The Friendship Dolls of Japan, shown in the Valparaiso University Brauer Museum of Art, are much more than just dolls. They have stories, history, communication and fostered peaceful relationships among American and Japanese children in the 1920s.

Held in the Valparaiso University Center for the Arts, attendees of the art symposium had the opportunity to hear scholarship on these dolls from notable experts.

Curator of the Brauer Museum of Art, Gregg Hertzlieb, started off the symposium by introducing these experts. These experts included Alan Scott Pate, an expert on Japanese dolls, Keiko Tanaka, a researcher and assistant curator at the Tokyo University of the Arts Art Museum and Terry Kita, a Japan anthropologist and doll scholar. Hertzlieb then noted the importance of the university’s connection with Asia Network.

Because of the connection with Asia Network, Valpo was able to make a fruitful connection with Sandy Kita, an expert in Japanese art, who came to evaluate the museum’s Asian extensive stencil prints from Christian print maker, Watanabe Sudao. Richard Brauer, who the Brauer Museum of Art is named after, bought the art prints that are housed there.

Though Brauer did not speak the Japanese language, he was able to see a connection that fit with the mission of the Brauer Museum of Art: to collect works of art that points to faith. This art formed not only a connection from Asia Network, but a friendship that lasted and ultimately lead to the Friendship Dolls of Japan.

The history of the exchange of the friendship dolls was a crucial move during the 1920s with the anti-Japanese sentiments that resulted from hurtful immigration laws and restricted rights for Japanese in America. This was a time when the Japanese and Japanese-Americans were treated unjustly.

Sandy Kita remembers his grandfather enduring the inhumanness of an internment camp.

Sandy Gulick is the reverend who came up with this American-Japanese exchange of mass produced American dolls.

“We who desire peace, must write it in the heart of children,” Gluick said.

That was an important moment, because in order to achieve this peaceful relationship, it had to be through children.

Around 13,000 American dolls were sent to Japan and arrived on March 3, which was when the annual Doll Festival was held. Now it is referred to as either Girls’ Day or Doll Day. These fostered goodwill and the Japanese sent 58 unique and detailed dolls to America as a thank you.

Keiko Tanaka spoke about the intricate process of making the dolls and the singular qualities to each doll.

“Each face has individual characteristics, despite having the same basic structure,” Tanaka said. The individual style of each artist shows in each doll.”

“These Japanese dolls were not supposed to represent the government but the children,” Alan Scott Pate said. “These dolls were given personal names from Japanese children.”

Once these dolls arrived in America, they were sent all over the country. Of the 58 dolls, only 48 are accounted for. Pate spoke about the search for the lost Japanese dolls. Pate also described the dolls as a vibrant part of the relationship between America and Japan as well as a continuous agent for peace through historical struggle.

Sandy and Terry Kita give credit to Valpo and to Gregg Hertzlieb. They explain that Hertzlieb’s energy and care for this work is important for the dolls’ story to be told. Both are appreciative of Hertzlieb seeing this art form as a work of faith. Connecting the friendship dolls to art that points to faith is important to the cultural, ritual and symbolic power the dolls have for fostering relationships and breaking down cultural barriers. This message of the dolls’ relationship power was the important theme among each scholar’s presented work.

There is this intimate connection between Japanese and American style in art. Sandy Kita notes that America has more Japanese art than Japan does.

When Terry Kita heard the story of these dolls she thought that it resonated against prejudice and pointed toward tolerance.

“I saw these dolls as hope,” Kita said. “They are beautiful symbols that we cannot forget.”

The Kitas are offering a summer session course in Washington, D.C. this year for students interested in learning and understanding more about the arts of Asian culture. Terry Kita hopes the scholarship and knowledge of these dolls will help with cultural exchange and understanding between people.

“It starts person by person, one by one,” he said.

The dolls are still functioning as an emblem of peace and a fosterer of relationships. As the symposium came to an end, the lingering of conversation and interest continued among the attendees and the scholars.

Contact Kendall Kartaly at torch@valpo.edu.

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