Vintage Kokeshi Collection Finds Home at JACCC

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Kitty Sankey with her mother’s collection of antique kokeshi dolls, now on display at the JACCC.

The Japanese American Cultural & Community Center was recently gifted a vintage collection of Japanese kokeshi dolls numbering close to 200 pieces from Kitty Sankey, a long-time community leader, past president of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Southern California, and an active leader in various civic organizations.

Kokeshi-collecting was a lifetime passion of her mother, Anita Mitsuko Sankey, who was born in Los Angeles but spent a considerable number of years living in Japan. Her family was interned during WWII; she met Kitty’s father after the war, although he had been drafted into the U.S. Army prior to Pearl Harbor. Kitty’s father had two tours of duty that brought the family to Okinawa. Both Kitty and her brother were born in Japan during this time.

Upon discharge from military service, her father continued to serve the American government in Japan. Kitty believes her mother probably started collecting kokeshi dolls in the late 1940s when she first moved to Tokyo after the war. Kitty grew up among these dolls and she recollects that her mother explained to her that the head and the face identified the artist, based on various shapes and their unique expressions that differed from region to region, artist to artist.

“My mother loved miniatures. Although she had the tall kokeshi, she had cases of miniature dolls,” Kitty shared with Patricia Wyatt, CEO and president of JACCC. Pat and Kitty discussed this impressive collection currently on display in the Toshizo Watanabe Exhibition Center. Pat recently did a video interview with Kitty that can beviewed at https://www.jaccc.org/hinamatsuri.

“I thought that this [doll]was interesting; it’s shaped like teapots, tea kettles. Male and female. And this is a mother with a child, and these are very very tiny.” Kitty explained to Pat, holding up kokeshi dolls that she brought from her personal collection that she displays at home.

Anita Sankey continued collecting the kokeshi dolls until Kitty’s father completed his work and they moved home to North Hollywood in 1989. Kitty recalls that the dolls came to the U.S. with her parents, and were displayed in glass cases in their home.

She mentioned, “So many of the dolls not only have the artist’s signature, which makes it very nice because it’s handcrafted by that particular artist, but it also has the date and sometimes the name of the person who either gave it to her [mother]or accompanied her when she purchased it.”

This collection was gifted to the JACCC at the suggestion of Kitty’s friend Paul Abe, Little Tokyo Union Bank branch manager and fellow civic leader. Paul learned of Kitty’s desire to find a “perfect home” for her mother’s lifelong collection and contacted the JACCC to explore interest. JACCC was not only delighted to be gifted this amazing collection, but they also decided to display it immediately because it fit into the Hinamatsuri season.

JACCC has annually displayed an heirloom seven-tier hina ningyo (doll) set in commemoration of Girls Day. This was gifted to the JACCC decades ago by Iris Teragawa in honor of her parents, Kumanosuke and Anna Inadomi. Although JACCC remains closed due to COVID, these lovely displays of both the Sankey kokeshi collection and hina dolls can be viewed on JACCC’s website at www.JACCC.org/hinamatsuiri, or in person from the large windows facing JACCC’s plaza (244 S. San Pedro St. in Little Tokyo).

On Feb. 27, JACCC celebrated Hinamatsuri launched by a fundraiser seasonal lunch commemorating Momo-no-Sekku (Festival of the Peach Blossoms). In collaboration with Don Tahara of Sake Dojo; Brian Kito and son Kory of Fugetsu-do; Gary Kawaguchi of Upper Crust; and Atsuko Kanai of Mutual Trading, seasonal lunches of chirashi sushi, cha-soba and sakura-mochi were prepared and sold to the community on a pre-ordered, pick-up basis at JACCC.

Currently, the JACCC website continues to display the kokeshi and hina ningyo, and also has posted photographs submitted by global participants in partnership with Discover Nikkei/Japanese American National Museum. Interesting hina sets and related photographs have been received from many parts of the U.S., and even from as far away as Japan and Brazil.

JACCC was deeply appreciative of the generous donation of the kokeshi dolls from Kitty Sankey so that cultural traditions and artistic expressions can continue to be shared and appreciated by future generations. This collection was displayed at JACCC in time for the Hinamatsuri celebrations.

If you are interested in learning more about the JACCC and their future events, email [email protected] and request to receive their newsletters. Also visit their website at www.jaccc.org, which has many current virtual exhibits and programs posted while businesses and organizations remain closed during COVID.

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