Saturday, May 24, 2008

Before modern abortion: the brutal history of Kokeshi dolls

A friend recently sent me the link to Christopher Price's essay, "Pagans, Christianity, and Infanticide" (2004). The article got me thinking about the meaning of the Kokeshi dolls I saw in Japan where I grew up. But more on that connection later.

Price's essay begins like this:
The history of infanticide is gruesome. As hard as it may be to imagine today, throughout history infanticide was a common and endorsed practice. While it undoubtedly still occurs today, all governments outlaw it. And in the West at least, society and culture condemn it. So how did we get from there to here? From having Western societies that condoned and encouraged infanticide to having a Western society that condemns and discourages infanticide?

The short answer: Christianity.
How many people know that infanticide was defended by Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero; that Tacitus condemned as "sinister and revolting" the Jewish condemnation of the practice; or that Seneca, otherwise known for his high morals, stated "we drown children at birth who are weakly and abnormal"? The practice of snuffing out the lives of unwanted infants was apparently ubiquitous in all well-studied ancient cultures, including those of Greece, Rome, India, China and Japan. Which brings me to Japan.

One thing I very clearly remember from growing up in Japan is the presence of Kokeshi dolls, which I remember seeing in many homes as well as for sale in stores. Kokeshi dolls are native to the northern part of Japan (Tohoku), and seemed to be ubiquitous in the northermost island of Hokkaido where I spent my first sixteen years. I remember handling these dolls myself, and the smooth feel of the wood (often bamboo) from which they were crafted. I never gave them much thought while growing up. They simply seemed to be part of the environment in a culture that produced many other things of that sort.

But when I was older, I remember the name "Kokeshi" once caught me up short. In the Japanese language, different phonemes (phonetic parts of words) can have a variety of different meanings and accordingly be represented by a variety of different Chinese characters. I had never thought about it before, but "Kokeshi" could could carry several different meanings, because the word is usually written, not in Kanji (Chinese characters, which carry their own independent meaning, regardless of how they are pronounced), but in Hiragana (one of the two phonetic syllabaries, which indicate the pronunciation of the word, but not its meaning). Thus, if the term were to be represented in Kanji, it could be written 小芥子 (meaning "small poppy" or "small mustard seed"). But it could also be represented by 子消し, in which case the first phoneme ("Ko") signifies "child," and the second ("keshi"), signifies "erasure" (as in the Japanese compound 消去, meaning "elimination").

The significance later became clear when I learned that Kokeshi dolls were often used traditionally as representations of infants who had been disposed of by infanticide -- usually by abandoning them in the mountains. In Alan Booth's book, Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan (Kodansha America, 1995), one reads the following (p. 129ff.):
Few Japanese people have any notion of where kokeshi came from or what they might originally have been used for, nor have they given the matter much thought. Partly this is because, like nebuta, the word kokeshi is usually written not with ideograms [i.e., Chinese characters, or Kanji] but in the purely phonetic syllabary called Hiragana, so it is difficult to deduce an ethymology. Ko, for instance, might mean "small" and keshi might mean "poppy," in which case the curators of Japan's doll museums would all be bouncing with joy. But it strikes me as more likely that the word is an amalgam of a different ko, meaning "child," and kesu, meaning "get rid of," and that these cute, tender-faced little dolls, made from simple pieces of wood, a sphere for the head and a cylinder for the body, may in origin have been fetish substitutes for children murdered at birth.

Infanticide was not an uncommon practice in rural Japan during the feudal period and it survived here and there into quite recent times. The American historian Thomas C. Smith suggest that, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries at least, it was practised in Japan "less as a desperate act in the face of poverty than as a form of family planning." In the towns, abortion was the commonest form of family planning (and, as the Japanese government persists to this day in refusing to permit the sale of oral contraceptives, it remains widely and lucratively practised). But in rural areas, though officially prohibited by most clan governments, infanticide was the preferred choice. Moral questions aside, the killing of newborn babies rather than fetuses has the practical advantage of allowing a family -- or a village -- to exert a precise control over the ratio of the sexes, and it appears that, unlike in China and some parts of Asia, the horror was not directed wholly, or even mainly, against female babies, but was used coolly and even-handedly to construct a gender balance that would ensure the continuance and stability of the group.

According to Mrs. Suzuki Fumi, born in 1898 in Ibaragi prefecture, not far north of Tokyo, and recorded on tape by the local doctor for a book of reminiscences called Memories of Silk and Straw, "'thinning out' babies was pretty common" even at the time of her own birth. "It was considered bad luck to have twins," she explains, "so you got rid of one before your neighbours found out. Deformed babies were also bumped off. And if you wanted a boy but the baby was a girl, you'd make it 'a day visitor.'" The murder was often entrusted to the midwife. "Killing off a newborn baby was a simple enough business," Mrs. Suzuki remembers. "You just moistened a piece of paper with spittle and put it over the baby's nose and mouth; in no time at all it would stop breathing." But there were alternative methods, and another of Dr. Saga's informants, Mrs. Terakako Tai, born in 1899, describes two of them. One was "to press on their chest with your knee." Another was called usugoro (mortar killing), in which the murderer was usually the mother herself: "The woman went alone into one of the buildings outside and had the baby lying on a straw mat. She wrapped the thing in two straw sacks lids, tied it up with rope and laid it on the mat. She then rolled a heavy wooden mortar over it. When the baby was dead, she took it outside and buried it herself. And the next day she was expected to be up at the crack of dawn as usual, doing the housework and helping in the fields...."
Bearing in mind the fact that Kokeshi dolls have no arms or legs, Booth observes:
"The absence of limbs might be disquieting, I suppose, if you had made the possible connection between kokeshi and child murder and had read Mrs. Suzuki's account of a midwife's attempt to quicken death by wrapping an infant tightly in rags so that its arms were bound invisibly to its sides, or if you knew that one of the traditional attributes of Japanese ghosts is that they have no feet."


Anonymous said...

Ive just bought 2 kokeshi dolls & after reading this article im mortified.i assumed they were good luck not sure what to do with them creeped out.

Pertinacious Papist said...

Don't feel badly about having Kokeshi dolls as souvenirs. Whatever their history, they are beautiful and quaint, and the historical background, if anything, adds to their interest in my view, rather than making them something abhorrent in themselves.

I wouldn't mind having some in my house. I would have them exhibited somewhere, and explain their significance to anyone who asked -- a perfect opportunity to discuss the importance of a Counter Culture of Life!

Best wishes, PP

Sumokitty said...

I will continue to love and cherish my Kokeshi doll. Now that I have read this, I have found more love for the Kokeshi dolls. It represents a baby that had no say or choice to be taken from this world. My Kokeshi doll will remind me to always cherish the innocence and beauty in all the worlds children. If Kokeshi represents a murdered child, I will not fault the doll but the people who caused the doll to be made.

Sumokitty said...

If this is true, than I will love my Kokeshi doll even more than before. The beauty is that the doll represents a baby that had no choice to be taken from this world. I will welcome Kokeshi dolls into my home and continue to view them as good luck charms. The baby should always be cared for and welcomed into a home with those who love and respect its life. I won't punish the baby(Kokeshi Doll) it's the souls of those who took their lives who are creepy.

Brandy said...

I'm put in mind of "Princess Mononoke", with all the "forest spirits" that are kokeshi. As if they were the spirits of all the abandoned babies there.
I loved them always, and can appreciate them more now.

Lena Paul said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lena Paul said...

I have a very small collection of Kokeshi Dolls and I think they are beautiful. I am glad I found this blog and think the history is interesting. Although, infantcide is abhorrent perhaps the abhorrence is the reason the dolls were created, to remind the families of those babies they missed. Perhaps those familes aren't "creepy" so much as victims of government controls or even cultural norms. I think the creation of the dolls is an indicator that the familes recognized the loss to not only the babies but to their own lives and families as well.

Anonymous said...

Most kokeshi were used as a good luck charms to prevent tragedy during child birth. The doll itself was supposed to harbor the spirit of a deceased child who died of either complications or was still born, and was given to an expectant mother or newly born child as a charm to keep the child healthy and to spare them of the same fate as the spirit in the doll. That's why you can find most kokeshi at either onsen, where the minerals in the natural springs were supposed to have healing properties, and monasteries where they would pray for a healthy birth.

🙈🙉🙊 said...

Wow how sad. When reading I read with an open mind OMG this is heavy none on this earth is prefect every culture has its dark side. How sad for those souls children aren't asked to be born these are children of terrible situations. May all those little souls from way back in time to present rest.