Dolls: Mirrors of Culture

Dolls have a legacy like no other material object in world culture. Perhaps every civilization known to archeologists has produced dolls. They are older than all the world’s modern religions and were in fact originally religious objects.

As far back as 4000 years ago, the Egyptians placed them in their tombs. Greeks and Romans, too, often placed them in the graves of children. Humanoid figures that almost look like aliens from outer space survive from the Japanese Jômon period (8000~200 BC). Known as Dogû figurines, they may be predecessors to the Haniwa figures used in funeral practices of the Kofun period (300~600 AD).
Today, the tradition of dolls in Japan remains strong, with an enormous wealth of varieties having survived the centuries. Daruma dolls are ubiquitous. Among Japanese children, the simple Okiagari-koboshi, that rights itself if tipped, is still popular. Karakuri dolls, which are mechanical and move, are popular at festivals, among many other festival dolls. There are even regional dolls, like the famous Bisque dolls from Fukuoka, called Hakata ningyô. The list goes on and notoriously includes sex dolls as well.

Hina dolls for the March 3rd Hinamatsuri are of course the most mainstream and widely recognized dolls in Japan. That Japan nationally celebrates dolls on this day says less about their importance in Japanese culture than the fact that temples even have cremations for dolls that are broken, old or neglected. Dolls are honored in life and death.

Dolls reflect the cultures and periods within which they were produced. The enormous diversity of dolls that results from this is on full display at the Yokohama Doll Museum. Yokohama was one of Japan’s main gateways to the world during its modernization, and the demographic diversity of the city meant, essentially, a diverse population of dolls. Many of the museum’s pieces were gathered from overseas residents and the collection now stands at over 3,500 dolls from 140 countries. Not all of them are on display at once, but you are guaranteed an impressive selection on any visit, including some exquisite historical dolls. Some believe that dolls have a soul. They certainly have beauty. Without us, they are incomplete. And maybe we are, too, without them.

The museum is hosting a special exhibition, “Dolls from Across the Pacific,” until November 28th. In 1927, American children sent 12,000 dolls to Japanese children. Called “blue-eyed dolls,” many came through Yokohama and some will be on display.


4,000 年前まで遡ると、古代エジプトの墓にも人形は供えられていた。ギリシアやローマも同様で、特に子供の墓に一緒に埋葬されていたようだ。紀元前8,000 年〜200年の日本の縄文時代には、宇宙人に見える人間型の人形が存在していた。それは「土偶」として知られ、紀元300年〜600年の古墳時代に葬儀の装具として使われた「埴輪」に先行するものであった。





Yokohama Doll Museum
Yokohama City, Naka-ku, Yamashita-cho 18
Internet HP:
Mobilephone HP:
Museum open 10am-6:30pm (last admission 6pm)
Café and shop open 11am-7pm (café closed Mon)
Museum & shop closed every 3rd Mon except May, July, Aug and Dec
Entry: ¥500 (adults), ¥150 (children), ¥400/¥100 (groups).
(In case of special exhibitions, the entrance fee may change)

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