Gosho Ningyo(Palace Dolls)

Child dolls popular at Court, bringing long life and happiness

By Kyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory

Kyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory

"Crane", Gosho ningyo by Shimada Koen and Photo: Kubota YasuoKyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory

Dolls that Bring Happiness

These childlike dolls are characterized by their chubby figures, fair skin, small hands and legs, their large heads, and simple eyes and noses. Their history goes back some 400 years, when they were treasured in the imperial court. Over time they became expressions of hope for happiness and prosperity in life.

Creeping (haihai) baby, Gosho ningyo by Shimada Koen and Photo: Kubota YasuoKyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory

Seeking Healthy Development for Children

The origin of the “palace dolls” (gosho ningyo) is said to be the representation in doll form of a stuffed toy that depicted a crawling baby and was meant to ward off filth and misfortune. Another theory holds that it evolved from the Saga doll that was popular in the Edo period, in which the doll could be dressed and redressed in  Japanese brocade. The emperor presented palace dolls to princes and princesses on their birthdays or at New Year’s time. Even today, the figures of these dolls on the verge of taking their first steps embody the hopes for their healthy development.

Auspicious Things

Most gosho ningyo are thematically based on happy or heroic tales  from the past. The myth of the treasure ship (takarabune) is one such case. The Seven Lucky Gods (Shichifukujin) are depicted aboard a ship with the characters for “Treasure” written on its sail; the ship is loaded with bags of rice and gold and silver riches. In the Edo period the dream one had on January 2 was commonly called the “First Dream” (hatsuyume), and it was held that putting a picture of a Treasure Ship under one’s pillow would ensure good fortune for the coming year.

Making the Base

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 mâché base whereby thick Japanese paper is attached to a plaster mold, and the resulting form is improved using a toso wood composite.

The powder is finely ground, Gosho Ningyo. by Shimada Koen and Photo: Kubota YasuoKyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory

How to Make Gofun

The soft, white texture of the skin is created by applying repeated layers of the pigment called gofun, which is the refined powder of the itabo oyster (Ostrea denselamellosa). There are only two establishment in Kyoto now that make gofun. Since high-quality itabo oysters are now difficult to come by, scallop shells are used instead.

gofun paste is applied in several layers, Gosho Ningyo. by Shimada Koen and Photo: Kubota YasuoKyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory

The Base 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.

Polishing and the Middle Coat

Next, with a highly viscous gofun the doll is shaped in relief, after which the middle coat of slightly weaker gofun is applied about 10 times. The work is then carefully polished until all grooves and brush marks have disappeared. Repeated application of gofun followed by polishing gives rise to a soft luster, and the warm white skin particular to gosho ningyo is achieved.

A small blade is used for fine shaping, Gosho Ningyo. by Shimada Koen and Photo: Kubota YasuoKyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory

Cutting Out and the Top Coating

With a small knife, details such as the eyes, mouth, nails and navel  are cut out. Then the whole doll is polished with scouring rush, and the surface 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.

Drawing the Face

The process of drawing the eyes is the moment that life is breathed into the doll. The eyebrows are drawn with a soft brush, with each hair carefully created. If there is a slight difference in the hair ends of the brush, this variation produces a huge difference in expression.

Applying Lipstick

As the final step in the making of a gosho ningyo, a touch of red is added to the lips. The moment this color enters what had previously been a black and white world, the doll comes to life. With the completion of this final step, the doll’s face assumes a richness that speaks to the viewer. This expressiveness comes from the ancient feelings that Japanese have felt for children and have been passed on to the present day.

The Future of Gosho Ningyo

Though assuming different forms and shapes, the gosho ningyo continues today to enthrall people through its innocent purity and elegance. It is the product of exquisitely fine technique and a profound refinement; in its transparent skin and plump body, one can feel the flow of the force of life.

Doll makers not only protect classical gosho ningyo traditions, but they also breath a modern sensibility into their creations, continuing to make dolls that will be loved by people of all times.

Credits: Story

Information provided by:
Shimada Koen

Text written by:
Dr Tanaka Keiko
Chiharu Ota, Kyoto Women's University

Photo by:
Kubota Yasuo: studio BOW
Kureya Nao

Supported by:
Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts, Fureaikan

Exhibition created by
Dr Yamamoto Masako, Ritsumeikan University
Yanni Sun, Kyoto Women's 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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