Celebrating Boys in Japan

After the Nagaizumi-Whanganui Sister City Friendship Centre closed in 2015, the Whanganui Regional Museum received a donation of many of the objects it had housed. Cataloguing these objects required some research into Japanese culture and traditions.

1. Lacquered box

The lacquered box. Ref: 2015.32.51g

One of the most intriguing is a beautiful black lacquered box which has a fitted removable lid and six legs with five sides. Each leg has a brass cap engraved with leaves on four outer edges. All corners have etched brass corner protectors. The inside of the box is lined with patterned white paper. It contains a Gogatsu Ningyo, a samurai warrior doll complete with an elaborately decorated tachi (sword), a yumi (bow and arrow) and two folding lacquered screens, also with decorative corners. There was also a wooden plaque with Japanese characters and a length of green cotton felt with a flowered silk brocade border.

2. Samurai doll

The Gogatsu Ningyo, Samurai doll. Ref: 2015.32.51a

Putting the doll together was a little complicated as he came in many pieces. A head is covered by an ornamented helmet, shoulder plates, shin guards, upper leg plates and fur boots. He sits on a lacquered pedestal.

In Japan, Gogatsu Ningyo are used on 5 May every year at the Tango-no-Sekku festival, to wish for the healthy growth of boys. The armour, helmet, sword and bow and arrows were once worn by brave warriors and hence the desire for strength and good health. This tradition originated in a ritual using sweet calamus (a plant used both medicinally and to make fragrances), held at the Japanese Imperial Court more than 1,200 years ago to ward off evil spirits. It was believed that sweet calamus had strong power because it was among the first plants to sprout in early spring. Later in the feudal era, this ritual evolved into a ceremony to pray for good fortune for boys and success in wars, and then gradually spread among the common people as a festival for children.

Families with sons also celebrate this day by flying carp-shaped streamers called koinobori. In Japan, carp are known to be strong fish that can leap up waterfalls. The koinobori symbolise parents’ wishes for their sons to be as strong as carp. The Museum also received two windsocks as part of the donation. They are each three metres long and painted in shades of blue and pink. In Japan today, koinobori are commonly flown above the roofs of houses where children live, along with the biggest black koinobori, coloured black, for the father, the next biggest, in red or pink for the mother and an additional smaller carp of a different colour for each child in decreasing order by age.


Kathy Greensides is a Collection Assistant at the Whanganui Regional Museum.


Miss Polly had a Dolly

Creepy, cool, or curious, dolls have been around for thousands of years. The Whanganui Regional Museum has over 300 dolls in the collection and here are a few samples.
StruwwelpeterOne doll represents a 19th century moral lesson for children. The handmade fabric Struwwelpeter is dressed in a green tunic with a pointed hat and resembles a mischievous imp. “Shaggy Peter” originated in 1845 as the main character in a book by Dr Heinrich Hoffman, a German psychiatrist. Struwwelpeter’s main aim in life is to scare small children into good behaviour through a series of violent moral tales, vividly illustrated. The original book illustrations show Struwwelpeter as a much more solid and rounded figure than the elf-like creature here, but the family who donated him to the Museum certainly remember him by his Shaggy Peter name.
Simon and Halbig dollAnother doll was given to the donor in 1908 when she was eight years old, living in Whanganui. The doll is dressed in a pale blue voile frock and leather shoes with white socks. She was made by Simon and Halbig of Grafenhain, Thuringia, in Germany, who made dolls from the 1870s until the 1920s and specialised in doll heads. These character heads can be found on top of the bodies of many other large German, French and American-made dolls.
German dollA doll made in Germany features the original clothing and a heart-warming back story. She was made in 1909 and has large brunette ringlets with a lace ribbon around the band of her head, a painted porcelain face with rolling eyes, and a body with jointed hips, knees, elbows and shoulders. The doll was won in a raffle in 1912 by a Mr Livingstone, a recent immigrant from Scotland. He bought the ticket from a Kimbolton School fundraiser while waiting on his family to join him. When his wife and daughter arrived, three year old Mary became the new owner of the doll. The doll came complete with clothes hand-made by senior students of the school, including undergarments, petticoats and a dress of broderie anglaise.
Celluloid baby dollCelluloid was a very popular material for dolls. In production from 1869 the pre-plastic material was celebrated, as it did not peel or flake and was cheaper to manufacture than the more traditional china. It could, however, fade in sunlight or crack if the celluloid was too thick. Never-the-less, it was still hardy. One celluloid doll in the collection takes the form of a large baby and is dressed in layers of wool and cotton clothing. It was made during the 1920s or 1930s, towards the end of the popularity of celluloid.
Christopher RobinA more contemporary doll looks a little different to the character we may be more familiar with today, but is a figure of Christopher Robin holding a teddy bear depicting Winnie the Pooh. The doll was made in the 1960s and has moveable joints. He is a “sleeping doll”, meaning the eyes close when he is laid down. He wears a brown velvet hat, light cream shirt, brown velvet pants, socks and brown plastic shoes. Christopher Robin was based upon the son of A A Milne who wrote the children’s classics, Winnie the Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928).

Sandi Black is the Archivist at the Whanganui Regional Museum. She has a background in anthropology and history.