakata dolls is believed to have started with this creative individual; he even presented the lord of the castle with a doll! Gradually it became a custom to present the rulers of Hakata as well as Buddhist temples with the gift of a doll.

By the end of the 19th century Hakata dolls had made a distinct change from rather plain creations to the kind of doll that we see today. This was due to one particular Master Craftsman studying colouring techniques and the human body and then applying this to the Hakata doll. The changes that he applied to his version of the doll was so successful that this new updated doll was sent to the 1890 National Industrial Exhibition in Japan.

The making of Hakata dolls

An authentic doll has to be made with a particular kind of clay which is located near Fukuoka, the city not the prefecture, this clay has to be manipulated to make the form of the doll. Once it has been moulded into the correct shape it needs to be dried, fired and then finally painted, although if a craftsperson wants to make a number of dolls with the same shape he can make a plaster cast before firing the clay. With a plaster cast it is relatively easy to make copies of the first doll.

Generally a craftsperson will do everything from beginning to end, so the finished product is the result of the specialist skills of one person, and also in this way the doll itself can show unique characteristics. However, part of the reason that this doll is so popular is due to the fact that a customer can request a doll to have colours or patterns which are to their liking, which makes the finished doll really a bespoke creation.