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by Alan Pate

The 18th century bijin saga-ningyô offered here, depicting a standing female holding a young infant in her arms and with a cat reclining on the hem of her flowing robe, represents an exceptional example of a particularly rare and desirable form of Japanese ningyô.

The long and prestigious history of saga-ningyô makes them the most sought after of all Japanese dolls. Examples rarely surface on the art market, and few ever leave Japan to enter foreign collections, public or private.

With their sculpted bodies, rich pigmentation (an effect achieved through the admixture of gold leaf and pigments), and particular allure, saga-ningyô are quite unlike the more familiar Japanese ningyô forms, and represent a breed apart, more akin to other classic sculptural forms than traditional textile-costumed dolls.

Exceptional in every way, the bijin saga-ningyô is of an unusually large size (15 inches, 38.1 cm), significantly larger than most published examples (see below). She is also a nodder (kubi-furi), with a head that pivots forward and back with a tongue that pops in and out of the mouth. While a popular feature in seated figures, this kubi-furi aspect is quite unique among standing ishô types. Other details, including the exact and detailed treatment of her kosode kimono, the flowing lines of the base carving, the elegant arrangement of her comb-secured hairstyle, the delighted (and delightful) facial rendering, the palpable heft and energy of the child in her arms, as well as the curious expression of the tag-along cat at her feet, speak of an artistic quality on the highest level.

Ishô-style saga-ningyô serve as spectacular windows onto the culture and times during the eras in which they were produced. Closely aping the textile and hairstyles of their day, saga-ningyô can be dated with near exactitude. The bijin saga-ningyô, with her richly patterned kosode kimono, relatively narrow obi tie belt, and severe hairstyle with single comb, allow us to date her with confidence to the Kyôhô-era (1716-36) of the Edo period. The carved nature of the hair and the narrow cast to the eyes with a slight crescent arch, bespeak an early 18th century date in terms of the evolution of ningyô craft as well.

*See Kirihata Ken, Saga-ningyô to kamo-ningyô in Sezaki Rumiko (ed.) The Doll: Dolls of Japan and the World Vol. 2 in Japanese. And for a comprehensive study in English, Alan Pate, Ningyô: The Art of the Japanese Doll pp. 21-22 (Tuttle, 2005) and Japanese Dolls: The Fascinating World of Ningyô pp. 106-7 (Tuttle, 2007).


Exceptionally rare, few saga-ningyô of note exist in Western collections, either private or public. Published examples from American collections include the Ayervais dôji-type of a seated acolyte holding a puppy (see Pate, Ningyô, p. 18), and a similar piece included in the Lapin Collection holding a bird (See Pate, Japanese Dolls, p. 107). Both of these figures, however, are of a much more modest scale and level of treatment than the bijin under consideration.

Within Japan, we can look to a number of published examples in both Private and Museum holdings. In terms of directly comparable forms we can look to the standing bijin with child and toy in the Tekisui Art Museum in Ashiya, Hyogo Prefecture (Image 2). Standing 6.3 inches (16.2 cm), certain similarities exist, but the overall form is more static, the robe more simply rendered, and the scale far more modest. A more closely comparable standing bijin can be found in the Tokyo National Museum example (Image 3). Standing 9.2 inches (23.4 cm), we find more of the elegant and fluid elements of the base carving, along with a more detailed and sophisticated robe treatment. The hairstyle is quite comparable, and the facial rendering exudes a high level of self-possession. A third comparable form, held in a private Japanese collection, which more closely matches the current piece under consideration in terms of quality and scale, is the standing bijin holding a puppet in her right hand (Image 4). Standing just under 14 inches (35.5 cm), this is a complex and well-rendered piece. Standing squarely on both feet, with a trailing hemline behind, there are numerous points of comparison. She sports a similarly elaborate hairstyle, with a simulated tortoise shell comb; the patterning on her robe featuring a waterwheel, cloud and gingko leaf design, though not as dense and layered, is particularly well rendered; the puppet here replaces the baby and a hand-held shishi mask, the toy, gives a similar impression of mother and child. Perhaps one of the most vibrant and animated examples in Japan is the laughing man with child, also held in a Japanese private collection (Image 5). Standing 13.8 inches (35.2 cm) with its base, this saga-ningyô is also comparable in many respects. The robes are richly rendered, the jaunty angle of the right leg, the upturned face looking up at the boy on his shoulder is a study in delight.

Image 2 (Tekisu Art Museum, Ashiya, Japan) Image 3 (Tokyo National Museum, Japan)
Image 4 (Private Collection)
Image 5 (Private Collection)

One of the more notable aspects of the bijin saga-ningyô under consideration is the fact that she is also a "nodder" (kubi-furi). Nodders were a popular conceit in dôji-style saga-ningyô, but rarely encountered in ishô-style. Perhaps the most famous example is the seated kubi-furi dôji, formerly in the Tekiho Memorial Museum of Art (now closed), currently held in a private collection in Japan (Image 6). Measuring 10.7 inches (27.2 cm), this seated figure features exceptionally well-rendered and separately carved hands, and the unusual inclusion of leather tabs simulating a Chinese child’s knobbed hairstyle. The large head easily nods with the tongue poking in and out as the head rocks back and forth. A final comparison image, and notable in many respects with regard to our figure, is the standing dôji nodder in the Kyoto National Museum (Image 7). Measuring 12.2 inches high (30.5 cm), the jolly figure is shown with a stylized cat under its proper right arm. Though lacking the rhythm and grace of our figure, the textiles are densely decorated and finely detailed. This figure has been published frequently and is one of the better-known saga-ningyô in Japan. A close comparison of the two faces shows a marked similarity in overall facial shape, with an almost pear-like aspect, similar eye and mouth treatment, possibly indicating the same hand at work in its creation.

Image 7 (Kyoto National Museum, Japan) Image 7a (Kyoto National Museum, Japan)

Standing slightly over 15 inches high (38.1 cm), the bijin saga-ningyô is one of the largest known. A seated dôji type measuring a truly remarkable 18.9 inches (46.2 cm) in the MOA Museum of Art in Atami City, Shizuoka Prefecture, is perhaps the largest recorded (Image 8). The hands of this figure are separately carved as in the previously discussed seated dôji (Image 6). The leather tabs of that image are here shown as fully sculpted round nodes.

Image 6 (Private Collection) Image 8 (MOA Museum of Art, Atami City, Japan)


Considering its age, the bijin saga-ningyô is in excellent condition overall. There are signs of wear to the pigment along the hemline, at the center of the back, and loss of gofun on the proper right hand. The most important condition issue is the series of cracks to the face on both the female and the child which have been stabilized with a clear lacquer by the previous owner, along with a series of fine cracks in the hair. While not threatening the integrity of the piece, ultimately these cracks should be attended to by a professional conservator to assure the longevity of the piece.


The saga ningyô occupies a unique space within the topography of Japanese ningyô. Based on extant examples, saga reached the peak of their popularity during the late 17thearly 18th centuries, though their production is thought to have begun as early as the late 16th century and continued intermittently through the end of the Edo period. Although their exact origins are obscure, it is generally assumed that they were carved by Kyotobased busshi (Buddhist sculptors) as a sideline to their craft. The Buddhist influence is readily visible in many of these figures, particularly in the mode of decorating the clothing with a lacquer technique called moriage, a technique commonly found on Buddhist sculptures of the period.

The faces and hands of these figures were typically covered in a highly burnished white gofun, but unlike many of the other ningyô forms presented here, saga ningyô were not typically clothed with actual textiles, whether draped or applied. Their rich clothing effects for which they were celebrated were achieved through a sophisticated application of pigments combined with gold powder. To achieve this effect, layers of gofun would be applied over the entire base wood sculpture. The intricate textile patterning was then developed through the use of a thicker bead of gofun, marking out various designs and symbols. To make them more vivid, a moriage technique was then used which involved the application of a gold powder paste to the raised line of gofun. The rich hues, for which saga are known, were achieved through the further application of gold leaf and the use of vibrant pigments, a bright red in imitation of beni scarlet textile dyes and a copperbased green being the principal palette.

The term "saga," as with many ningyô appellations, is a Meiji-period invention. The name is borrowed from the Saga area outside of Kyoto where these figures are believed to have been originally made. The Saga area itself was celebrated for its saga-bon (books from Saga). These were lavishly illustrated books designed and executed in part by such celebrated artists and calligraphers as Hon’ami Kôetsu (1558-1637) and Tawaraya Sôtatsu (d.1640). The press, founded by Suminokura Soan (1571-1632), the son of a wealthy merchant whose family held a coveted franchise for trade with Tonkin (North Vietnam), focused on deluxe editions of Japanese classics such as the Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji) and the Ise Monogatari (Tales of Ise) as well as the librettos of Noh plays. Some of its more distinguishing characteristics included the use of mica and skilled carving which made it difficult to discern whether the text was printed or actual calligraphy. Though operating for a relatively brief period of time during the opening decade of the 17th century, the popularity of the saga-bon among certain sectors of society is seen as a partial catalyst for the revival of the "courtly aesthetic" that is synonymous with much of Kyoto art. The similarly lavish nature of saga-bon and the saga ningyô combined with the fact that ningyô makers and busshi were reputed to have lived in this section of Kyoto seem to be the basis for the "Saga" name attribution.

Though impossible to verify, initial distribution of saga ningyô may have been effectuated through Sôtatsu’s Kyoto shop, the Tawaraya. Sôtatsu was a principal figure in the founding of the celebrated Rinpa school of painting. Though largely known for the large-scale screens and smaller album-sized paintings sold there, the Tarawaya was also a purveyor of a variety of goods including painted fans, lantern paper, sea shells and containers for the shell-matching game, as well as ningyô.

Subject matter for the saga is traditionally divided into four distinct categories. The first, and most celebrated, are of seated Chinese-style children called karako or dôji. Frequently they are depicted holding some animal such as a bird or a dog under their right arm with their left hand resting on their lap. They also typically have a nodding head with a protruding tongue. These have the most overt Buddhist flavor, reminding one of young Buddhist acolytes called dôji that appear frequently in religious paintings and sculpture. The second category, nominally referred to as an ishô or "fashion" type, includes a range of figures drawn from Noh, popular religion and folk beliefs, street performers and courtesans, typically rendered standing with no moveable elements. The third category called hadaka-saga or "naked saga" are seen as a transitional form between the classic seated dôji-type saga and the gosho ningyô which was to overshadow saga in terms of popularity within the 18th century. The final category is that of ordinary townsfolk. These figures, though typically not as large as the seated doji forms, are wonderful works, filled with delightful sensitivity, movement, and whimsy.

The popularity of the saga ningyô eventually led to their manufacture in other areas as well. While saga ningyô manufactured in Kyoto tended to focus most closely on religious subject matter such as the karako mentioned above, Edo saga or saga ningyô fabricated in Edo centered around themes and images similar to that found in woodblock prints. Tanzen (dandies), bijin (beautiful women), yako (male servants), and wakashu (young princes) were among the most popular of Edo saga. Stylistically they were given a more heavy painted treatment and were sometimes called ôki ase ningyô (thickly painted dolls).

The only artist for which we have a reasonable attribution to saga-style ningyô is for Shimizu Ryûkei (1659-1720), also known as Hogan Ryûkei. In Kyôho 2 (1717) Ryûkei, a celebrated bushi, created a series of 100 ningyô depicting various passers-by and street scenes of townspeople. Carved from single pieces of wood, decorated with gofun and other pigments, each represents individuals that Ryûkei may have encountered in his daily walk: monks, merchants, courtesans, minstrels, priests, children. All were displayed on a six-level stand. He even documented members of the nobility, though they were judiciously arranged on a separate level with verandah-like background. Their accessories, such as umbrellas, packages, walking sticks, and weapons were all carved separately.

The author, Alan Pate, is the owner of Antique Japanese Dolls in McIntosh, Florida, USA,
Tel +1 (858)-775-6717

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

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