Traditional Folk Art Meets Pop Culture

Here’s a new twist on an old Japanese folk art – painting kokeshi doll faces on matches. The original kokeshi figures, introduced a couple centuries ago, were inexpensive souvenir items that visitors to the onsen (spa) villages of northern Japan would buy to give to friends back home. (Even in California, we used to have a half dozen kokeshi, along with snow globes from New York, native American trinkets from the Grand Canyon, and seashells from Hawaii – don’t know what happened to any of them.) It’s the kind of gift that would merit a T-shirt that read: “Grandma went to the onsen and all she brought me was this wooden kokeshi.” Kokeshi dolls were distinguished by their simple rectangular torso, lacking arms and legs, and their enlarged round wooden heads, minimally painted to indicate eyes, hair and maybe a mouth or nose. (Think “Hello Kitty,” who is also missing a mouth.)

Fast forward to 1994 when Osaka-based artist Hiromi Hirasaka noticed that the tips of matches reminded her of kokeshi doll heads. She began drawing small faces on matches, and saw the potential of turning this pastime into a commercial venture. Instead of a tiny paint brush, she switched to a rubber stamp and then to a printing press. The kokeshi matches are a huge hit. They are so cute, they make people light up with a smile. To date, Hirasaka has created more than 50 different match and matchbook sets referencing various artistic and cinematic works. They make great little souvenirs from Japan – and given the rise in the yen, they probably cost about the equivalent of what a wooden kokeshi would have cost two centuries ago.