A couple of years ago an English-language kokeshi book came out named Kokeshi: From Tohoku With Love by journalist Ms. Okazaki Manami. The book was designed as a fundraiser for victims of the 11 March 2011 disaster, but surrounded as I was in Japan with plenty of Japanese sources on kokeshis I didn't pay much attention to it. Furthermore, somehow the smallish paperback looked cheap, almost like an amateur self-published work. I saw it a few weeks ago at the Kinokuniya bookstore in San Francisco's Japan Town, but again I wasn't moved to buy it. However in the weeks following my trip to Japan Town Kokeshi: From Tohoku With Love has come out in a second edition, and this time it's hardback in a larger format with a new cover. I found it at the Kinokuniya in San Jose, and as soon as I saw it I had to make the purchase. Therefore, on a superficial level the hardcover, larger size, and new cover caught my eye and won me over.
As I say, the packaging got me to buy the 244-page book, and I am so glad I did. I have seen a lot of books about kokeshis over the years and this one really stands out. Moreover, it's in English so we finally have a book devoted to traditional kokeshis that's fully accessible to a non-Japanese audience. In terms of production values the photography is excellent, the quality of the paper and binding seem solid, and the writing is thoughtful and well done even though Ms. Okazaki is apparently neither a specialist nor a collector.
Kokeshi: From Tohoku With Love covers eight areas: A description of what kokeshis are, how they're made, the eleven families (or types), contemporary (modern) kokeshis, how to buy them, onsen culture, Tohoku culture, and interviews with craftsmen. Among these the sections I feel that the interviews with the twenty-three different craftsmen are essential reading that really add to knowledge. They are frank conversations about their lives as kokeshi makers, the apprenticeships and training they endured, wood and tools, booms and busts, relationships with customers, and so forth. For instance I did not know that most female craftsmen in the old days were trained by their husbands in order to meet demand back during the second kokeshi boom during the 1960s and 1970s. I was aware that a typical apprenticeship lasts for five years, but learned from the interviews in this book that kokeshi craftsmen generally consider ten years the point when one has reached actual competence. Ten years! I was also impressed that the craftsmen understand and can articulate why their work resonates with collectors, and that some of them are actually kokeshi enthusiasts themselves.
|New cover on the 2015 edition.|
In fact there is absolutely nothing wrong with this book, and since the author let 23 different craftsmen talk about their lives and craft it has added greatly to the admittedly very limited English-language literature about kokeshis. And if reading the words of the craftsmen directly from their mouths isn't enough, another enticement should be the price. I got it for less than $19 including tax at Kinokuniya in San Jose, California, and it's available at Amazon US for $15. That, folks, is a genuine bargain, and no matter where you are in the world if you are a kokeshi enthusiast this book should be on your shelf both for reference and for planning future kokeshi adventures in Japan.