November 6, 2014

Miss Ishikawa: A Japanese Friendship Doll

By Amanda Streeter Trum, Curator of Collections, Montana Historical Society Museum

Miss Ishikawa [Photo by Alan Pate, MHS Museum Accession X1928.01]
Nose: medium.             Mouth: small.               Eyes: black
This is how the Montana Historical Society’s "Miss Ishikawa" is described on her 1927 passport.  Eighty-seven years ago this month, Miss Ishikawa arrived in San Francisco aboard the Japanese ship, Tenyo Maru.  She is one of fifty-eight "Friendship Dolls" presented to the people of America by the people of Japan in November 1927, in response to a similar gift from the United States earlier that year. 
Blue-Eyed Doll sent to Japanese children
The Friendship Doll exchange began in March 1927 with the shipment of over 12,000 American dolls to Japan as a gesture of goodwill during a time of cultural and political tension between the two countries.  Known to the Japanese as “Blue-Eyed Dolls,” these small ambassadors were received with great fanfare and appreciation.  In return, the Japanese government commissioned their own specially made dolls as gifts to the children of the United States.  

The doll exchange occurred just three years after the United States passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which prohibited immigration from Japan based on an established quota system.  At this time, Japanese immigrants living on the West Coast experienced systematic and institutionalized discrimination and physical intimidation.
As anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S. and anti-American sentiment in Japan increased, Reverend Sydney Gulick, a former American missionary in Japan, developed the idea of smoothing relations between the two countries by fostering cultural understanding and forging friendships among the countries’ children.
Gulick, founder of the Committee on World Friendship Among Children, obtained overwhelming support in the United States to gather and ship American dolls to Japan as a first step in improving relations.  Children from across the country dressed the dolls and wrote letters of greeting to accompany them. 
Rev. Sydney Gulick

In response, the Japanese government commissioned the fifty-eight Friendship Dolls—each named for a Japanese prefecture, city, or colony—to act as diplomatic ambassadors.  Baron Matsudaira, Japanese ambassador, stated in 1927, "These dolls are silent; they do not talk, but sometimes silence is more eloquent than speech.  When one’s heart is filled with emotion, one often loses speech.  So these dolls silently tell you of the friendly feeling which the children of Japan have for the children of America."

Miss Ishikawa and her peers were treated as VIPs, both in Japan and upon arrival in the U.S.  They held first-class seats on the ship and on trains as they traveled the United States, met dignitaries, and attended special receptions in their honor.
However, the goodwill generated by the dolls proved short-lived.  The children who participated in the doll exchange in 1927 became some of the same adults to fight against each other during World War II.  The imperial Japanese government labeled the American dolls spies and mandated that they be destroyed.  Today, relatively few Blue-Eyed Dolls remain, but forty-six of the original fifty-eight Friendship Dolls have been located.
In recent decades, there has been a renewed interest in both sets of dolls as historical artifacts and artistic expressions of cultural awareness.  Organizations in both the U.S. and Japan have planned reunions and homecoming exhibitions, as well as new doll exchanges.  The Blue-Eyed and Friendship Dolls continue to represent the promise of friendship and peace, a commendable sentiment that will always be relevant.
Miss Ishikawa joined the Montana Historical Society’s permanent collection in 1928. She was first displayed in the basement of the Capitol, where the museum once resided.  She and her extensive collection of beautiful accessories are now on display at the Montana Historical Society as part of our Montana’s Territorial Legacy exhibit, open through April 2015.