This is a very appealing example of a category of Japanese dolls that are know as Gosho Ningyo. It is in the form of a crawling infant with a red bib and a red ribbon around his waist – on the bottom is a multi colored striped cloth square. The doll measures 7” long and is 4 ½” high by 3 3/8” wide. It is in reasonably good condition – a couple of spots where the gofun has either cracked or worn off – and the left hand and head have been restored at some time. We particularly like the tufts of hair on the top of his head and sideburns. We date the doll to the early Meiji period, circa 1870-1890.
The gosho dolls were made by engraving paulownia wood and coating and finishing with "gofun (chalks)" in the same way that Japanese lacquer is applied . "Gofun" is a white pigment that is made by pulverizing oyster shells. It is used mixed with glue made from the bones and hides of cows. It was in the Muromachi era (1333-1568) that this technique was introduced and fully utilized for "keicyo-butsu".
Most "gosho ningyos" are naked, but some wear costumes. The origin of this doll was as a crawler doll. Since the crawler doll was a ritual object presented at the birth of a child in the families of nobles, the "gosho ningyo" came to bear a similar significance. The doll had been created in the early days of the Edo era (1600 -1868). "Gosho ningyo" with pedigrees exist at the Reiganji Temple, Hokyoji Temple, and other temples where noble families bequeathed their heritage of Buddhist laws, and such dolls also exist as the properties of the three Tokugawa shogunate families that accepted brides from the Royal and aristocratic families. On consideration of these facts we can imagine that "gosho ningyo" were not simply dolls used as ritual objects.
It seems to have been only in the Meiji era that the name of "gosyo ningyo" was established. In the Edo era, they were called "shiragiku ningyo (white chrysanthemum dolls)" because of their white skins. Sometimes, they were called "omiyage ningyo (souvenir dolls)" because the feudal lords from the Western region sent "gosyo ningyo" in return for their courtesy calls to the Gosho (court) when they passed through Kyoto on their way to their alternate-year residences in Edo.