Humorous Karakuri dolls
“We will continue to make them in order to pass on Japanese culture.”
Obake no Kinta (Ghost Kinta) / Atsuga Ningyoten
“Obake no Kinta” is a karakuri doll born in the Edo period. It has black formal headwear for court nobles and a red face. It is characterized by its humorous movements, such as its tongue sticking out when the string is pulled, and its eyeballs flipping back. We interviewed Mr. Shinhachiro Atsuga of the Atsuga Ningyoten.
AtsugaBorn in Kumamoto City in 1943, he became a doll maker in 1963, learning from his father. He is the 10th generation of a 250-year-old doll maker, and continues to make "Obake no Kinta," invented by Hikoshichi, the 5th generation doll maker.
A local toy born in the Edo period
It is said that the original “Obake no Kinta” was a karakuri doll created by the fifth generation of the Atsuga family, Nishijinya Hikoshichi, a doll maker, during the Kaei era (1848-1854) of the Edo period.
―How did “Obake no Kinta” come about?
When Lord Kiyomasa Kato built Kumamoto Castle about 400 years ago, there was a funny-looking foot soldier called “funny Kinta”. It is said that Hikoshichi, the fifth generation of our family, invented obake no Kinta based on him.
It has a large red face, and when a string is pulled, its eyeballs flip over and its tongue sticks out. People who saw it were surprised and said, “Wow, it’s a ghost,” and “Odoke no Kinta” (funny Kinta) came to be called “Obake no Kinta” (ghost Kinta).
―What are the characteristics?
Karakuri is made from bamboo springs. The bamboo is shaved thin, sometimes down to 0.3 mm. When strings are attached to the bamboo and the strings are also wrapped around the eyeballs and tongue components, the eyeballs and tongue move at the same time. The red color is said to have the meaning of warding off evil and disease.
―What are the key points in making it?
The toy’s face should be smooth and not bumpy. Whitewash, which is made from shell powder, is applied over and over again.
Over 250 years of doll making
The Atsuga family has been a family of doll makers for over 250 years.
―Please tell us about the Atsuga family.
Shinzaemon, the first generation, moved from Kyoto to Kumamoto and took the trade name “Nishijinya”. Atsuga family made dolls in Shinmachi, Kumamoto, and when my ancestor fled from the Civil War in 1877, he put a mold of Kinta’s face in his luggage.
―What kind of things did you make?
The main work of a doll maker is making dolls for the Children Festival in Japan. We also made festival paraphernalia, firefighting gear, and elaborate life-size dolls. I used to live in Shinmachi, so I worked on the Shinmachi lion’s head.
―Did you plan to become a doll maker eventually?
Ever since I was a child, I was told by those around me that since I was the eldest son, I had to take over. After graduating from high school, there were not many doll-making jobs available at the time, so I got a job and became a company employee.
After about two years, my father’s work increased and he told me that he was going to stop making Kinta. But I thought it would be a waste to stop making Kinta, and I decided that if I was going to eventually take over the store, I would do it myself, so I quit the company and started making Kinta.
―How did you acquire your skills?
Instead of being taught each technique one by one, I learned it myself by watching my father. I had been helping him and using his tools since I was a child, so I progressed quickly.
Artisanship Inherited from Ancestors
Mr. Atsuga’s son is taking over and learning the techniques.
―How do you feel about the more than 250 years of history?
Our ancestors have continued to make and pass down their techniques from generation to generation, which is why we are here today. I believe that we should be grateful to our ancestors.
―His son Shintaro will be the 11th generation.
I was thinking that it would be nice to have a break with me as the 10th generation and that it would be okay if my son did not take over. But now that my son is going to take over, I want to pass on my skills and make sure that they never die out.
―How did you feel when your son told you that he would be taking over?
Well, I guess I was happy. I am relieved because I can fulfill my responsibilities by passing the baton. I am glad that it will not end with me, because it would take a lot of determination for it to end with me.
―What are your expectations for the next generation?
It is hard to predict how things will change in the future. I hope that based on the techniques of “Obake no Kinta,” we can invent dolls that suit the times and make them if there are orders that require them.
Carrying on tradition and passing it on to future generations
They continue to make our products using traditional materials in order to pass on traditional techniques to future generations.
―How do you think about tradition?
I think tradition is a very broad and profound concept. Our ancestors used natural objects in daily life to make tools, toys, kimonos, houses, and many other things.
Japan has a unique culture, and our ancestors labored hard to create everything from food, clothing, and shelter. I chose this path in order to pass on such things to future generations, and I intend to play a part in traditional crafts.
It is very gratifying to know that the “Obake no Kinta” made in the Edo period is still enjoyed by people in their daily lives.
―How do you feel about the changing times?
Our dolls are made from natural materials. When I was young, chemical products suddenly became widespread and the age of plastic changed. I was told that I should mass-produce “Obake no Kinta” in plastic, but I did not.
Recently, however, there has been a trend around the world to stop using chemical products.
I feel that if that is the case, there will be a little way for our family to live what we have done.
―For the Future
What we make changes, but the techniques and materials remain the same. I believe this is the way for traditional crafts to continue. When my son’s generation comes along, maybe they will start to think that the old ones were good again.If that happens, we will still be able to continue this work and create new products. I hope such a time will come.
※The information in this report is current as of December 2021.
“Obake no Kinta” was created out of a sense of fun. The change when the string is pulled was quite impactful and surprising.
■ Atsuga Ningyoten Location:Kumamoto-shi, Kumamoto Prefecture Sold at the Kumamoto Prefectural Traditional Crafts Center, souvenir shop,and so on. A doll maker for over 250 years since the Edo period. His karakuri(trick) doll, "Obake no Kinta(a ghost named Kinta)" is well known as one of Kumamoto's representative local toys.