Hirokazu Miyazaki doesn’t usually get his research ideas from his son. But last year, after reading a children’s book about an exchange of dolls among Japanese and American schoolchildren in the 1920s, then-10-year-old Xavier asked his father to investigate.
Miyazaki, an anthropologist with a long-standing interest in gift exchange, was happy to oblige. He had no idea that his sleuthing would lead to a new research project and a series of public events involving city governments, civic groups, universities, schools, museums, libraries, artists, atomic bomb survivors and peace activists in Japan and the United States.
“At first, Xavier didn’t know if the doll exchange was fact or fiction,” says Miyazaki, who directs Cornell’s Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies. “It turned out not only to be true, but to be a fascinating story that still resonates today.”
The “friendship doll” exchange began during a wave of xenophobia that swept the United States after World War I. Congress had recently passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which barred Japanese and other Asians from entering the country.
Sidney L. Gulick, a California resident who had spent 25 years in Japan as a missionary and educator, argued strenuously against the act. After it passed, he decided to turn his attention to the next generation, founding a group called the Committee on World Friendship Among Children to “implant in the minds of children the ideals of goodwill, understanding and peace among nations.”
The group’s first project was to organize a gift of nearly 13,000 dolls, ostensibly from American children to their age-mates in Japan. They were manufactured in U.S. factories and dressed in clothing stitched by the children and their families. Each was accompanied by a handwritten note.
The so-called “blue-eyed dolls” were received with great fanfare in Japan and distributed to kindergartens and elementary schools around the country.
The industrialist Eiichi Shibusawa, who had been friends with Gulick during his time in Japan, was moved to reciprocate. He organized the production of 58 meticulously crafted “ambassador dolls,” each representing a Japanese prefecture or territory. These were delivered to the U.S., where many ended up in museums.
In 1929, one of those dolls arrived at the Rochester Museum and Science Center. For years, it was believed to represent Aomori Prefecture, north of Tokyo. In 2000, it was discovered that it was, in fact, from the southern city of Nagasaki. Since then, Nagasaki Tamako (also known as Miss Nagasaki) has been back and forth several times in trips organized by the Nagasaki Friendship Doll Association, a group of citizens who are active in that city’s vibrant peace movement.
Miyazaki worked with the association to organize a series of public events in Nagasaki, Tokyo and Rochester this year to mark the 90th anniversary of the doll exchange. More than 40 Cornell students attended a ceremony and symposium at the Rochester Museum and Science Center Sept. 30 launching an exhibition called “The Gift of Dolls.” Their trip was supported by the Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs as a “global-at-home” learning opportunity.
The city of Rochester declared the day International Friendship Dolls Exchange Day. Toyokazu Ihara, a survivor of the 1945 atomic bombing of Nagasaki, spoke, as did Sidney Gulick’s grandson, Denny Gulick.
Denny Gulick, 81, a math professor at the University of Maryland, learned about his grandfather’s project in the 1980s. Since then, he and his wife, Frances, have donated approximately 270 dolls to schools in Japan. “The dolls are like little humans,” Gulick said after the ceremony. “They’re little ambassadors to bring the idea of friendship across country lines.”
For Miyazaki, the doll exchange is much more complex than that.
He points out that Sidney Gulick meant his gesture as a gift, not an exchange, but extravagant gifts put recipients in an awkward position if they can’t reciprocate in some way. At the time, Japan did not have the capacity to match the gift in size. By sending fewer, but much higher-quality dolls in return, Shibusawa satisfied the need for a response while leaving open the possibility of more exchanges.
Miyazaki also observes that the Japanese government was reluctant to accept the dolls at all, as they were given not by the U.S. government but by citizens who were critical of U.S. policy.
Nor did the dolls prevent World War II. In fact, during the war, the American dolls were treated as enemies in Japan, and many were publicly destroyed.
“Understanding and exchange are not the same thing,” Miyazaki explained in his presentation at the Rochester symposium. Despite all the talk about peace and understanding, “the exchange organized by Gulick and Shibusawa engendered misunderstanding, frictions and unintended consequences.”
But it was also a “pioneering project of citizen diplomacy” that spawned many interactions between individuals and groups in the U.S. and Japan, he added. Those have included dozens of visits and gift exchanges by civil society groups and municipal officials, as well as the collaborative production of giant “peace murals” by schoolchildren in the two countries in association with the Kids’ Guernica project.
Several Cornell students worked on a new mural at the Sept. 30 event, spreading the ripples of the original doll exchange even further.
Miyazaki said this is typical of the way gift exchange works. The impact is rarely felt immediately, but builds gradually, as more and more people are touched by it.
“Exchange becomes powerful not because the people involved are important or the things exchanged are valuable and beautiful, but because it involves collaboration,” he said. “Collaboration is not always easy. We all know how difficult it is to get people to work together effectively and peacefully. But collaboration brings out the best of us. In my view, it is in itself a kind of peace.”
Jonathan Miller is associate director for communications at the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.