One of the first items we’ve featured in our brick and mortar art and antique shop is a wonderful collection of Hakata Urasaki figures. These figures vary in size but most of the one’s we have are 8-10 inches tall. The porcelain figures are known for their exquisite details – in particular when it comes to capturing facial details and the minutia of Japanese life.
I should point out right away that there is a distinct difference between a Hakata figure and a Hakata Urasaki. It is helpful to know the history of both. The original Hakata dolls date back to the late 1500s in Fukuoka Prefecture on Kyoshu. A lord was having a castle built and noticed a worker constructing figures from clay. The sculptor, Sohichi, was so skilled that he was immediately patronized by the lord and passed his skills and trade secrets on to the next six generations. The secrets died in the mid 1850’s with his final heir.
It wasn’t until 1885 that artisans in Hakata took up the art and displayed their work at a national exhibition. This is where the dolls came to be known as Hakata. The figures became internationally known at the Paris Exposition of 1900. Hakata are earthenware and each is hand painted. They are delicate and as a result, not many true Hakata have survived.
In post WWII Japan, there was a revival of Hakata dolls, mainly as souvenir’s for US troops. In the 1950s during the Korean conflict, a doll making firm was contracted by the US Exchanges to produce a special line of Hakata dolls, called Hakata Urasaki, after the name of the firm making them, the Urasaki doll store. Hakata Urasaki were painted with a waterproofing coat which allowed them to be washed. These were produced only during the 1950s and only for the exchanges and US Servicemen. The dolls were not as brightly colored as the original Hakata dolls and were not desirable to Japanese consumers and so they were discontinued when the bulk of US troops left.
A special note about these dolls – even thought the labels say they are washable, the washable surface has long worn away with age – these should never be washed with water, only dusted with a dry cloth.