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The Mysterious Origins of This Unnervingly Life-like Japanese Doll from the 1800s

Happy early Halloween.

The Masakichi doll in situ at Ripley’s. (Photo: © 2016 Ripley Entertainment Inc)

In the Ripley’s Odditorium in Amsterdam, there is a loin cloth-clad doll that is so incredibly detailed and realistic, they say you might mistake it for a real person. Adored by company founder Robert Ripley since he acquired it in the 1930s, Edward Meyer, Ripley’s VP of Exhibits & Archives, says it’s one of the collection’s most popular objects. “And everybody wants to lift the loin cloth,” he adds, with a laugh. (We’re told what’s beneath the cloth is equally realistic.) However, depending on who you ask, this doll has one of two origin stories: the swan song of an artist who, believing he was at death’s door, desired to give one last gift to the woman he loved; or one of only many magnificently detailed dolls constructed by a working class craftsman.

Either way, the confusion about the extremely rare doll’s origin is only part of the mystery; its journey to the United States is its own mystery.

Both stories begin in 19th century Yokohama, Japan. Hananuma Masakichi was an artist who specialized in iki-ningyo, or “living dolls.” According to Alan Scott Pate, an expert in Japanese dolls, these came about in the 1700s and achieved great popularity in the mid-1800s. They were put on display and people paid money to see them, akin to the wax museums of today.  

Masakichi made the doll in his own image. (Photo: © 2016 Ripley Entertainment Inc)

The legend is that Masakichi completed this particular doll in 1885, when he was desperately in love, but was dying of tuberculosis. He decided to make a lifelike statue in his own image to gift to his beloved so that she might always remember him. As he wasted away, he labored in his studio, surrounded by mirrors so that he could see every part of his body. He forged the statue out of 2,000 pieces of wood, recreating every curve and crevice. He drilled small holes into the doll’s skin to act as follicles, then plucked the corresponding hair out of his own body and inserted the strands into the doll. He did this with the hair on his head, but also his eyebrows, body hair and pubic hair. Some rumors say he gave the doll his fingernails. Others claim it was his teeth, though Meyer says that the doll’s mouth is not open wide enough for anyone to confirm. Despite his efforts, the woman he loved left Masakichi, possibly because he spent all his free time making this doll. And as it would turn out, he either didn’t have tuberculosis or made a miraculous recovery. He lived for another decade before dying, penniless, at age 63.

Tragic story, for sure, but is it true?

Pate believes that this was just another work for Masakichi, and that it might not even be a recreation of the artist. “There is no tradition of self-portraiture in Japan, particularly at this time. It was very likely that [the statue] was just a hyperrealistic doll, and it’s not necessarily Masakichi himself,” Pate says. He says that the lean build of the figure, perceived by some as gaunt, would have been typical of a physically active Japanese workman of the time, such as a basket peddler or rickshaw driver. Pate does not doubt that the sculpture contains real human hair, but perhaps not Masakichi’s own. Pate says the hair would have been readily available at a shop, not unlike paint and crafting supplies at art stores today.

Making the doll required a huge amount of craftsmanship.  (Photo: © 2016 Ripley Entertainment Inc)

Regardless, to make the doll would have required excellent craftsmanship. Pate explains how these dolls were made: 

“Depending on how the figure was going to be displayed, sections of it would be carved wood, other sections would be a molded…composite [of] pulverized wood and sawdust mixed with glue. There would be wire armature inside to help position and strengthen. The exterior skin, if you will, is a material called gofun.

Gofun is a crushed oyster or clam shell mixed with an animal glue, and all traditional Japanese dolls use that as a surface material. It could be, in certain iterations, molded and sculpted like lacquer, but then in its more finely attenuated elements, it serves as a highly polished skin. People think it’s porcelain, but it’s actually this very highly water soluble material.”

What we do know is that the doll made its way from Yokohama to the United States in the 1890s, where it was first displayed at the International Temple of Art in Sacramento 1894. According to Pate’s research, it was likely a person named “Colonel Smith” (it’s not clear if he was a real colonel) who bought and transported the doll. Articles of the time referred to the doll as a self-portrait of the artist, but skipped the love story. Even without the tale, viewers were awed by how realistic the doll was.

Ichimatsu dolls, also traditionally made with gofun. (Photo: Ellie/CC BY 2.0)

Pate has tracked the doll from Sacramento through a number of owners and to a series of places where it was similarly displayed. Throughout that trajectory, Pate says the story grew and grew. In an 1898 issue of Strand Magazine, a photo of the doll standing beside a man who was supposedly Masakichi appears, inviting viewers to guess which was the man and which was the doll. According to Pate, this was the first documented time out of many that someone would promote the doll this way, but he asserts that both images were of the doll. The photo appeared in the magazine’s “curiosities” section above a picture of a two-headed turtle. 

In 1899, the doll would come to reside at the Art Saloon in San Francisco. The bar gave away tokens with an image of the doll on them, which could be redeemed for a free beer. Ripley, too, would come to live in San Francisco during a portion of the doll’s residence there. 

“Potentially this was a place where Ripley was going drinking, [where he] regularly saw this thing, and when he opened his first museum thought this was something that he had to have to display,” Meyer says. In addition to the doll, Ripley’s also owns some of those tokens.

According to Pate’s research, the Art Saloon’s proprietor, Thomas Dunne, sold both the Art Saloon and the doll because he was in a large amount of debt. He did take the doll on a final tour of the country, but must have returned it to the bar by 1905 because an article from the period indicated the doll was arrested for indecent exposure. (As we said, the whole thing is quite realistic.) Those charges were later dropped. After the Art Saloon was damaged by the great earthquake of 1906, the unharmed doll moved to a novelty and curio shop called the E. Bloch Mercantile Company. This is when Pate says advertisements talking about Masakichi’s illness and use of his own hair began to surface. When the eponymous Bloch died, Ripley purchased the doll for $10 in 1934 (that’d be about $180 today). Meyer says Ripley’s still has that original bill of sale, a curiosity in itself as fewer than 10 objects in the whole collection can make that claim. 

Robert Ripley. (Photo: Public Domain

Ripley took the doll to the Chicago World Fair, the first of many stops around the country. The doll returned to San Francisco in the late ‘60s, where it remained in the Fisherman’s Wharf Oddtorium through 1988. The doll then moved to the now closed Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum in Buena Park, California but was damaged by the Northridge Quake in 1994. Some sources would have you believe that this is where Masakichi’s story ended, forever languishing in disrepair somewhere in Los Angeles. But the doll is resilient: Masakichi was restored, then moved to Ripley’s in Wisconsin Dell. Masakichi remained there for several years, but was ultimately again damaged, this time by bugs. He was repaired in Orlando, but “his hair has never been the same,” Meyer says.

Ripley’s, believing that the hair belonged to Masakichi, has decided not to replace the lost locks. Masakichi had a stint in San Diego at the Air & Space Museum in 2013, before making his way to his current home in Amsterdam in 2015.

Masakichi is not the only doll of its kind that Ripley’s owns, although very few currently exist. (According to Pate, there are thousands of small-scale figures and a large number of bits and pieces of full-scale figures—a hand here, a head there—but in tact, fully assembled, full-scale figures like Masakichi are rare.) Ripley’s also possesses a figure known as Mr. Ito, which they acquired in 1994. That particular doll now resides in Gatlinburg, Tennesee, while yet another iki-ningyo resides in London. Masakichi, however, is the only doll to come with such a colorful origin story. In a way, that narrative is intrinsic to the doll. They’ve been traveling around the country together for nearly 100 years, after all.