Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Kokeshi Book In English 英語版のこけし本

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.
New cover on the 2015 edition.
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.
Hardcover edition.
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.
As noted the book covers 23 craftsmen of all the different families. We have visited some of those interviewed in the book, but there were others whom I've never heard of and whose work is delightful. Looking at the pictures -- and this book is as much a pictorial as it is a history or general narrative -- really makes me want to get back to Japan and into the world of kokeshis.
The last couple of sections of the book moves away from kokeshis and into the culture of onsens (hot springs) and Tohoku (Northeastern Japan) of which kokeshis are an integral part. I think this was a legitimate approach by Ms. Okazaki. After all, a theme of this blog has been been the connection between kokeshis and the land from which they sprang forth. Anyway, if you get this book expect a few chapters that are about topics tangential to the world of kokeshis. I do have one small criticism which is that the author should have named the kokeshi family and specific location of the kokeshi maker being interviewed. I kept wondering as I was reading "where is this maker from?" Oh yes; the author also uses the word "dummy" for a pacifier-type kokeshi made up in the Nambu area. That's apparently a British term which I had to look it up as it was new to me. Did it detract from the overall book? Not at all.  

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.


  1. Hi! I lived in the Morioka area for four years and recently bought this hardcover book at Kinokuniya in San Francisco. What a great find! I love reading the interviews and seeing the photographs. the book inspired me to get back to my Tohoku roots and that's how I found your blog. Now I look forward to catching up on all of your kokeshi adventures! Are you still in Tokyo? I run the Spy Vibe blog and teach art in SF. Can't wait to get back to Tohoku next summer and visit some of these kokeshi sites. -Jason

    1. Jason,
      Thanks for your message, please pardon the delay in replying, and I'm glad to hear that you're enjoying the book. Hopefully you'll also be able to get a few of the recent Japanese language books on kokeshis as well. No, we're no longer in Japan -- we're also in the Bay Area so my family's Kokeshi Adventures have definitely declined since leaving Tokyo. Like you, I have Tohoku roots as well and collecting kokeshis has been a great way to keep that connection. I hope you get back to Iwate-ken soon and can make it to Hanamaki and beyond!