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Renewed interest for Tonchinkan ningyo

 October 21, 2013


New appreciation for dolls created decades ago to protest nuclear weapons




NAGASAKI--Comical, but darkly nuanced clay dolls that were once popular with tourists here are finding renewed appreciation as a symbol of the city’s anti-nuclear efforts.

Called “Tonchinkan ningyo” (irrelevant dolls), they were created by folk art sculptor Kaoru Kubota (1928-1970) as a response to the nuclear arms race, which he considered the folly of humanity. The handcrafted dolls stand less than 10 centimeters tall each and have a colorful unglazed coating. At first glance, they appear humorous, but also convey a sense of sorrow.

Souvenir shops in the city, site of the world’s second atomic bombing on Aug. 9, 1945, sold the dolls at around 30 yen (30 cents) each throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

The dolls returned to the public consciousness recently after Brazilian poet Luiz Carlos Lessa Vinholes visited Nagasaki last month to donate 57 dolls from his personal collection to the city government. The dolls will be on display through Oct. 31 at a confectionery shop in the city.

Vinholes, 80, who once served as a diplomat at the Brazilian Embassy in Tokyo, is well-versed in art as a collector of ukiyo-e and chinaware. He began collecting the dolls after he was mesmerized by them during a business trip to Nagasaki in 1961.

“They are the creation of a genius,” he said of the dolls. “They are so original, unparalleled in the world.”

Born in Aichi Prefecture, Kubota moved to Nagasaki when he was 24 and learned how to create pottery works. Back then, it was the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Kubota reportedly churned out 300,000 dolls until he died in 1970 at the age of 42.

“I will give the dolls twisted-clown faces out of my hatred for war,” Kubota scribbled in his notebook. “I am determined to make the dolls as long as nuclear and hydrogen bombs are being built.”

In 1962 Vinholes asked his acquaintances to feature Kubota’s dolls in a Japanese art magazine. In the article, he described Kubota’s ability of artistic presentation as being similar to that of Picasso. His passion for the dolls helped them gain wide exposure, both in and out of Japan.

Vinholes brought his collection with him when he left Japan in 1977.

Last month, for the first time in 52 years, he returned to Nagasaki to donate his collection to the city. He said he wanted to renew awareness about the dolls and the artist.

In addition to Vinholes’ efforts, a drive has been under way by citizens to give the dolls the attention they deserve.

In 1995, a group of people formed a committee to establish a museum dedicated to Tonchinkan dolls.

Thanks to the group’s endeavors, about 600 pieces in the possession of the city government will go on display at the city museum of history and folklore late this month.

Hirou Ichinose, the 80-year-old leader of the group who was associated with Kubota, said they are determined to pass down what Kubota wanted to express through his works.

“The dolls are another peace memorial that drives home the absurdity of building nuclear weapons,” he said. “We want to carry on sharing his message.”

Vinholes’ collection will be moved to the museum in November where it will be put on display indefinitely.


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