In Valparaiso University’s Brauer Museum of Art, the exhibit “The Sun Shines for Us All: The Friendship Dolls of Japan” opened on Aug. 28.

Curated by Terry Kita, this exhibit features five Japanese friendship dolls. One of the dolls (named Miss Chosen) was gifted by Denny and Frances Gulick to the art museum in 2013. The other four were originally from different museums.

“These dolls are a glimpse of history,” Director of the Brauer Museum of Art, Gregg Hertzlieb said.

Hertzlieb spoke about the pivotal role these dolls played during the tension between Japan and the United States in the early 1920s. A missionary of that time, Sidney Gulick, proposed an exchange to foster peace through childrens dolls during such a troubling time.

Therefore, America mass produced their dolls and sent them to Japan, while Japan took a more artisanal approach. Even though these artists that were not prominently known were trying to keep a standard look amongst each doll, each doll has its own characteristics that show uniqueness and style.

This more traditional making of the dolls explains the reason why so few Japanese dolls were made.

“The Japanese did not simply see these dolls as props or artifacts,” Hertzlieb said. “The dolls were seen as vehicles of the soul.”

Though these dolls did not stop the war, their importance lies in the fact that they created a generation of Japanese with a good memory of America. It began with the children of the war, and “these people grew up to make the peace that we have now,” writes Terry Kita with Michiko Takaoka in “A Mission of Friendship.”

Among the 58 Japanese dolls made, only 48 of those dolls are accounted for today.

“The story of the dolls is a beautiful story worth telling and it is being told by the experts,” Hertzlieb said. “It is not exactly traditional art, it is a little different.”  

He hopes that because of this students will come into the exhibit with an expanded idea, allowing themselves to try out dolls as an art form and see how it feels to be exposed to these artifacts. It is a rare opportunity for Valpo students. The friendship dolls of Japan are interweaved with Valpo’s significant collection of stencil prints from a Japanese Christian print maker.

It is by fortuitous chance that the Brauer Museum got these dolls. Because of Valpo’s connection with Asia Network, a company that celebrates Asian culture in various forms, experts were able to evaluate the Asian collections in the Brauer Museum of Art.

“The museum was sitting on a treasure with the many stencil prints from the Japanese print maker, so significant, that it would be noteworthy within the historical context of the United States,” expert Sandy Kita told Hertzlieb.

A friendship developed which led to learning of the missionary, Sidney Gulick’s grandson, who had the friendship dolls. This is a pivotal moment, because even today these dolls represent fostering relationships and peace.

“This connection is fruitful and intriguing,” Hertzlieb said. It all began with those Japanese prints and turned into something much larger.

Meghan Lacroix, a desk attendant for the museum, talked about how there is something particular about the friendship dolls.

"They are not just dolls, they are artwork, and I have more of an appreciation for them as a piece of art,"  Lacroix said.

Along with the exhibit of Japanese friendship dolls, there is also a book that includes scholarship done on the dolls, a history of the culture and art and colorful pictures which are available for $20.

Contact Kendall Kartaly at torch@valpo.edu.

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