"Friendship Dolls" Maritime Museum, Monterey, California

Gail Jones

Wilkes-Barre, United States

Artist's Description

The Friendship Dolls and Dr. Sidney Gulick (1860 – 1945)

Dr. Sidney Gulick had been a missionary in Japan for 25 years and was fluent in that country’s language and customs. Ill health forced him to return to the United States in 1913, but as he recuperated he watched with alarm the passage of a series of anti-Japanese laws, including the 1924 immigration law that effectively ended Japanese immigration. Gulick understood the difficulty of changing the minds of adults, so in 1926 he formed the Committee on World Friendship Among Children. That organization’s main project focused on sending American dolls to Japan in time for the traditional Japanese doll festival (O Hina Matsuri) to be held on March 3, 1927.

Dr. Gulick’s project captured the imagination of teachers and children across the United States. Dolls were donated from all corners of the country, and each was given a symbolic passport, a steamship ticket, and handwritten letters from American children. Five steamship companies donated space for the dolls and an astonishing 12,739 dolls were shipped to Japan, where they received a warm welcome and were distributed to schools through the country.

Though many of the dolls sent to Japan had other than blue eyes, Japanese school children quickly connected Dr. Gulick’s friendship dolls with a song written in 1921, by Ujo NOGUCHI, a famous Japanese poet and songwriter who specialized in songs and nursery rhymes for children. The sad lyrics for his song are about a doll that arrives in Japan alone and in need of friendship. The dolls and NOGUCHI’s song have been intertwined ever since.

The Japanese Response – The Return Gift Dolls, Fall 1927

As is their custom, the Japanese children immediately wanted to respond to the American dolls by sending Japanese dolls back to America. Under the leadership of Eiichi SHIBUSAWA and the Japan International Children’s Friendship Association, a furious effort was begun to raise funds for some Japanese dolls to arrive in the United States by Christmas. Japanese school children raised funds and traditional Japanese puppet craftsmen were employed to build 58 large dolls (each doll was 32 inches tall) that were then dressed in traditional costumes and placed in special chests for shipping. These dolls, too, carried Japanese passports, and they were sponsored by the six largest Japanese cities and all of Japan’s prefectures. The dolls disembarked from Yokohama, Japan, in September 1927, bound for the United States.

The Japanese Friendship Dolls arrived in San Francisco on November 25, 1927, and a welcoming ceremony was held at a Japanese school in that city two days later. The dolls then went on tour across the country before being distributed to every state in the union.

Casualties of War – The Dolls and World War II

With the beginning of the war, the dolls became symbols of “the enemy” on both sides of the Pacific. In Japan, the military authorities outlawed the dolls and demanded that they be destroyed. The vast majority of the American dolls were destroyed as ordered. However, all across Japan brave parents and teachers defied the order and hid the dolls away or buried them for safekeepiing, in hopes that there would be a future time when the dolls could resume their work as ambassadors of peace and good will.

In the United States, though there was no official government mandate, the Japanese dolls quietly disappeared.

Artwork Comments

  • Robyn Williams
  • Gail Jones
  • McGaffus
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