The art of washi ningyo: Paper dolls capturing lifelike movement


Washi ningyo paper dolls capture life. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

Washi ningyo paper dolls capture life. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

One annual highlight of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival is the Grand Parade, when dancers, drummers and the Queen court march through the streets. But a second, smaller parade is also part of the festival, with its own taiko, kimono-clad women and a miniature mikoshi. This parade is composed of washi ningyo, traditional Japanese paper dolls made up of hundreds of delicate twists and folds that capture lifelike movement.

One Saturday a month, Yurie Nakamura and Rochelle Lum lead a washi ningyo class at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC) in San Francisco’s Japantown, where students learn to craft dolls from an array of paper representing a myriad of colors and patterns. Each year, the teachers organize  elaborate doll displays for the Festival, the most popular of which is a small-scale representation of the Grand Parade.

Nakamura, who has been teaching the art for approximately 28 years, said that its allure comes from the magic of what can be made with simple sheets of paper. “Usually for dolls, the traditional thinking is that they are staying still. But we can make movement, floating or dancing,” Nakamura said. “It shows how much we can do with paper. … It’s just regular flat paper, but you can make faces or hair.”

While beginning students model their dolls on countless patterns before graduating to be able to create their own designs, Lum said that even the basic dolls have the power to tell a story. “It’s an expression of your feelings and emotions. You’re supposed to look at it and feel something,” Lum said. “It shouldn’t just be a doll. It should have some kind of a feeling.”

Artists choose combinations of various papers, with elaborate patterns and vibrant colors, matching them to reflect their individual taste as well as to represent a certain season, said Nakamura.

Nakamura’s mother owned a kimono business, she said, so these traditional Japanese patterns are familiar and appealing to her.

After extensive study of the art in Japan, she continued practicing after moving to the Bay Area. When she displayed her art in public, people approached her, saying they wanted to learn. Nakamura began teaching in her home, and then, shortly after it was established, at the JCCCNC. Lum has been teaching for about 20 years, and she first learned from Nakamura after seeing her do a demonstration at the festival.

In class, students crumple black paper to make hair and twist red sheets to form ribbons. Newer students follow patterns to create dancers in kimono. “We’re paper freaks,” said Bettie Yee-Joe, a student. “It’s amazing to me that this is all paper. That’s what’s intriguing.”

Though the students said some aspects of doll-making are difficult, like crafting faces or wrapping the paper to represent kimono, Lum said that students come to learn how to manipulate the different textures.

“It may look difficult, but once you try it, it’s not bad,” Lum said. “It’s a way to learn about Japanese culture. The periods, the kimono dressing, the hairstyles. Each doll has a story.”

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