Kokeshi craftsmen interview こけし工人インタビュー | ABO, Masafumi 阿保正文 | Tsugaru style 津軽系

Kokeshi craftsmen interview こけし工人インタビュー | ABO, Masafumi 阿保正文 | Tsugaru style 津軽系

I interviewed some Kokeshi craftsmen about how they started and learned their craft.

Kokeshi dolls are unique dolls, which have been made with unspoken rules, influenced by surrounding environment and the craftsman’s character.

I would like to share some information that I heard from them. 

In June, about Masafumi ABO who is a Tsugaru style Kokeshi craftsman.

I hope you will enjoy it.




Why did you became a kokeshi craftsman?

Masafumi: The reason I got into making kokeshi dolls was because my father is a kokeshi craftsman.

When I graduated university, I was looking for a job where I can paint and make something, because I like it. I thought if I have got a job, I wouldn’t make kokeshi dolls, so I decided to be a kokeshi craftsman.

I have many friends who wanted to be engaged with manufacturing work.

I was lacky that I was born in a kokeshi craftsman’s home.


What was the specific training when you were an apprentice?

M: For me, there wasn’t any special ‘apprentice training’. I did wooden lathe duty even though I just started kokeshi work.

When my master (Masafumi’s father Muchihide) started learning kokeshi, he lived-in the master’s house, preparing wood like stripping bark and cutting wood, and did some kind of housework for his master. It looks like apprentice’s duty of Rakugo.  (Rakugo is a type of traditional storytelling in Japan. It has an apprenticeship as well.)


I heard there is a specified period for learning as an apprentice in Tsugaru kokeshi style. How long is it?

M: At the Tsugaru kokeshi union, we need to learn under the guidance of a master for at least 3 years (before it was 5 years). Then we will be able to identify ourself as ‘Tsugaru kokeshi craftsman’.

After the training period, if the craftsman belong to the Tsugaru kokeshi union (recommendations from 2 or more craftsmen are necessary.) who will be able to join the events at Tsugaru kokeshi kan, which is a museum and fascinating association of Tsugaru kokeshi.


Do you have any kind of license as a kokeshi craftsman? When did you think that you had become a full-fledged craftsman?

M: No, they isn’t specific license, but when my kokeshi dolls were sold at the same place with my master’s dolls, I felt that I had become a full-fledged kokeshi craftsman.


Did you learn about making kokeshi dolls from your masters through lectures?

No, it was not really learning through words.

I started practicing shaving wood, painting colour, drawing lathe lines and so on, then started making some small wooden toys like spinning tops. Next, my master asked me to I paint kokeshi dolls.

When I made kokeshi, my master Muchihide sorted out good dolls from the bad. I should think by myself what was good balance of kokeshi dolls based on that.

If my kokeshi dolls were accepted, master would sell with his dolls at events.

In addition, I helped master’s work like making mementos of the occasion and processing a large amount of orders.


Do you have some special feeling for copying classic kokeshi dolls?

I think making restoration is a kind of learning of kokeshi dolls for craftsmen.

I think the restored kokeshi dolls are previous traditional style dolls. If someone wants it, I will make it. I make the dolls if nobody else can, but there is some possibility the original craftsman’s descendants will make the style of doll, then I don’t and can’t make it.


What is ‘Tsugaru kokeshi’ in your mind?

It’s Tsugaru children who are innocent and playing in the snow with red cheeks.

I hope my kokeshi dolls convey the climate or character of Tsugaru to my customers.


The uniqueness of Tsugaru region that I think is.

It is a closed society, where people worry about others think. But we have the word ‘Motsuke’ in our dialect, which means ‘stand out’ from others. That means when people stand out in our village it is good or that is necessary for the society. When we call someone ‘Motsuke’, it sounds like we want to root for the ‘Motsuke’ people with enthusiasm.


Also ‘Joppari’, which is used for when people don’t change their mind, stubborn in one word. We use joppari to means ‘stubborn, which contains the extra meaning ‘sometimes we need stubborn’. Joppari can be a respectful word for realizing someone’s original intention.


For example Zenji SATO (1925-1985) (who was a Tsugaru kokeshi craftsman) was a sort of ‘Motsuke’. He got into an argument with his master Hidetaro MORI (1895-1986) who was a famous kokeshi craftsman of Tsugaru kokeshi. (Still his dolls have high a price among kokeshi collectors.)

Because of the argument, Zenji couldn’t make his master’s style kokeshi doll. But Zenji had a lot of apprentices and had a kokeshi club in junior high school. He was a distinguished person for Tsugaru kokeshi. I(Masafumi) think Zenji was a Motsuke type.

Maybe my father Muchihide is also a 'motsuke' person. My father likes making new style kokeshi dolls and he brings those to local newspaper’s to publish. That looks like he is an attention seeker.

These characters are the Tsugaru personality.


What would you like to make in the future?

I would like to continue making traditional and original kokeshi dolls.

Because of I’m a maker, I don’t decorate my house with kokeshi.

I like feeling close to my customers. Especially when they choose their favorite in front of me.


About apple kokeshi dolls

You have been making many kinds of kokeshi dolls inspired by apples. How do you get the ideas?

Because Aomori prefecture is the number one apple producing area in Japan, so I make every apple kokeshi if I get ideas.


Note: The amount of apples produces in Aomori prefecture in 2020.

Aomori 463,300 tons / whole of Japan 763,300 tons, 61% of all apples Japan. (by Aomori apple association.)



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