Nagoro: Japan's Village Of Dolls

Nagoro, a remote village in Tokushima Prefecture on Shikoku Island—one of the four main islands of Japan—would have remained an anonymous dot on the map if it was not for the creative genius of Ayano Tsukimi

Doll people of Nagoro, Higashi-Iya, Japan

According to Japan's National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, Japan has turned into a decreasing population society, with the country’s population likely to fall below 100 million by 2049. So when Ayano Tsukimi, a resident of Nagoro, a remote village in Tokushima Prefecture on Shikoku Island of Japan, found her once vibrant residential area was losing its charm with the number of residents dwindling over the years, she decided to make life-size dolls to populate her village. 

According to various interviews Ayano gave to the media over the past few years, she returned to Nagoro, the village of her birth, from Osaka, to look after her ailing father after her mother passed away. It was at this time (around 2002) that she made a scarecrow and put it in her garden to drive away the birds eating all the seeds. She dressed it in her father’s old clothes. In an interview to AFP, she said she found it funny when a worker said ‘hello’ to the scarecrow without realising that it was not her father. The germ of the idea was thus planted.

Gradually realising that the population in her village was dwindling fast—elders passing away, schools and stores shutting down, young people moving to bigger places for better opportunities—she decided to recreate the good times with dolls representing life in her village.

She refined her skill of making scarecrows into creating these life-size dolls in memory of the residents who had passed away. Some imaginary characters were also added. When a neighbour, with whom Ayano would often engage in conversations, passed away, Ayano made her likeness, so that they could continue with their (imaginary) chatter. Visitors have noted how she has created a beautiful likeness of her mother to keep her company at home. A media report says that a likeness of her grandmother sits by her in the car when she goes shopping to a town about two hours away.

Ayano has been creating these scarecrow-style dolls to place them strategically through the village. According to a 2019 article in the New York Times, ‘Some 350 dolls made by Ayano and her friends outnumber the human residents by more than 10 to 1.’

Buildings that have been otherwise abandoned also contain her creations. Visitors find doll-people lounging in front of a former grocery store, waiting at bus stops, a couple sitting on a bench by a stream, others engaged in various outdoor activities, a child on a swing and plenty more.

One of Ayano’s creations that has received wide publicity is the now shut local school of Nagoro. Apart from parents, teachers and other characters going about their pretend activities, there is a room full of doll students listening to their doll teacher.

Ayano even creates tableaus, for example a sports day at the school, a wedding scene, a gym full of people, etc. In fact, Ayano has conceived every possible scene that can happen in a real lived-in village and recreated them with elan.

Ayano says it takes her around three days to make each life-size doll. Newspapers, cotton, buttons, elastic fabric, wires, paint and a host of other objects are used to make the dolls which are then dressed in old clothes. A senior citizen herself, Ayano not only makes these dolls but also maintains them, replacing or recreating some when the need arises. According to reports, each doll has a name and Ayano keeps a record of their names and the story of their lives in a 'registry'.

Although there have been mentions of other Japanese villages where artists have similarly created scarecrows or dolls to make them livelier, it is Nagoro that has caught the travellers’ fancy.

Those interested in learning how to make these ‘kakashi’ and how to bring the different expressions on their faces, may join Ayano's workshops. She is also the main force behind the annual dolls festival of Nagoro that has been organised here for the past few years. It is usually held on the first Sunday of October.