Mihara Ryōkichi: The Kokeshi Dolls Savior

Mihara Ryōkichi: The Kokeshi Dolls Savior

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Mihara Ryokichi and kokeshi dolls
Picture: 東北の山親父 / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
The story of one prolific folklorist's lifelong quest to save Miyagi Prefecture's handicrafts, history, and folktales.

This is a story about kokeshi dolls and the incredible folklorist who helped save them. You might not know his name. But you’re probably familiar with some of his work.

In my graduate education, I had three PhD advisors in succession. I also had many more people who were mentors, and still more who were influences, who had a profound impact on the development of my career.

My doctoral thesis focused on the northern Tohoku region’s history of semi-autonomy as an antecedent to its actions in the Boshin War. Exploring those details exposed me to the work of many scholars whose work ranged far beyond that topic. This gave me a taste of what I wanted to explore next.

Formative among them was Mihara Ryōkichi (1897-1982). Folklorist, journalist, and preserver of folk handcrafts, he had an important role in recording things that might’ve been in danger of disappearing entirely.

The continued popularity of kokeshi dolls is thanks to the efforts he spearheaded. In all, he had a very full and long career.

Let’s learn more about this man, his prolific career, and his legacy.

Table of Contents


Grounding in the Local

Kokeshi in Sendai
Giant kokeshi dolls watching over National Route 48, in Sakunami, part of Sendai’s Aoba Ward. (source)

Mihara’s attention to the rich local culture in his home prefecture wasn’t just fun for me to read. It also shone a light on just how much merits study on even a hyper-local level. To someone who had just come through a graduate program that exceedingly emphasized the global at the expense of the local, it was a balm to the soul.

Colleagues and superiors often derided my interest in Tohoku’s local history as shallow, narrow, or quaint. But Mihara’s writing showed me that there is much to be learned even at the local level. The local level remains connected to big-picture issues, and it is no less deserving of preservation, study, and interest. And an understanding of the everyday lives of ordinary people is, in my opinion, an important tool to ground any study of history.

As we will learn, Mihara understood this deeply.

Early Life of the Kokeshi Dolls Savior

Mihara Ryōkichi was born in late Meiji-era Sendai, on January 22, 1897. His family owned a watch shop in that largest of Tohoku cities.

The Tohoku region around the turn of the century was still somewhat under the stigma of its Boshin War defeat. But even then, Sendai was the region’s biggest city, as well as a nerve center of the imperial government’s political and military power in northern Honshu. It was a lively place.

Per Mihara’s later work, we can infer that late-Meiji Sendai still kept some culture of the Edo period. Folktales, songs, festivals, and many more observances and traditions lingered. But even then, they were fading, owing to both the era’s bloody birth and the breakneck pace of modernization throughout Japan in the Meiji era.

These changes, and this visible, tangible loss of local culture, would influence the young Mihara, as we will see below.

After primary schooling, Mihara went on to Tokyo and attended Waseda University as a student in its Faculty of Letters. Others from Miyagi remained in Tokyo (for example, Shibata-born sculptor Komuro Tōru, who featured in a past Unseen Japan article). But Mihara returned to Sendai upon graduation. And it was here that his lifelong quest for historical and cultural preservation for Miyagi in general – and Sendai in particular – began.

Saving the Kokeshi Dolls

In 1923, not long after his return to Sendai, Mihara founded the Sendai Kokeshi Association (Sendai Kokeshi-kai) with Amae Tomiya. Amae, son of an affluent sake brewing family in the Sendai area, would be a lifelong friend and associate of Mihara in the work of preserving and popularizing Miyagi’s iconic kokeshi dolls and introducing them to Japan at large.

Kokeshi dolls - picture of a kokeshi from the author
A Naruko-style kokeshi, surmounted by a plastic goldfish, in the author’s possession. Photo by the author.

Unfortunately, the original Association did not last long. Amae was busy with his family’s sake business. Mihara soon became preoccupied with his own regular work as a journalist. However, it remained one of the earliest doll-focused associations in Japan, and inspired the formation of others.

Its efforts also resulted in 1928 in the book Kokeshi Hōko no Hanashi. Co-authored by Mihara and Amae, this was an early item in the former’s prolific publication history. As observed by the Kamei Museum, Kokeshi Hōko no Hanashi was indeed a pivotal publication that introduced Japan at large to kokeshi.

Shortly thereafter in 1925, Mihara and his colleagues from the Kokeshi Association set up a toy shop in downtown Sendai’s Bunka-yokochō, a street that’s still extant today. The business, called the Kokeshidō (Kokeshi Hole), sold local toys, dolls, and other traditional handicrafts. Mihara and Amae were the shopkeepers. Also assisting them was woodblock artist Kumagami Kōnen, a Sendai-born artist known for vibrant depictions of life in the city in the Meiji-Taisho-Showa transition.

As noted above, Mihara began work at the Kahoku Shinpō, the region’s Sendai-based paper of record. This journalistic work obliged him to leave the Kokeshidō not long after its establishment. Soon after, another local toy store absorbed its assets.

Yet this would not stop Mihara Ryōkichi’s lifelong, tireless work.

Journalist and Lecturer

At the Kahoku Shinpō, Mihara worked as an editorial writer, rising to chief of publication prior to retirement. His work for the newspaper only improved his name recognition. Parallel to this, he carried on a prolific parallel career as a folklorist and public historian.

It is no exaggeration to say that a great deal of very local history and lore in Miyagi survives because of Mihara’s work in documenting and publicizing them. Topics he wrote on included details of life in specific strata of Date retainer families, to the history of Sendai Tanabata, to public works projects of the Edo period, to aspects of language and historic law, and more.

He was a self-made expert. Even the prefectural government recognized this dedication and self-made expertise, and sought him as a contributor to Miyagi Kenshi, the prefectural history. Mihara authored the sections on folklore, as well as the entire chapter on the history of Noh drama in the region.

His work also extended to public lectures, which connected him not only with the public, but with other local luminaries. One of them was poet and English literature scholar Doi Bansui. Doi was best known internationally as the author of the lyrics to Kojō no Tsuki (“Moon over the Ruined Castle”). This was a song so popular the German rock band The Scorpions and French flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal covered it.

Mihara Ryokichi: Kokeshi dolls savior
Mihara in his old age, in an image reprinted in Kyōdoshi Sendai Mimibukuro.

Transcriptions of Mihara’s lectures suggest he was a very engaging speaker. He not only related history and folklore to his audience, but included lively anecdotes from his research travels. For me, in his reading, he makes profoundly clear the depth of history, memory, and emotion in places in Sendai and around Miyagi I have known and loved.

Pacifier of Spirits

Others’ memories of Mihara, likewise, speak to his character. An essay by Mishina Masanao tells of Mihara’s involvement with a research project at the Date family graves.

In the postwar era, Sendai faced a crisis of growing population but little land on which to build residential districts. The city sought permission from the house of Date to acquire some of the outer property belonging to the Zuihoden Complex to repurpose. Zuihoden is famous today for being Date Masamune’s resting place, rebuilt in the 1970s. But at the time, it was in postwar ruin.

A closeup of the ornate bas-reliefs at Zuihoden, now rebuilt. (source, by 663highland, CC 3.0)

The house of Date gave permission for the move. In turn, they asked Mihara to supervise the exhuming, cursory study, and reinterment of some of the remains. Buried together with the bodies were grave goods of opulence befitting this prominent daimyo family.

And then some of the workmen stole some of the grave goods.

The men stole small items– hairpins and combs– intending to give them to their wives as gifts. It seems they were able to get away with this, at least initially, for even Mihara had been unaware.

For some days, the men’s sleep was restless, and they’d thought they were sick. But even their family doctors couldn’t diagnose anything wrong with them. Only after that did they realize that what they’d been experiencing was an attack of conscience. Chastened, they went to Mihara to apologize and return the stolen items.

Mihara seems to have been conciliatory about the episode, and appreciative that the men took ownership of their misdeeds. He took the items to the Date family’s funerary temple, with the men’s apologies, for reinterment by monastic clergy.

Death and Legacy of the Kokeshi Dolls Champion

Mihara died of acute heart failure, in August of 1982, at 85 years old. He’d been working on yet another book practically until his death, collecting still more local history and folklore, which became a posthumous anthology.

Sorting through the manuscript and through other notes in his many notebooks, Mihara’s family and colleagues finished the job, publishing it in early 1983 as Kyōdoshi Sendai Mimibukuro (A Sendai Collection of Local Tales). This is the work by which I first learned of Mihara, back in the dark days of my graduate education, in stories that went into great depth both in hyper-local social history as well as folktales. Many of my Unseen Japan articles, as well as podcast episodes on Friday Night History, have relied on this book. It breathes life and depth into our appreciation of Edo period Sendai.

Yamamoto Sōichirō (1919-2001), one of Mihara’s close friends who was prefectural governor of Miyagi, wrote the foreword. It bears quoting here in full, because it succinctly sums up Mihara’s career, what motivated it, and the power in his words.

On this occasion, the late, much beloved Mihara Ryōkichi’s Kyōdoshi Sendai Mimibukuro has been carried out.

Mihara-sensei, who continued research into local history for many years, was apt to be buried in the depths of history. He unearthed the joys and sorrows of nameless people from within folktales and legends, and while deepening our homesickness by his writing, deepened our cherishing of the memories of those in our home region who had come before.

Amidst the present day’s social conditions of human alienation and loss of hometown, I believe it is significant that he was apt to find stories even in his home region’s mountains, rivers, grasses and trees, and draw attention to the way of life of those who went before.

The many stories presently in Sendai Mimibukuro include tales told around the hometown fireside, as well as stories sensei newly gathered. I feel its pages exude sensei’s warm affection for his home region as well as his superior insight.

Some days ago, before seeing this book to publication, sensei died suddenly. Like the warriors of old, we can never again be in his presence. But the deep love of home that he carried has surely been passed on to each of us.

I look forward to many people reading this book with pleasure.

November, Shōwa 57

The year before Mihara’s death, in 1981, the national government designated kokeshi dolls a Nationally Designated Traditional Craft Product. And while the original Sendai Kokeshi Association did not last, today, the Aoba Kokeshi Association is the city’s preeminent organization of kokeshi dolls fans and scholars.

I think he’d be pleased to know others are carrying his work forward.

In Lieu of a Conclusion

I often wish I could go back in time to thank Mihara Ryōkichi for such tireless work motivated by such deep love for the place that bore him. The stories, local histories, and folk handcrafts he helped preserve might very well have disappeared altogether, between the Tohoku region’s post-Boshin doldrums and the seemingly breakneck pace of modernization and reconstruction in 20th century Japan. After all, this modernization– as Governor Yamamoto’s forward noted– often came at the sometimes literal expense of razing the past.

For my part, I got to know and love Sendai on my own terms decades before I learned about his work. I was already doing doctoral research on Sendai domain’s history in the Boshin War when I read Kyōdoshi Sendai Mimibukuro. In time, his work planted the seeds for so much of what I have done with myself as a scholar since I completed graduate school.

After such a long time in graduate school of being told by many of my academic superiors that my own investment in local Tohoku history didn’t matter or was too unimportant and thus unworthy of study, it was uplifting and instructive to read Mihara. After all, he was one of the people who’d gone before me and been similarly invested in collecting, studying, and retelling local history and local stories.

Sendai Tanabata festival
Sendai Tanabata in 2010. (source)

It is thanks to people like Mihara, not just in Japan, that we can have a better appreciation of the history, memory, and emotion carried by places we think we know.

So I will close simply and say: thank you, Mihara-sensei, for saving the stories of Sendai.


  • Aoba Kokeshi-kai homepage. accessed 11 February 2023.
  • Bakkalian, Nyri A. The Sparrow’s Dream. PhD dissertation., (University of Pittsburgh, 2017), pp. 51, 91, 105.
  • Doi Bansui. Bansui Hōdan “Jijo.” 5 August 1948. Archived at Aozora Bunko, accessed 12 February 2023.
  • Kamei Shōgo Korekushon yori: ‘Kosaku Kokeshi Meipinten’ (Reiwa Gannnendo)” Kamei Museum. 5 May 2020, accessed 11 February 2023.
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  • Yamamoto Sōichirō. “Hakkan ni Yosete: Mihara Ryōkichi-ō no Meifuku o Inoritsutsu.” Introduction to Kyōdoshi Sendai Mimibukuro. (Sendai: Hōbundō, 1983).

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Nyri Bakkalian

Dr. Nyri A. Bakkalian is an author, recovering academic, raconteur, and Your Favorite History Lesbian. Her PhD thesis focused on the Boshin War in the Tohoku region. She is the author of "Grey Dawn: A Tale of Abolition and Union" (Balance of Seven Press, 2020). She hosts Friday Night History on anchor.fm/fridaynighthistory and the secret to her success is Arabic coffee. She misses Sendai daily.

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