Human Flower Project

The Dolls of Hirakata

A figural flower tradition blooms for the last time in Japan.


Kiku Ningyo- Chrysanthemum dolls exhibit

Photo: Yushima Tenmangu

To follow human custom is like watching flowers—there are seasons of flourishing and withering, and sometimes extinction.

Let’s hope the latter will not be the fate of Japan’s wondrous chrysanthemum dolls. Our friend Eishi Adachi, who recently returned to Texas from his homeland, reports that this may be the final year for a marvelous Japanese flower custom: the Hirakata chrysanthemum doll exhibition.

“Decorating dolls with chrysanthemums began as a novelty that turned into a huge hit in the late Meiji Era (1868-1912) in Tokyo’s Dangozaka neighborhood.” At the Hirakata show, a fall event in Japan since 1910, master craftsmen would build 50 dolls with bodies of blooming mums, arranging these floral statues into scenes from Japanese drama. In the early 20th century, Japan’s railroads began sponsoring the shows, initially to announce the opening of new transportation lines, and in more recent years to spur tourism. In 1974, more than 850,000 visitors came to see the Hirakata dolls, but attendance has dropped precipitously, to less than half that number in the past three years.

Further, we have learned that the chrysanthemum doll master Toshiyuki Murase died in 2000, and though he trained a handful of apprentices to carry on, there has not been much interest in learning the fine points of this exacting and expensive craft. (The fifty dolls cost approximately 100 million yen to produce and maintain for the duration of the exhibit.)

imageChrysanthemum dolls, Longwood Gardens, 1999

Photo: Longwood Gardens

In 1999, several Hirakata craftsmen demonstrated their art at Longwood Gardens in the U.S. Longwood posted an explanatory essay in anticipation: “Before they left Japan, the artists made body frames of bamboo and straw matting and faces of a hand-painted composite. These elements were shipped to Longwood where they will be dressed in period clothing fashioned from live chrysanthemums to depict the gracefulness of 6th-century Japanese court noblewomen, complete with kimono and obi made of flowers. The Japanese team will transform the stiff armatures into life-size dolls of living chrysanthemums. At the center of each frame will be a twisted mass of living chrysanthemum roots and stems, leaving only the flowers visible on the surface. Daily watering and continual care maximize their lifespan.”

Here is an exquisite portfolio of photographs by Chica Chubb of this year’s dolls, not to be missed!

The glory and demise of the Kiku Ningyo (chrysanthemum dolls) reflect the seasons of human culture. Living within traditions, we may assume they are airborne and perpetual, but that’s not so. Great art, though natural, is rare. And customs, like chrysanthemum dolls, survive only awhile, through “daily watering and continual care.”

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 11/14 at 11:30 AM


Julie, your blog never ceases to amaze me with the variety of stories. I found this entry today while searching Google images for printable botanical prints, of all things. But here I am, reading about a tradition I’d never heard about until finding an article here. Thank you for these fascinating glimpses into gardeners’ lives around the world.

Posted by Kimberley on 02/11 at 12:08 PM

Just searching for Dongozaka and found your post. I collect Japanese postcards and have about 30 of the flower dolls.  They vary in age form the early 1800s to 1950s (one of superman flying).  I was in Tokyo a year ago at the tail end of the chrysanthemum festival.  I didnt get to the big exhibit, but at a Temple’s mum fest, they had 4 dolls.  Would be happy to send you pictures/scans.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 11/30 at 07:35 AM
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