Cultural exchange: One Columbus resident found dollmaking offers glimpse into Japan's culture

March 18, 2017 11:02:03 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


On Wednesday, in Washington, D.C., the National Cherry Blossom Festival began. The month-long observance with parades, waterfront fireworks and kite fests celebrates spring's breathtaking spectacle when thousands of Japanese cherry trees -- gifts to America from the island nation of Japan -- burst into glorious white and pink bloom. Every day enthusiasts around the country and globe keep "bloom watch" by way of National Park Service cherry blossom cams. Even more people will make their way to the landmark Tidal Basin when Yoshino, Kwanzan and other tree varieties reach their riotous peak. Hilda Ratliff, 92, doesn't need to travel more than 800 miles from Columbus to the capital to be reminded of Japan's beauty. She lived in that country for three years and is surrounded by keepsakes. More than 50 years later, they are still a pleasure. 


Among them are three dolls, still as pristine as the day Ratliff finished making them in the early 1960s in Tachikawa, a city in the western portion of Tokyo Metropolis. Her husband, Jimmy, was stationed at Tachikawa Airfield. Accustomed to military life, Ratliff had willingly moved often, but relocating to the Land of the Rising Sun represented a major -- and adventuresome -- cultural shift. From language to customs, there was much to adjust to. 


"I wanted to really get into learning the culture there and wanted to get started having something to do," she explained, seated on her living room sofa, a silkscreen of a Japanese flower cart overflowing with blooms on the wall behind her and other furniture and decor from Japan around her. Fortunately, the military base at Tachikawa offered opportunities for new residents like Ratliff. One of them was a dollmaking course. She had done some sewing back home and, encouraged by a fellow military spouse, she signed up. 




Much more than a toy 


The significance of dolls in Japan is vastly different than in America. They are indelibly woven into Japanese history and culture. Temple records refer to the making of a grass doll to be blessed and thrown into the river at Ise Shrine in 3 BC, according to a history by author and doll expert Alan Pate. That act serves as the root of Japan's famous annual doll festival, Hinamatsuri. 


There are numerous types of traditional dolls, or ningyo. Some represent children, some the imperial court, fairy-tale characters or warriors and heroes.  


Dolls were (and still are) displayed in home shrines and used in rituals. Bad luck, it was believed, could be transferred into dolls and then cast out to sea or down a river, taking trouble with it. The ceremony, hina nagashi, still exists today. 


Talismanic dolls were made for babies before or at birth, to serve evidently as a "twin" to confuse and distract evil spirits, such as childhood disease, according to information compiled by Judy Shoaf of the University of Florida's Language Learning Center.  


Daruma dolls are considered lucky and often used at the new year. Okiagari Koboshi, which can be translated as "priest who gets back up," are roly-poly type dolls considered a lucky symbol of resilience. Other dolls are used to court good weather or even "help" serve tea. They may be as simple as a cotton ball tied up in a piece of cloth and used as a rain charm, to artisans' elaborate versions representing the emperor and empress. There are Hakata, Bunraku and Kokeshi dolls. Ichimatsu and Teru Teru Bozu. The list goes on. Each is associated with a certain shape, period, material or meaning.  


The dolls Ratliff made are primarily representative of geisha, geiko or maiko -- females highly trained, or in training, in the performance of music and dance. And what Ratliff recalls most about making them is the meticulous stitching required. 


"You had to make real small stitches; it was very detailed," she said. Ratliff's intricate handiwork is evident in the kimonos worn by her figures, one kneeling, two standing. The kneeling figure plays a koto, the national instrument of Japan. One of the standing dolls holds a shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese instrument. 


When the time came to return to the United States, Ratliff carefully packed the dolls for their transcontinental journey. They've made several shorter ones stateside since. Today, the three dolls live in a handsome glass-fronted case, the colors of their kimonos still rich, their skin still alabaster. 


Dollmaking wasn't the only activity Ratliff used to learn more about her temporary home abroad. She took language classes, as well as flower arranging, another traditional Japanese art form. She observed that the people of Japan were generally hard-working and quiet-spoken. They shunned wastefulness. Her family's time there began only 15 years after the end of World War II, so Ratliff was unsure of what to expect. What she discovered was that while some she encountered in the general population didn't welcome Americans, most, especially within the base, were cordial. She learned to navigate everyday life and language, sending two young sons to school, attending their baseball and football games and exploring shops for "odd little things." 


She can't imagine what today's Japan must look like compared to 55 years ago, but she values the experience of firsthand immersion in another culture. 


"I enjoyed Japan," she said. "I guess you could say it was special to me; that's a foreign country and one we had gone to war against. ... It was a special time." 


In Washington, the blossom cams keep patient watch and assess this week's cold weather damage. The first several thousand trees were gifted from the People of Japan to the People of the United States in 1912. In 1965, not long after Ratliff moved back to America, the Japanese government gave 3,800 more. When they bloom in the capital, festival celebrations will be infused with reminders of Japan's culture. Hilda Ratliff doesn't have to go nearly so far.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.