Album of thanks for a friendship doll

Album of thanks for a friendship doll
Album of thanks from the 1927 Japanese doll exchange
6 March 2015

If we could only retain the child’s innocence, enquiring spirit and wonder, the eyes that see someone as a potential source of fun and comfort, not as a label or category, how different might the world be? These sentiments prompted a remarkable cross-cultural doll ambassador program in 1927 and the Library has recently acquired a beautiful and poignant example of a "thank you" that resulted.

In 1924 the United States passed the Immigration Act which among other provisions barred immigrants from specific Asian countries from migrating to the United States, including those from Japan. Not surprisingly this provoked considerable outrage in the affected countries, particularly following a strident lobbying campaign by some high profile US politicians and other influential figures to ensure the exclusion of the Japanese. The State Department and the Japanese Foreign Ministry tried to find a diplomatic solution to the problem, but unfortunately when their efforts were made public this was interpreted as a threat to the US and exacerbated the situation. Japanese-American relations were at a low point and this greatly concerned Dr Sidney Gulick, an American Christian missionary who had lived for many years in Japan.

His solution was a novel one—to bypass the politicians and instead try fostering goodwill amongst the children of each nation. He hoped this might also influence their parents and ultimately promote international peace and friendship. Perhaps a somewhat naïve notion in the light of history, but imagine if it had succeeded!

In 1926 Gulick formed the Committee on World Friendship Among Children, sponsored by the Commission on International Justice and Goodwill of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America. The first project undertaken by the Committee was to reach out to the children of Japan by arranging for American dolls to be sent to the 1927 O Hina Matsuri doll festival. This festival was an annual event held in March each year.

Painting of dolls from O Hina Matsuri display

Painting of a pair of Hinamatsuri dolls signed 耕絵 (Ikkō e)

Preparations for this doll shipment were even reported in Australia in an October 1926 article from the Brisbane Courier. The campaign aroused huge popular support amongst American children and their parents and an amazing total of 12,739 dolls were specially dressed by schoolchildren and sent in shipments between January and March, each one accompanied by a letter from Gulick. Politicians on both sides of the Pacific recognised the popular appeal and of course took advantage of it! A grand reception was organised for the dolls in Tokyo, attended by the American Ambassador Charles MacVeagh, several Japanese politicians including the foreign minister and education minister and prominent industrialist Viscount Eiichi Shibusawa.

Eiichi Shibusawa with two of the dolls

Viscount Eiichi Shibusawa with two of the dolls, from Wikimedia commons

The dolls were then distributed to various elementary schools throughout Japan, with each school having its own reception to receive the dolls. As a reciprocal goodwill gesture 58 Japanese dolls crafted by the finest dollmakers in Japan and dressed in silk kimonos were then sent to the United states, representing the 47 prefectures and 6 largest cities of Japan.

Many of the Japanese schools that received dolls also sent their own letters of thanks to the individual American donors, some in the form of special albums. The National Library has just acquired a beautiful example of one of these albums.

It was sent to Florence E. Mendel, the same Florence Emma Voigt Mendel (1874-1957) who was the author of two books in the children’s series “Our Little Cousin” called Our Little Austrian Cousin and Our Little Polish Cousin. Florence obviously had an interest in providing information to children about their counterparts in other cultures. Her father was German and had migrated to the United States and married an American, so it is interesting to speculate that perhaps Florence had experienced at first hand some ill-feeling towards her father’s ancestry during the First World War. It would have been natural for Florence to have been captivated by the idea of the friendship doll exchange and contributed dolls to the program. Her dolls went to Ō matsuzawa Elementary School in Ōmatsuzawa, Miyagi Prefecture. The village of Ōmatsuzawa and its school no longer exist. In 1954 it was merged with two nearby villages Ōya and Kasukawa to form Ōsato.

The album of thanks is really a lovely work of art. It is velvet covered and consists of 12 thick board leaves bound in accordian style. On the leaves are pasted a handwritten letter of appreciation from two teachers at the school, five photographs showing the school buildings, teachers and students holding the two dolls, two paintings by artists inside the front and rear covers, and nine original drawings and paintings produced by students at the school. These works by the children are truly delightful and range from crayon drawings by the youngest students to more sophisticated paintings by older students. The subjects include views of the children, kites flying in the wind, landscapes of the school, still life views of fruit, a basketball, and flowers. Lovely representations of the world they were familiar with and wanted to show to the unknown doll donor in a far away country. Each drawing is signed by the student, so we know who they were and their ages.

Letter of thanks

Letter of thanks from the teachers

School and children

Two of the photographs of the school and students from the album. Students at the front are holding the dolls

Drawing of children by a student

Drawing of school children by Masatoshi Tanno, year one (age around six)

Fish kites

Fish kites floating on the breeze, by Gennosuke Watanabe, year two (age around 7)

Painting of the school

Painting of the school by Yukio Honda, year six (age around 11)

Painting of a flower

Flower by Hideko Sekido, high school year two (age around 13 or 14)

I can imagine the delight experienced by Florence when she received this album. Holding it in her hands, showing it to her friends and family, she must have felt a real connection with those children in the Ō matsuzawa Elementary School, and surely been filled with hope for a peaceful future for them all. Holding it in my own hands I also feel a sense of sadness and can’t help wondering about the fate of those children.

Unfortunately during the Second World War many of the friendship dolls were lost or destroyed as they were viewed as coming from the enemy. But there were also people who protected dolls from harm, and today there are officially 286 surviving dolls—46 of the Japanese dolls sent to America have also been preserved.

Although the doll ambassador project might be dismissed today as a rather quaint or even culturally insensitive gesture today, I think this belies the spirit behind it. Surely every culture values its children, sees them as the hope for the future and wants them to grow and thrive in peace. If our children can respect, value and reach out to others, embracing difference instead of fearing it, then there is no limit to what we can achieve!