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Thread: Kokeshi and Japanese infanticide

  1. #1
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Kokeshi and Japanese infanticide

    I am currently reading "Looking for the Lost", by Alan Booth.

    In a passage starting from page 129, he explains about the probable origin of "kokeshi", a famous lind of wooden Japanese doll from Northern Honshu, now a common souvenir.


    (have a look at more dolls here )

    I'll share this passage with you, as I found it both enlightening and utterly distrubing :

    "Few Japanese people have any notion of where kokeshi came from or what they might originally have been used for, nor have they given the matter much thought. Partly this is because, like nebuta, th word kokeshi is usually written not with ideograms but in the purely phonetic syllabary called hiragana, so it is difficult to deduce an ethymology. Ko, for instance, might mean "small" and keshi might mean "poppy", in which case the curators of Japan's doll museums would all be bouncing with joy. But it strikes me as more likely that the word is an amalgam of a different ko, meaning "child", and kesu, meaning "get rid of", and that these cute, tender-faced little dolls, made from simple pieces of wood, a sphere for the head and a cylinder for the body, may in origin have been fetish substitutes for children murdered at birth.

    Infanticide was not an uncommon practice in rural Japan during the feudal period and it survived here and there into quite recent times. The American historian Thomas C. Smith suggest that, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries at least, it was practised in Japan "less as a desperate act in the face of poverty than as a form of family planning." In the towns, abortion was the commonest form of family planning (and, as the Japanese government persists to this day in refusing to permit the sale of oral contraceptives, it remains widely and lucratively practised). But in rural areas, though officially prohibited by most clan governments, infanticide was the preferred choice. Moral questions aside, the killing of newborn babies rather than fetuses has the practical advantage of allowing a family-or a village- to exert a precise control over the ratio of the sexes, and it appears that, unlike in China and some parts of Asia, the horror was not directed wholly, or even mainly, against female babies, but was used coolly and even-handedly to construct a gender balance that would ensure the continuance and stability of the group.

    According to Mrs. Suzuki Fumi, born in 1898 in Ibaragi prefecture, not far north of Tokyo, and recorded on tape by the local doctor for a book of reminiscences called
    Memories of Silk and Straw, " 'thinning out' babies was pretty common" even at the time of her own birth. "It was considered bad luck to have twins", she explains, "so you got rid of one before your neighbours found out. Deformed babies were also bumped off. And if you wanted a boy but the baby was a girl, you'd make it 'a day visitor.' " The murder was often entrusted to the midwife. "Killing off a newborn baby was a simple enough business", Mrs. Suzuki remembers. "You just moistened a piece of paper with spittle and put it over the baby's nose and mouth; in no time at all it would stop breathing." But there were alternative methods, and another of Dr. Saga's informants, Mrs. Terakako Tai, born in 1899, describes two of them. One was "to press on their chest with your knee." Another was called usugoro (mortar killing), in which the murderer was usually the mother herself: "The woman went alone into one of the buildings outside and had the baby lying on a straw mat. She wrapped the thing in two straw sacks lids, tied it up with rope and laid it on the mat. She then rolled a heavy wooden mortar over it. When the baby was dead, she took it outside and buried it herself. And the nest day she was expected to be up at the crack of dawn as usual, doing the housework and helping in the fields...."


    Note that Kokeshi dolls have no arms or legs. So Booth continues :

    "The absence of limbs might be disquieting, I suppose, if you had made the possible connection between kokeshi and child murder and had read Mrs. Suzuki's account of a midwife's attempt to quicken death by wrapping an infant tightly in rags so that its arms were bounds invisibly to its sides, or if you knew that one of the traditional attributes of Japanese ghosts is that they have no feet."

    Pills have made their appearance on the Japanese market not so long ago and most Japanese women still do without it, preferring abortion to prevention. I personally know of several women who have aborted 4 times or more. I have been told that it was common practice, eventhough it's expensive and painful (what seemed to alarm most the interested). Condoms are used in Japan, but too many people would rather do without to keep the "feeling" and overlook blatantly risk of STD's. Japanese like to think of themselves as "pure" and are convinced that AIDS is a foreign disease, as I pointed out in another article a few months ago.
    Last edited by Maciamo; Jan 6, 2003 at 17:35.

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  2. #2
    Decommissioned ex-admin thomas's Avatar
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    "Thinning out babies...", that left me spechless. As pointed out in other threads, cases of infanticide still occur relatively often, although I doubt they are a matter of birth control.

    A Japanese girl once told me that pills were only used "by prostitutes", so taking them could result in social stigmatisation.

  3. #3
    Gabi san
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    Concerning the cult of killing babies and then caring for the souls of the lost ones,
    I have compiled this post:
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Daruma...an/message/502

    about Sai no Kawara, the Limbo for the Dead.

    Greetings from Gabi san
    http://www.geocities.com/gabigreve2000/index.html

  4. #4
    Regular Member -Yu-'s Avatar
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    You always post interesting posts, Maciamo!

    I think I've heard this kind of story somewhere, I can't really remember though. Actually, infanticide, abortion and so on had been common not only in Japan but also in other asian countries, because people had been thinking that giving birth to boys was more important than to girls.
    I wrote that they HAD been common, but probably in some countries they HAVE been common, still going on.
    Well, I don't think I should say just "it's a bad practice" or something like that, these kinds of customs are due to the nation's concerns.
    I still say knowing them shocked me very much, though.

  5. #5
    Regular Member Timsan's Avatar
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    wow that is gross, especiallyt he knee press on the chest, gag
    "A single death is a tradgedy, a million deaths is a statistic." - Stalin

  6. #6
    Regular Member bossel's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by -Yu-
    I think I've heard this kind of story somewhere, I can't really remember though. Actually, infanticide, abortion and so on had been common not only in Japan but also in other asian countries, because people had been thinking that giving birth to boys was more important than to girls.
    I wrote that they HAD been common, but probably in some countries they HAVE been common, still going on.
    Not only in Asia was it a common practice. Up until the 19th century it happened in Europe, too. If I remember one of my history seminars correctly, the methods were not as violent. They more less only neglected their kids, until they starved to death or died from thirst.
    Although, you might say, in Japan it was even more humane, since they didn't make their kids suffer for so long.

    About the Kokeshi dolls: I don't know how sound the argumentation regarding the social background is, but the linguistic argumentation is a bit thin.

  7. #7
    Banned Mike Cash's Avatar
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    Infanticide was practically a cottage industry in Japan in the early part of the last century. People would sometimes pay a fee to someone to place a baby for adoption, and the broker would just pocket the money and kill the baby. There were cases of people at "hospitals" who were convicted of killing dozens of babies this way.

  8. #8
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    こけしに関するQ&A

    http://homepage3.nifty.com/bokujin/koq&a.htm
    Q:こけしというものは「子を消す」という意味で作られた、という話を聞いたことがあるのですが、水子の霊 を慰めるためのもの、というのは本当ですか??(SIさん)

    A:こうした議論は、戦前から昭和三十年代頃まではほとんど聞かれませんでしたが、昭和四十年代頃から少し づつ耳にするようになりました。誰が言い出したかはっきりしませんが私の記憶では、最初にこの説を目にした のは詩人松永伍一の本だったように思います。人形というのは感情移入が容易に行えるものなので、形にならな かった我が子の形象として母がこれを求めるという哀切なイメージと、その底に貧しい東北の「間引き」という 暗くどろどろとした怨念のようなものが農民詩人の詩興を捕らえたのかもしれません。ややステロタイプな詩興 ですが・・。これが情緒的にうったえるところのある話なので、テレビのこけしの里訪問番組などでも、この基 調でストーリーが組まれたりする事が往々にしてありました。

    つぎに、事実はどうかという点ですが、こけしという呼称はもともと仙台周辺のごく一部で使われていたもので 、福島では、でこ、きでこ、でころこ(木偶系)、宮城南部では、きぼこ、きほほこ、おぼっこ(這子系)、鳴 子ではにんぎょ、きにんぎょう(人形系)と呼んでいました。仙台周辺では大崎八幡などで売られた有名な張り 子の赤けし(芥子人形)に対して木で作った芥子(木芥子)あるいは小さな芥子人形(小芥子)の意でこけしが 使われたようです。語源的には「子消す」はどこを探しても有りません。また、仙台の高橋五郎さんは東北では 間引くことを、「おろぬぎ」「おりぬき」あるいは「もどす」と言って「消す」という表現を使った例はないと 言っています。つまり、「子消す」というのは実際に使われたことのない、机上の創作用語ということになりま す。さらに、こけしにまつわる習俗を見ても五穀豊饒を祈った一種の再生儀礼である湯治(温泉に行く事)に深 くかかわっており、むしろ安産や子授け(豊饒と多産のアナロジー:復活祭の兎と同じ)に結びついています。 水子とは180度逆の象徴です。したがって、歴史的には「子消す」がこけしに結びつく事実も可能性もなく、 この説は詩的な空想から生まれたフィクションが起源だと思います。

  9. #9
    Chukchi Salmon lexico's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Alan Booth
    "Few Japanese people have any notion of where kokeshi came from or what they might originally have been used for, nor have they given the matter much thought.

    Partly this is because, like nebuta, th word kokeshi is usually written not with ideograms but in the purely phonetic syllabary called hiragana, so it is difficult to deduce an ethymology. Ko, for instance, might mean "small" and keshi might mean "poppy", in which case the curators of Japan's doll museums would all be bouncing with joy.

    But it strikes me as more likely that the word is an amalgam of a different ko, meaning "child", and kesu, meaning "get rid of", and that these cute, tender-faced little dolls, made from simple pieces of wood, a sphere for the head and a cylinder for the body, may in origin have been fetish substitutes for children murdered at birth.
    I have heard several years back that a Japanese mother or young couple who had had an abortion would perform rites of the kokeshi for the dead, premature chilld. So I think quite a few young Japanese know the meaning of the kokeshi doll very well. Hence no reason for the doll museum curator to be happy or sad for anything. Not knowing Japanese, the word order of the etymology is interesting. Can't really say anything other than that. However, the historical information is new for me. I didn't know it went that far back. Thanks for that.
    Z: The fish in the water are happy.
    H: How do you know ? You're not fish.
    Z: How do you know I don't ? You're not me.
    H: True I am not you, and I cannot know. Likewise, I know you're not, therefore I know you don't.
    Z: You asked me how I knew implying you knew I knew. In fact I saw some fish, strolling down by the Hao River, all jolly and gay.

    --Zhuangzi

  10. #10
    Regular Member Shiro's Avatar
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    Don't be fooled by seemingly attractive theory.

    The word Kokeshi is from ؊Hq, i.e. "wooden Keshi-doll".
    Keshi Hq, which means "a poppy (seed)", represents something tiny in Japanese.

    Hql` (Keshi-doll)

  11. #11
    Go to shopping PopCulturePooka's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by thomas
    A Japanese girl once told me that pills were only used "by prostitutes", so taking them could result in social stigmatisation.
    One of my freinds literally kicked a girl out of his bed as she got upset when he put a condom on, and then explained guys only wear condoms if they think the girls are big sluts.

  12. #12
    ς炸s҂ł epigene's Avatar
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    Lexico-san,

    Please note here that there are two Japanese posters refuting the theory.

  13. #13
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    Quote Originally Posted by epigene View Post
    Lexico-san,

    Please note here that there are two Japanese posters refuting the theory.
    Why are you assuming they are denying it due to nationalist sympathies? They probably got that info off of Wikipedia, which cites a pretty believable refutation of Booth(who is a travel writer btw)'s theory.

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