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Hometown heritage focus with Satoshi Takahashi #10: Traditional clay dolls warm hearts

A craftsperson paints the eyes onto a clay tiger, as if to place a soul inside, at the Yabase-ningyo Densho-kan museum in the city of Akita on Feb. 16, 2022. (Satoshi Takahashi)=Click/tap photo for more images.

In this series, Japanese photojournalist Satoshi Takahashi focuses on the diverse heritage of his home prefecture Akita in northern Japan. For this 10th article, Takahashi visited a group, based in the Yabase district of Akita city, that strives to protect the heritage of locally produced clay dolls.

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    Nestled gently in my hand was a traditional Akita folk toy, a "Yabase" doll. The handmade clay figures in front of me smelled of the earth and wind. I could distinguish each face and shape, and feel the warmth of the craftsperson. It was as if each doll were a precious living being -- a human or an animal.

    According to legend, production of the dolls commenced in Akita in the mid-Edo period (1603-1867), when artisans from the Fushimi area of Kyoto built kilns. At its peak, 500 types of molds were in use, and merchant ships ferried products to ports throughout the country via the Sea of Japan. Among the popular dolls was the "Tenjin-sama" -- the deified Sugawara no Michizane, a ninth century statesman and scholar. This doll, nicknamed "Yabase no Odentsan," would be presented to newborn boys. "Hina" dolls, depicting the Emperor and the Empress, were sent to girls. In either case, the sender hopes the gift brings good health to the child.

    However, lifestyles have shifted, and the tradition has declined. In 2014, the last surviving artisan Tomo Michikawa passed away, and the art faced the risk of being lost. Shu Umetsu, 72, intent on conveying the culture to future generations, then established the group "Yabase-ningyo densho no kai" (Association for conveying Yabase dolls), which has since created new dolls and preserved old ones.

    "About two years ago, a family who had lost a son when he was young purchased a Yabase doll of a bride as a religious offering," said Umetsu. I realized that the family was still praying for the boy's happiness, and that these dolls were close companions. I was moved to tears.

    A tiger pottery, signifying this Chinese zodiac year, decorates my present home in the Kanagawa Prefecture city of Kamakura. It was crafted by members of the association. Every time I go out, my eyes meet those of the tiger, and I feel as if it's assuring me, "Your hometown is always watching over you." It gives me power, as it symbolizes the workmanship 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 the city of Akita, Akita Prefecture, in 1981. Residing in Phnom Penh from 2007 to 2018, he captured the social problems of Cambodia through his photographs, which were published globally. In 2019, his publication titled "RESISTANCE" (whose subtitle roughly translates to "the undaunted spirit of Cambodians") won the 38th Domon Ken Award sponsored by The Mainichi Newspapers Co.

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

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

    In Photos: Craftspeople in Japan's Akita put soul into traditional 'Yabase' clay dolls

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