The Japanese tea making models, part of Temple Lab’s Commercial Museum Collection, have recently returned from being exhibited in Tokyo. While there, the dolls were also conserved by an expert doll maker.
Enbutsu Sumiko, Japanese historic preservation scholar and champion of the dolls, details her account of tracking the models to Temple Anthropology Lab Collection in her recent book Yamakawa Yasujiro: Japanese Doll master who lived in Philadelphia 1907-1927. She carefully unravels the lost history of famed doll maker, Yamakawa Yasujiro, also known as Eitokusai, who spent many years working in Philadelphia at the Commercial Museum (or Civic Center Museum).
Sumiko’s story opens in Tokyo. While designing an exhibit on Boy’s Day for the Yasuda House in Tokyo, she met with curator and collector Hayashi Naoteru. While discussing traditional dolls, she saw a beautiful example made by Yasujiro in the 1930s.
Then Hayashi-san, sitting next to me, said, “Believe it or not, this artist lived in America for more than twenty years.” “You are kidding!” I said in amazement, but he was serious. He continued, “He was away from Japan from the late Meiji era until the early Showa years. He returned to Tokyo in 1927 and succeeded to his family’s classical doll making business.”
I still could not believe it. “But how could he just slip back into such a traditional art craft after living abroad for so many years? Everything here is perfectly crafted, historically and culturally. These are the kinds of things that only someone deeply immersed in traditional crafts can do, working day in, day out, stretching his ability to the utmost,” I protested, “Was he making traditional dolls in America? No way! What was he doing there? “We don’t know”, he said with a poignant smile. Sensing sort of embarrassment in his response, I closed my mouth, but I longed to know what took Yamakawa Yasujiro to America and why he lived there for so long”.