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IMPORTANT JAPANESE MITSUORE GOSHO-NINGYÔ

by Alan Scott Pate

Exceptionally rare and important early Japanese triple-jointed (mitsuore) gosho-ningyo.
Ex-Collectis Wakabayashi, Meiji Era, Kyoto Japan, Ex-Collectis Yamanaka & Co. NY
Ex-Collectis Cleveland Museum of Art (Gifted in 1916) Acquisition #A16.25
36" High, Edo period, Late 18th/Early 19th Century, Cirda 1800


Alan Scott Pate Antique Japanese Dolls is proud to present an important late 18th century mitsuore triple-jointed palace doll from the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. The provenance of this exceptionally large and amazing study can be traced to the Wakabayashi Collection in Kyoto from the Meiji Era. In 1916 it was part of the ground-breaking auction by Yamanaka and Company held at the American Art Galleries in New York City. This sale, which was promoted as the first sale in the US of antique Japanese dolls, also featured a full catalog* and attracted the active participation of such imminent figures of the day as the architect Isaac N. Phelps Stokes (1867-1944); the socialite, author and early feminist Marie Tudor Garland (b. 1871); Mary Dimmick Harrison (1858-1948), wife of the late president Benjamin Harrison; and J. Arthur McLean, curator of the newly-formed Cleveland Museum of Art under director Frederick Allen Whiting.

The mitsuore gosho was catalog item number 201 at this sale. It’s description in the catalog reads as follows:

201— Palace Doll (About 1720)
A very large doll, with moveable arms and articulated leg joints, wearing rich robes of black and white silk. It was probably made at the desire of a daimio, by imperial doll maker, for the children of a noble’s family, as the coat bears in white reserve a daimio crest composed of two crossed feathers—so cut as to form a quatrefoil—within a circle. The white part of the coat is painted in blue with storks and waves.
Height, 36 inches

Yamanaka and Co. Auction Catalogue, The American Art Association, New York, 1916

At this time, J. Arthur McLean was aggressively acquiring pieces to fill out various sections for the soon-to-open Cleveland Museum of Art*. He actively pursued pieces from the Yamanaka auction. Yamanaka had been an important source for McLean in acquiring important Buddhist art, paintings, and ceramics from both Japan and China. Correspondence held in the museum’s archives indicate that McLean relied heavily on Yamanaka’s advice. And the 1916 acquisitions records indicate that the Museum acquired from this auction an important double set of yûsoku-bina and a palace (also currently in our collection), and was gifted 32 individual dolls by Daijiro J. R. Ushikubo, manager of the New York branch of Yamanaka & Company specifically for the Children’s wing of this museum. The mitsuore gosho presented here was among these early gifts to the museum and bears the acquisition number A16.25.   

As a genre, gosho-ningyô, or "Palace Dolls," are closely associated with imperial culture of the 18th century where they served as gifts conveying auspicious wishes shared within the imperial family as well as presented to visiting daimyo in recognition of tributes offered to the emperor. As a form, they are generally noted for their depiction of rotund male children, frequently attired in only a simple bib. As their popularity grew, and makers outside of Kyoto, most noticeably Izukura Kihei in Osaka, introduced this form to larger audiences, their method of depiction expanded rapidly to include mitate (parody) forms derived from popular culture, and articulated mitsuore forms which allowed for changes of clothing. They immediately became coveted objects within the affluent merchant communities. They were alternatively referred to as "white chrysanthemum dolls" and "izukura dolls."


Kneeling Japanese gosho-ningyô (Palace Doll)
10" High,
Late Edo period, early 19th Century

Mitsurore gosho can trace their development to the latter part of the 18th century. During this period, there was a veritable explosion of creativity and expansion in many doll forms, including those being created for the hina-matsuri Girl’s Day, the more verile tangu-no-sekku Boy’s Day, ishô-ningyô fashion dolls, and the imperial gosho-ningyô. Advances in technology being applied to these figures most notably included various modes of articulation which allowed the dolls to be positioned standing or seated or kneeling. Joining mechanisms includes bowl hip joints, pegged joinery, and notched joints. Those developed for the gosho doll typically featured flat joints which allowed the legs to firmly mesh when standing, giving greater stability.

Pegged and flat joints shown here on the Yamanaka Mitsuore Gosho-Ningyo

Some of the more celebrated mitsuore-ningyô in Japan include the 18th century "Manzei-san" and "Otake-san" both in the imperial nunnery Hôkyôji in Kyoto, and the nodder "Inuchiyamaru" in the Osaka City Museum. In the hina category, the most famous example is the yûsoku-bina pair at the Reiganji Temple, also in Kyoto.

The mitsuore gosho here dates from the late 18th century. It’s scale at 36" standing, is extraordinary, approaching the size of a real child. He is fashioned from solid segments of kiri (paulownia wood) and is covered overall in a fine white gofun. His exceptionally narrow eyes and contoured smile help in dating him to the end of the 18th century (in this regard, I disagree with the initial auction catalog description which gave this doll a date of 1720). His hair is of silk fiber and is arranged in the style of a young noble boy, with long forelocks, and a bare nakasori spot at the top of the head. The original costume that came with the doll to the museum was a Meiji-era replacement and consists of an actual child’s robe bearing images of storks and waves with crests of crossed arrows (included as part of his provenance). Today he wears a specially created kosode kimono made of age-appropriate 18th century shioagari blue silk with white fawn spot paulownia patterns done in a shibori technique with additional gold-wrapped thread floating crests of the paulownia and a red interior lining. He is additionally appointed with an 18th century gold silk obi tie belt in a base checkerboard pattern with floating snowflake roundels bearing auspicious symbols. He, in addition, has been provided with a contemporary display stand of black walnut with a metal back and arm support.

Narrow eyes, contoured smile, silk fiber hair
Shioagari blue silk kimono with gold thread crest
back view on stand with metal support side view in kneeling position

The world of Japanese dolls or "ningyô" is still largely unfamiliar to the West. For centuries in Japan, these figures have played important cultural roles that go far beyond our concept of a play doll. From national festivals, purification rites, medical applications, prophylactic disease control, sexual morays, theatrical endeavors, to important gifts of state, ningyô have pervaded all levels of Japanese society in ways which initially appear inexplicable in a Western context. In this regard, the mitsuroe gosho from the Cleveland Museum of Art should first and foremost be seen as a ningyô rather than a doll, as an object of significant cultural and historical relevance reflecting tastes and trends which fueled Japan’s social and display economy in the 18th century.


* Yamanaka & Co, "Illustrated Catalog of a Remarkable Collection of Ancient Oriental Imperial Treasures of Rare Artistic Distinction Recently Procured in China and Japan, February 7th and 8th , 1916.

* The museum formally opened on June 6, 1916.


The author, Alan Pate, is the owner of Antique Japanese Dolls in McIntosh, Florida, USA,
Tel +1 (858)-775-6717
E-mail: info@antiquejapanesedolls.com

He received an M. A. in Korean history and language from Harvard University.


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