Child dolls popular at Court, bringing long life and happiness

Gosho ningyo are dolls in the form of cute chubby children with very white skin, small limbs and big heads with sweet facial features. Their history goes back more than 400 years and, while being favorites at Court, they gradually emerged as high quality dolls believed to bring good luck. The name gosho ningyo, referring to the connection with the Court, became universal at the end of the Meiji Era. In the Edo Era, they were known by various names such as shiragiku (white chrysanthemum) and shirajishi (white skin), because of their form and the whiteness of their skin, and as hairyou ningyo (bestowed dolls), Ouchi dolls and o-miyage ningyo (souvenir dolls), because of their role as Court gifts to the Daimyo who had visited to Kyoto. Also, in Kansai, there were dolls known as Izukura dolls, named after a doll maker called Izukura.
Seeking Healthy Development for Children
Gosho ningyo arose when houko ritual purification figures were turned into dolls (these are cloth figures in the form of a naked child, made from white silk stuffed with cotton, which take on impurity and misfortune in place of the child), and it is said that they developed from hadaka saga, a type of saga doll common at the beginning of the Edo Era. Haihai ningyo are dolls given by the Emperor to the imperial princes and princesses since ancient times, not just to celebrate a birth, but also on New Year and August 1st. Princesses have handed down their cherished dolls to Monseki temples such as Houkyouji and Reikanji. Nowadays too, the thoughts of people praying for the healthy development of children are carried by these gosho ningyo dolls, unchanged for generations, looking to all the world as if they are about to toddle off.
Manufacturing Gosho Ningyo
There are four methods of making the base that forms the core of a gosho ningyo; 1: a base carved from paulownia wood; 2: a wooden core toso base (whereby a wooden core is fleshed out by a wood composite called toso); 3: an unglazed pottery base whereby a clay figurine is created; and 4: a papier maché base (whereby thick Japanese paper is attached to a plaster mold, and the resulting form is improved using toso wood composite).
The White Skin
The softly shining white skin resembling porcelain is formed from layers of the pigment known as gofun, made from refined powdered itabo oyster[A1] . There are currently only two people who make this pigment in Kyoto. In recent years, it has been hard to find high quality itabo oysters and so Japanese scallop has come into use. There are three stages to the gofun application process, the base coat, the middle coat and the top coat. 

For the base coat, gofun is applied three or four times in a thick glue and, after Japanese paper is attached, more gofun is applied and the work is then dried.

For the base coat, gofun is applied three or four times in a thick glue and, after Japanese paper is attached, more gofun is applied and the work is then dried.

Next, with highly viscous gofun, the doll is shaped in relief, after which the middle coat of slightly weaker gofun than that used in the base coat is applied about 10 times. The work is then polished carefully until all grooves and brush marks have disappeared. In the past, shark skin was used for this, but in recent years sandpaper of differing coarseness is used, as appropriate. Repeated application of gofun followed by polishing gives rise to a soft luster, and the warm white skin particular to gosho ningyo is achieved.
Finishing and Wiping
With a small knife, details such as the eyes, mouth, nails and navel are cut out. Then, with a scouring rush, the whole doll is polished, and the surfaces are smoothed by wiping with a gauze dipped in hot water. After that, the top coat is applied six or seven times using the top layer of further diluted gofun solution.
Breathing Life into the Doll
The “opening of the eyes,” when the doll’s eyes are drawn, is the moment that life is breathed into the gosho ningyo. The eyebrows are carefully drawn one soft hair at a time, and vermillion is rubbed on the lips. Amid the formalized manufacturing process, very interesting facial expressions arise as the craftsperson talks to what they can see. The facial features, drawn finely with delicate lines on a round face, are reminiscent of the children depicted in Heian scrolls in the Yinmugoubi style. Thus, the perception of the beauty of children in ancient Japan is passed on.
Passing on Information on Good Omens
The dolls portray various images of children absorbed in play, from those that are naked or wearing just a workman’s apron to those wearing splendid clothes or royal finery. What they are holding and their poses also have different meanings, often calling to mind traditional stories including Noh songs and auspicious and epic tales and tales of filial piety. Thus, alongside the wish of parents to raise their children in a certain way, the Japanese philosophy and view of life is expressed in the guise of a child.
The Future of Gosho Ningyo
The method of manufacturing gosho ningyo displaying various expressions with a minimum of gestures was established in the Edo Era. Today’s gosho ningyo basically follow the forms handed down by generations in terms of rough dimensions and poses. However, even if there were a similar established form, the master craftsperson’s emotions are reflected in how the doll is finished. Therefore, unlike antique dolls, these dolls have a freshness that is in tune with modern sensibilities. In recent years, as well as gosho ningyo whose forms follow the old style, there are dolls with new forms, based on that same style of beauty, expressing seasonal images or waka. The continued aim is to use traditional skills to make gosho ningyo, which are loved and handed down across generations.
Kyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory
Credits: Story

Information provided by:
Shimada Koen

Text written by:
Dr Tanaka Keiko

Photo by:
Kubota Yasuo
Kureya Nao

Supported by:
Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts, Fureaikan

Exhibition created by
Dr Yamamoto Masako, Ritsumeikan University

Project Directors:
Dr Maezaki Shinya, Associate Professor, Kyoto Women's University
Dr Yamamoto Masako, Ritsumeikan University

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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