Do androids dream of mimetic grief? Some comments on Japanese dolls.

Objects and emotions are inter-animating. An example from William James: I rejoice in a glass of wine; but where exactly is my joy – is it in the wine or inside me? It exists in the one and the other at once, for it is conjured in their conjunction. So let us then speak of objective affects: plastic sadness, ceramic happiness, fibre-glass heartache.

Dolls enact such artefactual passions. Long before Latour, and his argument that the reality of entities is a function of their fabrication, the Japanese dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724) was articulating similar principles. Writing of the puppet theatre (long associated with Osaka and now known as bunraku), the playwright maintained that, more so than human actors, puppets are better at enacting emotions. It is, he said, because the puppet is artificial, that it is able to show ‘true emotions’ (jitsujô).

There is, in bunraku theatre, a dramatic convention called kudoki (‘lament’) in which a female character, overtaken by emotion, expresses her anguish at the tragic situation she finds herself in. (Bunraku plays are so often stories of conflicting obligations, impossible crossings of love, and double suicides.) The novelist Akagawa Jirô states that such kudoki scenes were as well known in the 19th century as advertising slogans are today. In perhaps the most famous lament (a scene from the play ‘The Kimono of the Captivating Dancer’), the character of Osono, whose husband has run off with a geisha, is lighting lamps, all alone in her father-in-law’s saké shop, when she pours out her remorse. ‘Where is he, what is he doing?’ (doko ni dôshite) she wonders of her husband, blaming herself for his failings. ‘If only I had died when I fell ill last autumn…’ (kyonen no aki no wazurai ni, isso shinde shimautara). In the depths of her distress, the female puppet (in a complex, fluid movement – called ushiroburi – that only female puppets may make) turns her back to the audience – an intense gesture of sadness and beauty.

(Ushiroburi: 'turning to the rear')

Turning his back on the received notions of 19th century psychology, William James insisted that it is not because we are sad that we cry; quite the reverse: we are sad because we cry. Bourdieu would later reiterate the argument: ‘the body believes in what it plays at: it weeps if it mimes grief’. Bunraku androids dramatise these principles. Doll-bodies weep if they mime crying.

Beyond bunraku, there are in Japan a multitude of dolls, doubles, models, mascots and icons that are worthy of ethnographic attention (and it is difficult to dissociate all this from the history of Japanese toys and their explosive globalization, but I don’t have space for that. All I can hope to do here is offer some ethnographic snapshots).

The Japanese term that covers a good deal of this conceptual territory is ningyô, meaning ‘person-shaped’. Surveying the history of the term, Jane Marie Law has argued that its basic semantics are shamanic. Dolls often did – and in interesting, disparate ways still do – serve as mediators between the worlds of humans and divinities, acting as temporary vessels for spirits, surrogates for persons, or proxy bodies. The practice of ritual puppetry (the ancestor of bunraku) on Awaji Island, in the inland sea just across from Osaka, still taps directly into these traditions, as Law has exquisitely documented. But traces remain in more unexpected places.


Characters that serve as corporate logos can often be found in the form of plastic mascots (the Kôwa company frog, the elephant emblem of Sato Pharmaceutical, the Kewpie Mayonnaise baby, little chubby-cheeked Peko-chan of the Fujiya confectionary company, KFC’s Colonel Sanders, etc.). But there are other dolls also, logos of the local, that work their magic as commercial attractions. To name only two examples from Osaka: Billiken, the bizarre goblin-faced god who presides over the Shinsekai district, and Kuidaore (‘Stuff yourself’) Tarô, a drum-playing automaton to be found among the amusements of Dôtonbori, who is so famous that he has become a symbol of Osaka in general.

(Kuidaore Tarô, automaton symbol of Osaka)

What such examples arguably show is that dolls are indeed – as Law says – go-betweens, but they not only serve as bodies or bridges for the spiritual; they may be both cosmological and commercial mediators. For, as Inoue Shôichi suggests, in his brilliant little book on Japanese dolls, these figures are very likely linked, through an intimate history of allure, to an older tradition of manufactured and magical models and charms intended to encourage ‘prosperity in business’ (shôbai hanjô). Such objects include papier mâché tigers, beckoning cats, rakes and rice-scoops, all acting as attractors of wealth and luck (and Inge Daniels has adroitly analysed them). But if dolls can cry, exert attraction, or summon luck, they are also capable of cursing.

Outside most Japanese branches of KFC stand plastic-skinned and –suited figures of Colonel Sanders, with welcoming arms and a Kentucky Fried smile. The capricious agency of one such icon has become a part of Osaka folklore.

In October of 1985, when the Hanshin Tigers baseball team won the Japan Series, the ecstatic fans amassed at the Ebisu Bridge in the Dôtonbori district of Osaka, and some among them celebrated by leaping into the canal (a riotous rite that subsequently became customary, until the authorities recently had the area remodelled in order to prevent it). On this occasion, as the fans called out the names of the victorious baseball players (Okada, Kakefu, Mayumi…) a supporter would jump off the bridge in place of the player. But when the roll-call came to Randy Bass, the outstanding American batter, the fans could find no adequate stand-in, and so it was that they fixed on a figure of Colonel Sanders, outside the Dôtonbori branch of KFC, and taking it up to chants of ‘Bass, Bass’, they pitched the image into the dark drink of the canal.


After some three years of consistently poor performance, The Rumour began to circulate.
It was Kamioka Ryûtaro, a presenter on the regional TV show, Tantei Knight Scoop, who first suggested that the Tigers’ run of bad luck was due to the ‘vengeful spirit’ (onryô) of the Sanders statue. A joke, of course, but it came with interesting consequences. At the nearby Hirota Shrine in Nishinomiya (where the Hanshin team makes ritual petitions for victory every year) Tantei Knight Scoop further hyped up its own story by arranging for a likeness of Colonel Sanders to be purified. But as Inoue observes, it wasn’t the right likeness, because the particular figure responsible for the ‘curse’ (noroi) was still lost somewhere in the murk of the canal. This figure was finally recovered, with much fanfare, in 2009, ironically by construction workers who were engaged in the very project of remodelling the area around Ebisu Bridge. It was re-housed – one might even say, enshrined – in a KFC restaurant near Kôshien Stadium, the home of Hanshin. It now stands proudly in a display case, the body of the Colonel bleached and blistered by its corrosive twenty-four-year dip in the river; its vitality sapped by almost a quarter century of canalizing curses.

(The return of the Colonel. KFC, near Kôshien Stadium)

But since ritual investments are not opposed to good business practice in Japan, the KFC Corporation also arranged for the Sanders effigy to be purified at the Sumiyoshi Shrine in Osaka – a ritual that made for good PR (Purificatory Relations). The Shinto priest who carried out the purification, Mayumi Tsunetada (also a die-hard Hanshin fan) felt able to announce that ‘the curse is now completely dispelled’ (noroi wa kanzen ni toketa), and he expressed his hope that the Sanders figurine would now serve as the ‘saviour’ (kyûseishu) for the baseball team.

Dolls are go-betweens indeed, and this is no mere animist's fantasy – the relations, the emotions, are all absolutely real and really artificial. Consider this final case: that dolls sometimes die and are memorialized.


Memorial rites in Japan (called kuyô) may be held for deceased persons, but also for things. A multitude of things may be so memorialized; the current inventory is ‘vast and growing’, as Rambelli says. It would count in clocks, dolls, umbrellas, chopsticks, needles, scissors and CDs, amongst others. And animals too. (In conversation with an employee from KFC headquarters in Tokyo, Inoue discovers that, although the company does not organise memorial rituals for obsolete Colonel Sanders figurines, it does hold annual rites for all the chickens that die for the sake of the Colonel’s Secret Recipe.)

In any case, there are a number of reasons given as to why dolls are sometimes deemed to require memorialization by means of ceremonial disposal. One such is that dolls and people become bound by intimate attachments (aichaku), relations of affection and memory, and so dolls are in need of special treatment, as they cannot be simply thrown away. (It is also perhaps, in part, because dolls are, at the same time, alien and intimately imitative that a significant number of Japanese find some of them – especially antique models, dressed with real human hair – to be ‘scary’.) In general, at the shrines and temples where memorial services are performed, the donated dolls are blessed and then ritually burned (or alternatively disposed of by other less hazardous means, or given to charity). The objects so treated are ‘deactivated’, in Rambelli’s apt expression. Dolls are deactivated with gratitude.

In 1949, Nanasai, a Kyoto company producing mannequins for shop-window displays, staged its first mannequin memorial. (The ritual was abandoned in the late 1950s once the manufacture of mannequins switched from paper fibre to fibre-reinforced plastic, which does not easily burn.) The defunct mannequins were to be ritually consumed by fire, following the offering of prayers. No ritual specialists were involved. Instead, prominent company employees took on liturgical roles: one was a Shinto priest, another stood-in for a Buddhist, a third play-acted as a Catholic. Once the prayers were made, other employees, substituting as Buddhist novices, carried the mannequins over and loaded them on to the pyre.

(Nanasai mannequin memorial rite, 1949)


Commenting on all this curious dramaturgy, Inoue – to whom I owe the account of this episode – speculates that these elements of masquerade might be explained by the fact that many people who work in the mannequin industry are graduates of art colleges. This is important, for sure, but I can’t help feeling that there is a little more to it. After all, what could be more apt, more fitting, for a mannequin memorial than such a ritual so simultaneously syncretic and synthetic? For here were people acting as stand-ins for priests, for the sake of dolls acting as stand-ins for people…

Chikamatsu, bunraku innovator and aesthetician, held that ‘art is something that lies in the slender margin between the real and the unreal’ (gei to iu mono wa jitsu to uso to no hiniku no aida ni aru mono nari). This is so because – as Christopher Bolton explains – ‘the artificial’ has the potential to be more moving than the ‘strictly realistic’, a recognition that artificiality may be invested with its own peculiar efficacy.


Were I to apply this insight to everything I’ve learned about Japanese dolls (a risky business!) then could we not say that these dolls disclose a synthetic aesthetic? Or, what I have elsewhere called a cosmetic cosmology, in which surfaces are taken quite seriously – even, or in fact, especially, in play.

I've given you some short stories of substitutes, copies, and cross-overs: of the conjugation of artifice and emotion, of weeping puppets, doll memorials, and American Colonels casting hexes. The latter started out as a playful tale of substitute foreigners – gaijin high jinks – in which Hanshin fans substituted a ‘foreign’ doll for a foreign baseball player, but it would seem that, after all, the doll wanted to assert its own identity.

So, finally, what to call all these strange simulations, all this simulated strangeness? Alterity? Yes – but alterity given its own artificial inflection: doll-terity.



Select Bibliography:


Akagawa, Jiro (2004). Ningyô wa kuchi hodo ni mo mono o ii (Puppets say more than words). Tokyo: Shôgakkan.

Bolton, Christopher A. (2002). ‘From Wooden Cyborgs to Celluloid Souls: Mechanical Bodies in Anime and Japanese Puppet Theatre’. Positions 10:3: 729-71.

Daniels, Inge (2010). ‘Dolls are scary: The locus of the spiritual in contemporary Japanese homes’, in David Morgan (ed.) Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief. London: Routledge.

Gerbert, Elaine (2001). ‘Dolls in Japan’. Journal of Popular Culture 35: 59-89.

Inoue, Shôichi (1998). Ningyô no yûwaku: manekineko kara kaaneru sandaazu made (The seduction of dolls: from beckoning cats to Colonel Sanders). Tokyo: Sanseidô.

Law, Jane Marie (1997). Puppets of Nostalgia: The Life, death, and rebirth of the Japanese Awaji ningyô tradition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rambelli, Fabio (2007). Buddhist Materiality: A Cultural History of Objects in Japanese Buddhism. Stanford: Stanford University Press.



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Replies to This Discussion

Marvelous, Phillip, marvelous. At the end of a day devoted to grandchild care, my brain is in no shape to say much either critical or useful. One thought did, however, flash across my mind. If you can lay your hands on a copy of


Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research 

By Patricia Sunderland and Rita Denny, November 2007. 


there is a chapter that discusses the siting of emotion in U.S., U.K. and Australian youth culture. The relevant thought is that whether emotion is seen as welling up from inside the self, implicit in forms of social interaction, or embedded in external objects appears to be culturally specific. My copy of the book is in Japan, and I am, for the summer, in northern Virginia, U.S.A., so I can't elaborate further. This chapter might, however, help to deepen the analysis.






Thanks John, the reference sounds very useful.


It possibly bears little relation to what I've said above, but still interesting, I think, that the Japanese words for 'experience' (keiken, taiken) were, I believe, late 19th century inventions, devised by intellectuals engaged in translating western philosophical work of writers like William James, into Japanese.  


(A double post, but never mind, since this discussion is about doubles.)


It strikes me that my comment above, about a Japanese James, becomes pertinent if we draw out its implications. Because, in so far as it's an observation about historical, conceptual crossovers, it implies that the culture of Japanese dolls is neither simply not straightforwardly indigenous. (This is obvious, but is perhaps worth stating nonetheless.)


The Colonel Sanders doll is a case in point. While KFC came to Japan in 1970, the dolls came later, and (as Inoue relates) it was actually an American over in Japan who had the idea - putting figures of Colonel Sanders outside Japanese KFC shopfronts was his suggestion to revive what was then a struggling franchise.


But somewhere along the line, this American innovation gets intimate with already existing indigenous ideas:  e.g., about the potential of dolls as promotional vehicles, as well as notions concerning the importance of seasonality. For example, Sanders dolls are regularly 're-dressed' in outfits appropriate to the season - begin draped in festival coats during the summer matsuri ('festival') season - or suitable to some other place or occasion. Static plastic, Sanders may well be, but such periodic makeovers ensure that these dolls put the 'motion' in promotion (to paraphrase Hillel Schwartz).


I reproduce an image below (again from Inoue's book) of Colonel Sanders during one of his promotional trips to Japan in the 1970s.


 Kentucky Fried Icons: The real Colonel meets his plastic alter ego in Japan. (It is perhaps relevant to point out that Sanders wasn't a real colonel.)

Philip, I am enjoying your observations very much, but with somewhat mixed feelings. The grim methodologist in me notes the cherry picking involved in the selection of cases. As a writer of advertising and a reader of fiction, I appreciate the technique. That said, I observe that the use of near life-size dolls to promote restaurant chains is, in fact, relatively rare. Peko-chan and the Colonel are notable because other examples don't leap to mind. Re the foreign as well as Japanese context issue, I recall the cigar store Indian, another example of a near lifesize statue used as advertising, who while no longer politically correct was once a common feature of Urban landscapes in the USA. I also wonder if the Colonel's success in Japan owes more to a Japanese obsession with dolls than, comparing the real Colonel and the plastic statue in the photograph, the artfully crafted rotundity of the latter, which makes the statue cuter than the original. Returning to Peko-chan, I wonder if it is coincidental that the two most memorable examples of plastic statue associations with restaurant chains involve restaurants that sell "foreign" food in which high calorie fried items are a large part of the menu?

These comments, I hasten to add, are not intended to condemn your analysis. I hope they suggest directions in which it might be enriched.


Thanks John,


Excellent comments - very grateful for them! -  especially because they prompt me to explain my case further, which might prove useful to anyone else who reads our exchanges. 


Firstly, I'll cheerfully admit that I've cherry-picked these instances, since I wanted to introduce, to anyone who might be interested, a number of Japanese things, all under the heading of ningyô (dolls, puppets), and the short format of the blog necessitates the compression of context. On their own, an account of mannequins in Japan, or - especially! - an inquiry into bunraku puppet theatre, would be deserving of lengthier treatment, and such treatments exist, of course - a few on the former, and a lot on the latter.    


To be sure - Colonel Sanders aside - dolls advertising restaurants aren't common, but dolls deployed for promotional purposes in general are common enough to deserve attention, and Inoue (whose book I drew a lot from) points up the connection between these commercial creations and more 'traditional' figures associated with luck or hoped-for fortune - the beckoning cat, Daruma, the tanuki (racoon dog), etc, etc. (As Inoue relates, the company that was first tasked to make the Peko-chan dolls for Fujiya Confectionery Company was already involved in the manufacture of papier-mache tigers (hariko no tora), traditional objects of good fortune.)


But beyond this, I thought that the story of the curse of Colonel Sanders, and the account of memorial rituals for shop mannequins were themselves very interesting, anthropologically speaking. The latter not least because, while so-called 'memorial rites for inanimate objects' in Japan have received some scholarly attention in English (e.g., in the work of Kretschmer and Rambelli), this example (from Inoue) has so far gone unnoticed, as far as I'm aware.    


As for the story about Sanders' curse, I've been curious about this since the first time I ever heard it, years ago. While Inoue gives an excellent history of this, his narrative ends in 1992. The story of the Sanders statue's subsequent recovery is easy enough to find in English (on the internet for instance), but until I had a look at the Japanese media reports, I had no idea that the statue had been taken to a shrine and purified.


I find the Colonel Sanders story to be especially compelling - pretty serio-comic, and mixing ritual interests with sport and commercial considerations. One might, a bit waggishly, gloss the story as follows: man bites doll; doll bites back!  

The Colonel Sanders story is compelling. Thus, I suggest, it requires special care. Situated in the flow of an essay directed, "to anyone who might be interested, a number of Japanese things, all under the heading of ningyô (dolls, puppets)," it implicitly suggests an Orientalism in which the Japanese come off as rather odd ducks, indeed. After three decades living and working in Japan, I have concluded that, in some respects, the Japanese are, indeed, not like you and me; but I see the differences as marginal instead of profound. Were I to draw a Venn diagram contrasting USAnians and Japanese, the intersection would be almost as big as the union. The shared humanity would far outweigh the cultural quirks. 

Also as someone who was trained to be a China specialist and made to read a substantial amount of ethnography describing folk in other parts of Asia, I am also wary of portraying things Japanese in a way that omits their resemblance to similar things elsewhere in the region. Puppet theater, for example, is quite widespread; so is the attribution of spiritual powers to puppets.  Indonesian Wayang Kulit (shadow puppets) come to mind.  My first encounter with the notion that people in Asia might weigh appearances more heavily than the sort of sincerity described by "To thine own self be true" was in Frances Fitzgerald's Fire in the Lake, ascribed to the Vietnamese and to Ho Chi-minh, in particular. 

I am definitely not suggesting that all things Japanese can be explained in terms of generic "Asian" or "Confucian" values. But thick descriptions that attempt to characterize what is distinctively Japanese cannot, I think, avoid coming to grips with them.





Thanks John.


I find it difficult to disagree with you. After all, I can't see much sense in taking these things to be exclusively Japanese, isolated and absolutely indigenous. The Hanshin Tigers episode says it all, really, because it's ultimately a story about baseball and a Kentucky Fried Chicken mascot. But it's the particularity of this story - the way it played out - the specific connections made and actions taken, that I find compelling.


I wrote above that I wanted to introduce 'a number of Japanese things', but that wasn't quite right, since it might have sounded like I wanted organise a parade of exotic objects, as if to say: gaze at all the strangeness. My point was not that Japanese are strange, but that Japanese dolls are - or, put more properly, that they are capable of strangeness. Actually, I understand this to be not only a potential capacity of dolls, puppets, etc, anywhere, but also something that feeds into the more general anthropological problem of the making of copies, of likenesses, that they may carry with them a simultaneous sense of otherness, and that this is part of their power. (I should say that Taussig's Mimesis and Alterity is very much the back-story to my piece.)        


In the end, it's not dolls as specifically Japanese things that I want to talk about at all, but rather - as my mention of James, etc, dimly indicated - what interests me are how dolls might be seen to define certain relations between subjects, objects, emotions and ideas of animation. All well and good, perhaps, but difficult to do in under 2,000 words! 




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