My childhood in Pennsylvania was filled of memories of antique shops, flea markets, auctions, and estate sales. I think it was somewhere between the rows of old objects that I discovered a love of history and a passion for the hunt. I vividly remember summer Saturdays, watching the world fly by from the passenger seat of my mother’s car. It lacked air conditioning and my legs used to stick to the seat every time we stopped to check out a new garage sale. When our search was over, we would giddily talk about our “finds” on the drive home, and remember the new neighborhoods through which we traveled, guided only by little neon-colored signs with a poor sense of direction.
This past weekend, J and I were rooting through old antique shops in Old Towne Orange, CA. Often called the “Antique Capital of Southern California,” small shops and specialty cafes decorate a one-mile stretch around the historic Orange Plaza. Proceeding from shop to shop, I relived the days of my youth feeling my way around the unique and rusted.
Old souvenir objects from Japan and China seem to be a staple of the antique market, and there is no shortage of blue-and-white porcelain, geisha dolls, and Chinoiserie. But you can imagine my surprise when stumbling upon two modest wood-carved figures of an Ainu man and woman. As if experiencing a bend in time, my childhood activities seemed to link directly to my current research.
The two figures were each strangled by a snap lock pin security loop from which a price tag dangled: “Carved Wood Figure, $4.00 each.” They were sandwiched between a vintage straw hot pad that my grandmother might have used and a porcelain vase with a faux wood finish, decorated with a butterfly and the words “Maui.” In front of the figures were ashtrays of various designs, materials, and patterns. A large Native American figure loomed on the shelf above them along with brass and crystal candlesticks and an over-sized plastic M&M figurine. Kitsch at its best.
The pair was probably produced in Hokkaido as a tourist souvenir. Beginning in the late Taisho era (ca. 1924), dolls like these were produced by the Ainu specifically for a tourist market. The figures have roots the Ainu nipopo doll, which was carved and utilized by shamans as protective amulets. Although it was against Ainu beliefs to depict the human form in a non-religious context, the tourist trade was an important source of income for a vulnerable group of people dependent on the government (Dubreul 1999). Ainu dolls like these are often compared to the Japanese kokeshi, since some souvenir versions are more rounded in shape. But while kokeshi are lathe-turned, Ainu dolls are carved (McDowell 2011).
For me, this pair of dolls amongst the random items on an American antique store shelf is a testament to the American interest in the Ainu and Hokkaido; an interest that feels almost alien to us today. But even now, any traveler can buy similar wooden Ainu dolls at almost every major tourist spot on the island. I can only guess how this couple landed in an antique store in Orange, CA, but their mere presence speaks to these larger networks of circulation and exchange.
I opened my wallet and laid the $8 on the counter.