Focus on the heritage of his hometown with Satoshi Takahashi #10: Traditional clay dolls warm hearts

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In this series, Japanese photojournalist Satoshi Takahashi focuses on the diverse heritage of his native Akita Prefecture in northern Japan. For this 10th article, Takahashi visited a group, based in the Yabase district of Akita City, which is working to protect the heritage of locally produced clay dolls.

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Gently nestled in my hand was a traditional Akita folk toy, a “Yabase” doll. The handmade clay figurines in front of me smelled of earth and wind. I could make out every face and shape, and feel the warmth of the craftsman. It was as if each doll was a precious living being – a human or an animal.

According to legend, the production of the dolls began in Akita in the middle of the Edo period (1603-1867), when craftsmen from the Fushimi area of ​​Kyoto built kilns. At its peak, 500 types of molds were used, and merchant ships transported the products to ports all over the country via the Sea of ​​Japan. Among the popular dolls was the “Tenjin-sama” – the deified Sugawara no Michizane, a statesman and scholar of the 9th century. This doll, nicknamed “Yabase no Odentsan”, was given to newborn boys. “Hina” dolls, representing the Emperor and Empress, were sent to the girls. Either way, the sender hopes the gift will bring good health to the child.

However, lifestyles changed and the tradition declined. In 2014, the last surviving craftsman, Tomo Michikawa, died and the art was in danger of being lost. Shu Umetsu, 72, concerned about transmitting the culture to future generations, then created the group “Yabase-ningyo densho no kai” (Association for the transmission of Yabase dolls), which has since created new dolls and kept the old ones.

“About two years ago, a family who had lost a son when he was young bought a Yabase doll of a bride as a religious offering,” Umetsu said. I realized that the family always prays for the happiness of the boy and that these dolls are close companions. I was moved to tears.

A pottery of tiger, signifying this Chinese zodiac year, decorates my current home in Kamakura City, Kanagawa Prefecture. It was made by members of the association. Every time I go out, my eyes meet those of the tiger, and I have the impression that he assures me: “Your hometown is always watching over you. It gives me power, because it symbolizes the know-how of my hometown.

(The Japanese original of this article by Satoshi Takahashi was published on March 8, 2022.)

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Satoshi Takahashi was born in Akita City, Akita Prefecture in 1981. Residing in Phnom Penh from 2007 to 2018, he captured Cambodia’s social issues through his photographs, which have been published worldwide. In 2019, his publication titled “RESISTANCE” (the subtitle of which roughly translates to “the fearless spirit of Cambodians”) won the 38th Domon Ken Award sponsored by The Mainichi Newspapers Co.

More information in Japanese can be found on the following Mainichi Shimbun online page:

Domon Ken Award: https://www.mainichi.co.jp/event/aw/domonken_archive.html






In photos: Akita artisans in Japan put soul into traditional ‘Yabase’ clay dolls

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