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The Mystery of Mascot Dolls
by Dr. Ellen Schattschneider (eschatt@brandeis.edu)

Schattschneider teaches Anthropology at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, USA. This year (2003-04) she is a Fulbright research scholar, based in Hirosaki, Japan. She is currently writing, “Facing the Dead: Japan and its Dolls in the Mirror of War.”

Click For EnlargementIntroduction
I am seeking the help of Pacific Wrecks readers as I research the history of the small figures known as “mascot dolls”(masukotto ningyo) or “keepsake dolls” (imon ningyo) during the Asia-Pacific war. Many thousands of these dolls were made by women in Japan from the late 1930s (perhaps earlier) until August 1945, and given to servicemen in the Imperial Japanese Army and Imperial Japanese Navy. Initially, these small cloth dolls, nearly always depicting a female figure, were sent to soldiers serving in China. They became especially popular during 1944-45, when many tokkotai (“kamikaze”) carried the dolls on their final missions.

Click For EnlargementMy interest in these dolls developed out my research as a cultural anthropologist on special ceremonies in present-day northeastern Japan, in which the soul of a person who has died unmarried is married, in effect, to a beautiful bride doll (hanayome ningyo). This practice apparently developed soon after the war, as families grieved for young men who died in battle. (Thousands of bride dolls have been dedicated at temples and religious sites in far northern Honshu, and hundreds more have been dedicated by families to soldiers at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.) I began to wonder if the giving of “mascot dolls” during the war to soldiers may have contributed to the rise of this special way of remembering and honoring loved ones who died in military service.

The Idea of “Mascots” (Masukotto)
The mascot dolls themselves may have developed, in part, from the amulets (omamori) carried by samurai in earlier years. This appears to be an example of the widespread belief in Japan that dolls have a kind of soul (“tamashi”) and can carry the identity or essence of a person who has made or owned them. Interestingly, the word “mascot” comes from the old provincial French word “mascotte” (lucky charm) made popular by the 1880 French opera, “La Mascotte,” which was performed in Paris, London, and eventually in Tokyo. By the early 20th century, the term “masukotto” in Japan came to be used for small dolls or objects given to bring luck to people; I am not sure exactly when the dolls began to sent to soldiers at the front.

Mascot Dolls and the War
From c. 1936–1945, Japanese women’s and girls’ magazines often featured instructions on how to make these small dolls for soldiers. Mothers made them for their sons, sisters for their brothers, wives for their husbands, and girlfriends for their boyfriends. In many cases, home economics teachers instructed their students in how to make the dolls, which would be sent to serving soldiers in various theatres of war.

The dolls often were made of scraps of kimono or other spare items of cloth. Sometimes the dolls wore dresses, and often they wore the monpe trousers favored by many women on the home front during the war. Sometimes the dolls depicted komori (nursemaids), holding a tiny baby. Often, the name and address (or school) of the woman who made the doll was appended to it, on a strip of paper. The dolls were often included in the imonbukuro (the keepsake or care bags) sent by women and families to soldiers on the front, along with items of clothing, postcards, and so forth.

The Dolls and the Tokkotai
I am especially fascinated by the use of these mascot dolls by tokkotai / kamikaze. A number of surviving former tokkotai have told me that they received many of these dolls and that they carried them on their bodies, usually hanging from cords around their necks or their hips. Most of the time, when official photographs were taken, the soldiers would place the dolls under their uniforms; but I have come across at least twenty photographs of tokkotai in which the dolls are clearly visible. Many people have told me that the dolls were given to keep the tokkotai company during their terribly lonely final journeys. In some cases, I have been told, mothers, sisters, and lovers wanted to “be with” the pilot during his final moments, and that the dolls allowed this special closeness.

The Fate of the Dolls
Most of these dolls were of course destroyed during the war, but a few have survived. In some cases, tokkotai/kamikaze gave one of their mascot dolls to relatives or friends, as “katami” (remembrances), just before their final mission. Such dolls are displayed in a number of Japanese museums, including the Yushukan military history museum at Yasukuni (Tokyo) and in the Chiran Peace Museum, the Kanoya naval aviation museum, and the Kaseda Peace Museum in Kagoshima (southern Kyushu). One mascot doll, given by its IJN owner to family members soon before he died in action in a kaiten (special attack submarine or “human torpedo”) is now on display at the Kaiten museum in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Remarkably, this doll has recently been traced back to the woman who made it as a teenage girl during the war. I recently had a long talk with her and she recalls making such dolls with her mother in 1944 and 1945.

I also recently spoke with a group of women (in the organization “Nadeshikokai”) who as high school students helped take care of young tokkotai pilots stationed in Chiran in 1945. In some cases, they explained, a pilot would ask a girl to make him a special mascot doll. One woman recalled a pilot in April 1945 asking her to make him two dolls, one for him and one for his airplane. Some kamikaze pilots, she explained, would hang a doll from their instrument panel, and talk to it in flight. Looking into the faces of the dolls, she said, they would see the faces of their mothers, their sisters, their wives…

I have been told repeatedly that a number of dolls were recovered by Allied navy personnel from the remains of tokkotai/kamikaze pilots, within the wreckage of their aircraft. But I have not been able to document this.

I would be deeply grateful for any information that sheds more light on the story of these dolls, the women who made them, and the men who carried them into battle.

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Last Updated
March 26, 2012

 

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