Mt. Haruna is one of three symbolic mountains of the Jomo District. In Shinto, a village located at the eastern foot of the mountain, vineyards suddenly turn purple in the fall and a sweet scent floats around the wineries. The dreams and adventures of ancient people sleep here deep in the ground as reflected by the large number of earrings excavated at remains of the ancient Jomon period in this area. The Usaburo Kokeshi studio is located in this peaceful region, and the lives of the people who have lived here and the transparency of the air are carved into each of our kokeshi. The surrounding mountains are rich in forest resources. We are blessed with trees of excellent quality, such as table dogwood, a tall deciduous tree with a white bark and subtle grain, and keyaki, a high-quality material with beautiful grain, as well as chestnut trees, cherry trees, and Japanese cypress. As woodworkers, we are proud of our ability to use these trees effectively and bring out their innate characteristics. The forests in Gunma Prefecture serve as “dams of greenery” for providing water to Tokyo and its environs. The mystery of the forests and a love for Mother Earth where fields and mountains exist are the sources of our creativity.
Usaburo Okamoto, the founder of Usaburo Kokeshi, was born in Shinto in 1917 and started to make kokeshi in 1950. He invented new styles by introducing techniques that use special machines as well as a manufacturing method using a wheel, and combined painting with a brush with carving and poker drawing methods. Poker drawing is the technique invented by Usaburo that expresses solidity well. Charmed by the beautiful grain of keyaki and chestnut, he paid attention to these trees as new materials of kokeshi, and enthusiastically studied methods for making kokeshi from these materials. In 1979, he built a new studio equipped with modern facilities at the present site and established a mass-production system that combined hand-crafting processes. As a result, Usaburo Kokeshi can now meet demand nationwide and from overseas. It adopts an integrated production system starting from drying and preparing lumber, and has the capacity to make 15,000 kokeshi a month using ten processes, which include processing with a wheel, polishing, painting, coating, and assembling. At present, the studio has six woodworkers responsible for design, all of whom studied under Usaburo, the founder, and who are enthusiastic about handing down the techniques of kokeshi artisans to the next generation.
Gunma Prefecture is the top producing area of sosaku kokeshi in Japan. In the decade from 1955 to 1964, the Gunma Prefectural Cooperative Association of Kokeshi Producers was established with nearly 100 members, including wood-turners. Kokeshi made in Gunma is called modern kokeshi, and is differentiated from dento (traditional) kokeshi produced in the Tohoku district (northeastern Honshu). It is also characterized by freedom from the conventional shapes of kokeshi. The change in the basic design of kokeshi from traditional ones with a round head into those of little girls with bobbed hair symbolize the flexibility of Gunma kokeshi. The basic designs of kokeshi developed by Usaburo feature this bobbed hair and a plump round body. The simple lines of his products had the somewhat archaic beauty of the Orient, and their characteristic designs were highly regarded in overseas market, too. Usaburo kokeshi is now exported to 18 countries, including European nations. The first All-Gunma Kokeshi Contest was held in 1961, and participants in this annual event compete with one another to develop kokeshi designs and kokeshi-making techniques. Usaburo Kokeshi has taken part in the contest every year, and products carved by our kokeshi artisans have won many prizes not only at this contest but also at the All-Japan Kokeshi Contest.