A Master Doll-Maker in the Valley

You can find the usual sorts of dolls—L.O.L. Surprise! O.M.G. Remix Lonestar, My Squishy Little Dumplings, Adora Sweet Baby Boy Peanut, and the like—just about anywhere, but in Japan you will also encounter other kinds: delicate, handcrafted figures whose heads, hands, and feet are made with a ground-oyster-shell paste called gofun; some with sumptuous outfits; and hina dolls with acutely specific designations (“An Imperial Servant Expressing Sorrow,” for instance, or “A Doll Family Uttering a Prayer for the Happy Marriage of Their Female Child”). These, and the many other kinds of traditional Japanese dolls, are not meant to be tucked into bed with you or dragged along to the playground in your stroller. According to ancient Japanese tradition, they are believed to have souls, to absorb spiritual energy, and they are meant only to be displayed and admired and praised. Sometimes they were even used as stand-ins for humans. For instance, newborns were given abstract-looking dolls called “heavenly twins,” in the hope that evil spirits might become confused about which was the real baby and then take possession of the wrong one. Dolls are still so revered in Japan that they are central to at least one national holiday, Hinamatsuri, and when dolls are worn out or have fallen out of favor they are not discarded. Decommissioned dolls are often given funerals, known as ningyo kuyo, at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. After prayers, the dolls are gathered into piles and burned.

Kumiko Serizawa (1928-2021), a master doll-maker, was born in Tokyo, during the great U.S.-Japan Friendship Doll Exchange. This was a program in which American children sent blue-eyed American dolls (representing that time period’s idea of what an American looked like) to Japanese children, in a bid for good will and peace—and to distract from recently enacted U.S. laws against Japanese immigration. Japan responded by sending fifty-eight gigantic “return-gesture dolls,” which toured around the United States.

During the Second World War, for safety, Serizawa’s parents sent her to the countryside to live with family friends. A few years after V-J Day, she got a job housekeeping and waitressing at the Atami Hotel, a U.S. Army R. and R. facility, where her American supervisors gave her the English name Amy. (Most Japanese who transacted business with the U.S. Army were given English names; Kumiko’s fiancé, Soroku, who was also working at the hotel, was called Frank.) Japanese employees at the facility were forbidden to eat any of the hotel’s American food while they were working. Kumiko was charming enough to wriggle her way out of trouble when she was caught sneaking a glass of milk.

In 1952, shortly after Kumiko and Soroku were married, he bought her a traditional doll at Takashimaya, a fancy department store in Tokyo. She was entranced with the doll and decided she wanted to learn how to make one. She took lessons for two years at two different doll-making schools, practicing how to embed silk kimono fabric in the chunky sawdust forms used for the bodies of kimekomi dolls, which are usually female dolls with elaborate outfits and simple gofun heads and hands, and how to insert eyelashes in the delicate silk faces of sakura dolls. (Later, she taught herself how to make the faceless three-dimensional folded-paper washi ningyo dolls.) At the end of the courses, she was awarded a kanban—a wooden placard certifying her proficiency—and given the professional pseudonym Kookyu.

In 1958, the Serizawas, who by then had a baby daughter, Naomi, decided to immigrate to the United States; they travelled on a ship carrying general cargo, a few nuns, and several orphans. They started a home in the San Fernando Valley. Most of the families of the Japanese American friends they soon made had immigrated to the U.S. long before the war, and they viewed the Serizawas with some fascination, because the Serizawas hadn’t grown up forcibly detained in an internment camp, as they had, but, instead, had weathered the war in Japan. Kumiko settled into life in California, but she had no intention of shedding traditions. In time, she began using the master bedroom in her house as a doll-making classroom. She taught groups of up to ten students at a time, guiding them through the four- or five-month-long process of completing one doll.

And, of course, she continued making her own dolls, which were noted for their grace and detail; the realism of her doll’s hairlines was often remarked upon. She displayed them at the annual Nisei Week Japanese Festival, a cultural celebration in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo; at the Obon Festival, which honors ancestors, at the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center; and, for more than a decade, at Disneyland’s annual Japan festival. (“Other kids would get so excited about going to Disneyland,” Kumiko’s daughter Naomi said recently. “I had gone so often with my mother that I was totally over it.”) Kumiko was right-handed and could never manage to teach Naomi, a lefty, how to make dolls. But by the time Kumiko’s younger daughter, Patty, another righty, was a teen-ager, she was teaching doll-making alongside her mother.

“I had a Barbie growing up,” Naomi said recently, adding that her mother’s seamstress friends made scores of outfits for her doll, so she figures she had one of the best-dressed Barbies in town.

“I had the hand-me-down Barbies,” Patty said. “I was the younger sister, so that was inevitable.”

And what of Kumiko’s dolls? I wondered if they had received a funeral when she passed away, but it turns out that they were distributed among her husband, her daughters, and her former students, where they will live on and on.