Newly restored in her country of origin and once again at the peak of her power to make new friends, a Japanese friendship doll known as Miss Iwate will be welcomed back home to Birmingham this weekend.
The 33-inch high doll, who comes from Japan’s longstanding Ichimatsu tradition of dolls representing young girls and boys, first arrived at the Birmingham Public Library in 1928. Miss Iwate was one of several dozen fully outfitted female friendship dolls sent — along with accessories such as tea sets and sandals and scrolls several feet in length bearing friendship notes from Japanese schoolchildren — to art museums and other cultural institutions around the U.S. She was the only one that ended up in Alabama.
For years, Miss Iwate has been housed in the Rare Book Room in the BPL’s Linn Henley Research Library and she has been brought forth on a recurring basis to appear in various library programs. In recent years, however, she has been giving off silent hints that she needed a makeover.
“She’s almost 90 years old,” said Haruyo Miyagawa, head of the main library’s arts, literature and sports department, who recently returned from a trip to Japan where she inspected the newly restored Miss Iwate and saw her on display with one of the still intact American dolls whose arrival in Japan by the thousands in 1927 prompted a reciprocal effort to send Japanese friendship dolls to the States.
At the time, American-Japanese relations were less than friendly, due to such factors as the growing militarism in Japan and growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S., illustrated by the passage of a 1924 law aimed partly at stopping future immigration from Asia. In 1927, an American missionary in Japan, Sidney Lewis Gulick, sought to slow the downward spiral in U.S.-Japanese relations by organizing a successful campaign to send American-made female “friendship dolls” to Japan.
The “blue-eyed dolls,” as they came to be known, were an instant hit in the doll-loving country, where a businessman and educator named Eiichi Shibusawa organized a fundraising campaign to fashion traditional Japanese female dolls and ship them to the States. The now 315-year-old Yoshitoku Doll Company was involved in the effort, and it oversaw the construction and costuming of the doll that would become Miss Iwate.
The doll is called “Miss Iwate” because she was originally believed to represent Iwate, one of the administrative districts or prefectures that make up Japan. But in reality, Miyagawa said, she probably should be named after another prefecture, Oita, because of a telltale crest on her kimono. However, when the 58 Japanese friendship dolls arrived by ship in San Francisco in 1927, those who unloaded the cargo haphazardly paired the dolls and the accessories that came with the shipment. Some of the accessories that were paired with the Birmingham-bound doll bear the Iwate crest, and so the doll was called Miss Iwate.
Last fall, Masaru Aoki, a Yoshitoku representative, took the doll back to Japan to be restored. Miyagawa said the artisan who did the work was the son of the man who originally made Miss Iwate.
“Miss Iwate had to be taken apart in order to do the necessary repairs,” Miyagawa said. “She was sanded, then coated with a liquid made of crushed oyster shells. This process was repeated several times.”
“Even though she was in pretty good shape overall, she was beginning to show some wear and tear,” Miyagawa said. “She had some hairline cracks around her ear and on her neck and there was some soiling of her face and arms and neck and her kimono had gotten a little dirty, but the major thing was, one knee had come off. She needed knee surgery.”
By last November, Miss Iwate was back in top form. From Dec. 24 to March 6, she was on display most of the time in the Iwate Prefectural Museum in the city of Morioka, alongside one of the blue-eyed American dolls that is the property of Kesen Elementary School in the Iwate coastal town of Rikuzentakata. Miyagawa also visited a town in the Iwate prefecture, also named Iwate, for a ceremony at Numakunai Elementary School at which Miss Iwate and the school’s own American friendship doll were displayed to an enthusiastic student audience.
The Iwate prefecture was among those areas devastated by the earthquake-triggered tsunami that struck northeastern Japan five years ago. Rikuzentakata’s American doll made it through the tsunami because it was stored in a safe. It had already survived World War II, when Japan’s leaders said the friendship dolls should be destroyed because they represented an enemy power. Someone set the American doll aflame, but “one of the teachers intervened and saved her,” Miyagawa said.
During the 1927 exchange of dolls, about 12,700 went from America to Japan. Only about 330 are still around, Miyagawa said.
Miss Iwate, escorted by Masaru Aoki, returned to Birmingham on Monday. Besides being whole and having a clear, clean complexion, she also had a new fan, a new stand composed of wood and a woven mat called a tatami. “She looks happy,” Aoki said as the doll stood before him.
Miyagawa said it cost $1500 to restore Miss Iwate, and that the library raised the funds through donations and the sale of embellished origami crane ornaments. Origami is the Japanese art of folding paper to make decorative objects.
Miss Iwate will be on display Saturday as part of the Cherry Blossom Festival at Birmingham Botanical Gardens. The festival itself will be from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and the part dedicated to Miss Iwate’s welcome home ceremony will be from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. Takashi Shinozuka, Japan’s consul general for the U.S. Southeast, based in Atlanta, is expected for the event, and Miyagawa will give a short talk on Miss Iwate.
The homecoming festivities will continue Sunday with a tea party at the library from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m., and children and adults who plan to attend are encouraged to bring their favorite dolls or action figures. The tea party is free of charge.
After the tea party there will another event, “An Evening with Alan Pate and Miss Iwate.” Pate, the owner of an antique Japanese doll gallery in McIntosh, Florida, is an authority on the Japanese doll making tradition. Japanese-style refreshments will be served.
The event is free, but reservations are required. For more information, visit bplonline.org or call (205) 226-3670.