Ron Rosen is a long-time collector of vintage toys, in particular wooden toys and a student of the history of Kobe Toys. He is also a member of the Antique Toy Collectors America.
Here he describes the history of this super-interesting toy line and we are very pleased to report that he plans to add the approximately 75 different types of Kobe Toys to hobbyDB.
Kobe Toys, also known as Kobe dolls, are hand-carved, wooden mechanical dolls (automata) made exclusively in Japan. The origin of these toys began with the opening of the Kobe Port in Hyogo, Japan, in 1868.
An early postcard
Kobe toys were made strictly as tourist items and were never exported or sold in the domestic marketplace. They were created by local artisans as expensive souvenirs to be sold to foreigners arriving aboard luxury ships at the Port of Kobe. Travelers waiting to board these ships were also offered these souvenirs for purchase, and in fact, at one time the toys were as well known as the port itself. As a result, very few of the toys remained in Japan. Today, Kobe Toys are more likely to be found throughout the rest of the world, primarily in Europe.
Only a handful of artisans made these souvenirs, mostly on Motomachi Street, a popular street for shopping near Nunobiki Waterfall, a favorite gathering place for foreign tourists.
The earliest Kobe toys, produced during the Meiji period (1868-1912), were made of boxwood, with the wood left unﬁnished. The later Kobe dolls were made using ebony wood, blackened wood, and the very traditional boxwood.
Kobe dolls are quite small and can often fit into the palm of your hand. The boxes are constructed with butt joints and are rounded on the sides. Small nails or wooden pegs hold the boxes together. The dolls are designed either sitting on, or hidden inside, the box. Some Kobes may have a snake or other animal-like grotesque ﬁgure hidden within.
The dolls, often painted in black and red lacquer, have trick mechanisms (karakuri) one of Japan’s specialties, and bear props that are uniquely Japanese, like Taiko drums, biwa (Japanese lutes), chosi (sake kettles), and sakazuki (sake cups and bottles). These early dolls were sometimes called the Obake ”Monster” Ningyo because of their comical and often grotesque appearance. Many Kobe dolls have eyes and tongues that protrude and retract.
One interesting doll is the Dice Shaker
Standing three to eight inches high and carrying a stick, paddle, or weapon, the doll has a hat that unscrews to reveal three or four dice made of bone or ivory
This toy was used in gambling between the artisan and the purchaser
They are almost always made of bone or ivory, as are the accessories they carry. Unlike European automata where intricate mechanical gearing is used to create movement, the Kobe’s actions are generated using a complex and unseen network of strings, wooden knobs, and handles. The strings create a variety of actions and the handles can be turned in either direction to operate the arms, legs, mouth, or head. Although the mechanizations appear quite simple, the actions are quite complex, sometimes creating humor and at other times unnerving effects— and the effects are seldom anticipated.
Bunraku puppet dolls—a traditional Japanese puppet theatre in which half-life-sized dolls act out a dramatic narrative—may have been the original inﬂuence for Kobe toys. (Awaji Island, near the Port of Kobe, has a long history of Bunraku doll production since the early 19th century.)
Some early Kobe dolls resemble the strange creatures depicted in a late 18th-century book, Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain) by Ueda Akinari. The book, a ghost story set in Japan, first appeared as a richly illustrated woodblock edition in 1776.
The cover of the fourth edition published by Shichiro Kawachiya
Perhaps the most unusual of the Kobe dolls are those depicting black people. Until the opening of trade with the West, Japanese people had never seen black people. The Japanese artisans appeared to be fascinated with the facial features of the individuals manning the ships.
The first black people Kobe dolls are attributed to a Mr. Nakamura (ﬁrst name unknown) who worked during the Meiji period. He was a craftsman living on Awaji Island who recalled seeing the black seamen visiting the Port of Kobe. He based his designs on the joruri dolls used in Kabuki theatre.
Vintage joruri doll
It is thought that this is the style that influenced other Kobe artisans. Almost all of the Kobe black people dolls are depicted as musicians, or shown eating or drinking.
Another inﬂuential craftsman of Kobe dolls was Nagata no Haru, active from 1900 to 1940. Haru was fond of ghosts and created ﬁgures such as the long-necked monster (rokuro-kubi) and dolls with three eyes (mitsume).
Nukekubi, a long-necke monster from Bakemono no e Scroll
But it was Oda Tashiro who made the Kobe dolls famous. He learned to make Kobe dolls from his brother-in-law beginning approximately in 1921. Because he had previously been a cabinet maker, Oda Tashiro’s dolls were ﬁner than most and attracted a lot of attention. When Emperor Hirohito visited Kobe Port in 1929, he was given ﬁve of Tashiro’s dolls as a gift. Tashiro wrote a catalog for the Emperor that exists today in the Japan Toy Museum.
Kobe dolls come in a variety of styles, but the most common are the sake drinker, shamisen player, biwa player, watermelon eater, drum beater (makugyo), hand posture dancer (teodori), dumpling eater (dango), and ghost with taiko drum.
There was the Watermelon Eater, the Watermelon Slicer and Eater and two figures eating and slicing!
More ambitious dolls include a rickshaw puller; a pair of sake drinkers with shamisen player; and a pair of drum beaters and bell beaters on a boat.
The Kobe doll artisans learned their skills by serving an apprenticeship, eventually becoming the master. Thus, any biases or fears that originated with the original master artisan were passed down. Sometimes, both the styles and themes were blatantly copied.
Another type of Kobe is similar to Playskool’s Weeble play people of the 1970s. But this toy is based on the famous Japanese legend of the monk Dharuma. The legend describes how Dharuma meditated for so long that his arms and legs atrophied from lack of use and eventually fell off. He ended up with only a head and a torso. This made Dharuma famous due to his tenacity and perseverance. A famous proverb was written for him: “Seven times down and eight times up.” This Kobe toy will always right itself no matter how it is placed on a flat surface… just like the Weeble.
All Kobe toys are highly collectible and eagerly sought after. The demand for the most complicated of the toys comes from Western collectors, so the West is where dolls of quality are found, often appearing at auctions in Europe. The prices range from $250 for the simplest toy to $1500 for the more complex and unusual ones.
You can see a collection of Kobe Toys at Japan Toy Museum
Additional information was obtained from other collectors of Kobe toys. Also, a big thanks to David Finn for ﬁnding many of my Kobe toys and delivering them to me at the toy conventions!
Ron, this is so fascinating, a subject that I know nothing about. How did you first learn about these Kobe Toys? Do you live in Japan?
How do I determine where to sell one that I have? My grandparents purchased it in Japan in the early 1900’s. It is in good condition.
Hi Ann, we would always need at least one good photo to give any advice 😉
You can reply here and add one or more photos.
Here is one photo. The second wouldn’t load. I will try again
Hopefully this works!
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