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Celebrating the Art of Japanese Dolls


Each morning when Dorr Calkins enters Wistaria, the Japanese import shop he manages in Ventura, he is "greeted" by Ofukusan, a kneeling, matronly doll that symbolizes prosperity for businesses. And although he is alone, Calkins swears he is followed by a hundred pairs of eyes.

It sounds like a Stephen King novel. But Calkins, 61, isn't worried. He enjoys the company of his little friends: exquisite handmade Japanese dolls 6 to 36 inches tall.

"After awhile they develop their own personalities. And you get attached to them," he said of his kimono-clad charges.

The retired teacher credited his passion for the dolls with a career change he claims saved his life. This time last year, Calkins was in a classroom teaching social studies and U. S. history to sixth- and eighth-grade children in Ventura.

"I wanted to get out of teaching," said Calkins as he lovingly arranged the Old Man and Old Woman dolls on a glass shelf. "I was suffering a tremendous amount of stress. My doctor took my blood pressure and took me out of school to get my blood pressure down."

But after returning to work briefly, Calkins decided his health was more important. He joined his wife in her work for Wistaria.

"My wife, Sadako, who was born in Japan, was preparing translations about the dolls for the store's owner. And I wrote them in English," Calkins said. "I noticed in my association with the dolls I became very relaxed. And my interest in the culture grew."

Last July Calkins and his wife of two years visited Japan to be remarried in a traditional Japanese ceremony. Upon returning, they increased their cultural collaboration, and Calkins was later offered the position of store manager. Now he can often be found in the store spinning tales of the dolls' legendary exploits while, over a cup of Japanese tea, praising their individual characters.

"These are not toys," Calkins said. "They are an art form. And they have assumed a spiritual or religious quality in the culture."

While touring the collection, Calkins explained that the doll tradition began when mothers, needing to leave home for work in the fields, would wrap cloth and sticks as a protective amulet or as company for their unattended child. "If a baby had a fever, a doll was dressed in red and placed near the child to absorb the fever," he said.

Later, dolls became icons, taking the place of paintings, Calkins said. They only represent positive forces, including joy, beauty, and good health. "When a Japanese gives a doll to somebody it has a very strong meaning," he noted. "They are often displayed in the traditional tatami or alcove room of a Japanese home."

Calkins pointed out a display from the recent "Doll Festival" or "Girl's Day," a popular holiday traditionally observed on the third day of the third month of the year. "Girls dress up in their best kimonos," Calkins said. "And every family displays all their dolls."

For "Boy's Day," on May 5, dolls dressed in miniature samurai armor wear a serious, determined expression depicting bravery. And a carp-shaped pennant, or kite, is flown above every house that is home to male children.

Calkins stopped at a shelf containing boy- and girl-style Ichimatsu dolls, the most common and popular category of Japanese doll. "These originated from the Kabuki theater," he said, indicating two lion dancers sporting orange and white manes. "It was originally all men, and some dressed as women," he added.

The dolls represent various postures. And many hold items including fans, umbrellas or a musical instrument. But a leather cap in the outstretched hand of a bald monk is unique. "Ikkyu-San, the Smart Priest, is one of my favorites. I rub his head when I'm in here to help my own brain," Calkins said, laughing.

Calkins takes great delight in telling the legend: A master monk kept a special pot of honey that purportedly acted as medicine for a strange illness he was suffering. Before leaving on a trip, the monk warned that anyone who ate the honey would die. When he returned, however, the Smart Priest confessed that he had eaten the honey but somehow had survived. The Smart Priest went on to justify his crime to the monk by claiming he had accidentally broken the monk's favorite vase and was so filled with remorse that he ate the honey in hopes that he would die.

Not all the dolls are as clever as Ikkyu-San. But they are all made the same way. Their bodies are wood. ("Traditionally the heads were made from a mixture of sawdust and ground sea shells," he said.) And their heads, hands and feet are porcelain that is polished with a special leaf to produce a white to pinkish luster. Expressions are painted by hand. And the luxurious silk clothes are hand-sewn. Silk has replaced human hair for the wigs.

Calkins said his wife's conversations with the dolls point to dolls' revered position in Japanese culture.

"I use a doll that was damaged in a warehouse fire to show people how they are made," Calkins said. "But when my wife comes to the store, she talks to her, commiserates and arranges her hair, saying 'You poor thing. You lost all your friends.' She really gets emotional because to the Japanese, dolls are not something you have for awhile and then sell on a garage sale. They keep their dolls forever and pass them on from mother to daughter for generations."

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