[From September Issue 2014]
Made out of wood, kokeshi are dolls with round heads and cylindrical torsos. They are said to have originated in the Tohoku region during the Edo era (17 – 19th centuries) as toys made for farmers’ children. They later came to be sold as souvenirs in spa resorts around the country. These days, most people buy them as ornaments.
Founded in 1926, Kijidokoro Satou (Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture) is a workshop manufacturing kokeshi. The family of four – SATOU Seikou, a second generation master, his wife Mikiko and their sons Hideyuki and Yusuke – are all kokeshi craftsmen. All four of them won a prize in 2010 at the National Kokeshi Festival Competition, one of the country’s three major kokeshi contests.
Seikou worked as a crew member on a merchant ship until his father Makoto – a kokeshi artisan – passed away. Although he eventually followed in his father’s footsteps, he confesses he had never been taught how to make kokeshi. “My teachers were the tools my father left for me. I learned how to make them (kokeshi) through trial and error and by consulting literature on how to use those tools.
After 20 years of making kokeshi his own way, Seikou started to wish that kokeshi had a more immediate impact. He tried to create something that was not only decorative but also useful in real life. His first attempt was a kokeshi that could act as a receptacle for a stamp. However, it wasn’t particularly popular in the traditional world of kokeshi. “I didn’t make many, so it didn’t cause much of a stir,” he smiles at the recollection.
In the last ten years Kijidokoro Satou’s “useful kokeshi” have begun to attract attention. On becoming a third generation master Seikou’s son Hideyuki created a website that has had a part to play in this. Their range has widened to include kokeshi-shaped stamps and accessories that fit into smartphone ear jacks. Seikou says, “I’m happy with the casual and natural way people use our kokeshi in their daily lives, regardless of the fact that they come from a long tradition.”
Seikou says that the interesting side of kokeshi is that he can end up making something that surprises himself. Nowadays he makes most of his traditional kokeshi to order. They take shape as a result of consultations with customers. “Rather than being something I create, it feels as if they come into being themselves. When I was young, I would try to create what I had in mind, but now I let my brush do its work without thinking much about the result. “Kokeshi may appear expressionless, but upon closer inspection, you see that each one has a different look and is brimming with personality.
What Seikou is now pouring his passion into is making extra small (about 4.5 centimeter tall) traditional kokeshi. He began making them because bigger kokeshi took up so much space. However, it’s harder to make the small ones balance and they require more attention to detail. “It’s that difficulty that’s exciting for a creator.” Even so Seikou, now 67, says, “I enjoy my work, though it’s begun to take a physical toll on me, there are still many other types of kokeshi I want to create.”
Text: ICHIMURA Masayo