Japanese refurbish Spokane friendship doll

By Rebecca Nappi
The Spokesman-Review

Left image: Photo from University of Nebraska Museum, Anthropology Division. Right image: Photo from Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — In the late 1920s, things were not so good between Japan and the United States.

Long before World War II, tensions mounted — over the treatment of Japanese immigrants here, and the competition for economic opportunities in China.

In every troubled time, prophetic individuals understand countries may war, but citizens share common values. They love their children. They appreciate art and beauty.

In 1927, Sidney Gulick, an American missionary who spent 20 years in Japan, came up with the “doll plan.” He collected 12,739 blue-eyed American dolls and sent them to Japan for the children there.
In return, Japanese Viscount Eiichi Shibusawa sent back to the United States 58 Japanese friendship dolls. They were created by artisans skilled in doll craft and financed with contributions from 2.6 million Japanese people.

The dolls were gifted to each state. The kimono-clad dolls, nearly 3 feet high, arrived with passports, clothing, shoes, furniture, and tea sets.

Miss Tokushima is one of 44 friendship dolls still accounted for. She dwells at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, her home (in its various incarnations) since 1929.

Last July, Miss Tokushima traveled to Japan’s island of Shikoku, to its Tokushima Prefecture, the “state” she was named after long ago.

She was feted in four museums. Schoolchildren wrote her love letters.

Meanwhile, back at the MAC, tensions mounted. The museum, faced with massive cuts in state money, is at risk of closing.

Last week, Miss Tokushima returned to the MAC, bringing with her hope for better days.

“The doll, the goodwill, has revitalized us,” said Marsha Rooney, the museum’s senior curator of history.

In these turbulent times, Miss Tokushima reminds staff members about the power of survival. And how you never know where stories lead.

On Wednesday afternoon, museum staff members and guests welcomed Miss Tokushima home in an “uncrating ceremony.”

Outside, Spokane’s winter continued its relentless assault. In Olympia, elected leaders continued their relentless debates on the budget.

Inside the museum, peace prevailed.

Val Wahl, the MAC’s collections curator, accompanied Miss Tokushima home from Japan, the trip paid for by the Japanese government. Kenji Ohara, executive director of Japan’s Tokushima Prefectural Museum, traveled with Wahl and the doll.

Ohara — with translation by his Japanese American niece, Sayuri Ohara — explained how in Japan these past months, Miss Tokushima was displayed with Alice, one of the 12,739 blue-eyed dolls sent to Japan in 1927.

Of those, 125 ended up in Tokushima Prefecture. During the war, 124 of the blue-eyed dolls were intentionally destroyed.

Alice was the only survivor. She was hidden by a Japanese elementary school teacher.

Alice still lives at the elementary school, Ohara said. Alice is dressed in a uniform, like the children who love her there.

Wahl then told those gathered her personal story.

As the international loan of Miss Tokushima was coming together last year, Wahl was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her medical challenges, coupled with the museum’s budget woes, wore away at her spirit.

The trip to Japan — where 15,000 people saw Miss Tokushima — renewed her.

“In these difficult times, it’s good to have something to feel so good about,” she said.

Wahl then placed white gloves on her hands. In the gentle moves one uses with precious children, she, Ohara, and museum staff members lifted out Miss Tokushima. Carefully, they unwrapped her.

Refurbished in Japan, Miss Tokushima looked radiant. People gasped.

Miss Tokushima is ready for many more years of goodwill service in Spokane, said Ohara’s niece, Sayuri. However, the Spokane museum may close before it has the chance to display her once more.

But at Wednesday’s ceremony, hope buoyed everyone in the room. You never know where Miss Tokushima’s story will lead. ♦

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