NDSU Magazine logo - Spring 2008

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Vol. 08, No. 2


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An ambassador of Japan

An ambassador of Japan

Meet Miss Mumoko Okayama, an ambassador of Japan. Miss Okayama and her sisters were a gesture of friendship, an exchange to create good will between the school children of our two lands. She is one of the 58 perfect dolls Japan sent to the United States in 1927; one for each state of the 48 states and 10 cities.

In Japan, doll making is taken seriously. The dolls Japan sent to America were commissioned from their finest doll artists. Dolls made in this tradition are objects of art and believed to contain a spirit or soul. Kami is the spirit of the doll and it must be respected. Therefore, everything that would sustain her in new life traveled with Miss Okayama to North Dakota: clothing, shoes, trunks, makeup, mirror, tea sets (both everyday and ceremonial). Each item is exquisitely crafted and stamped with the maker's mark and the mark of her house or family lineage. Pupils from schools that received American dolls were invited to contribute one sen to fund the doll's construction. But this was not enough money to fund Miss Okayama, so the organizers invited the Sasakawa family to make up the difference to help with her creation. This is why Miss Okayama wears the Sasakawa kamon, or mark.

The artist who created Miss Okayama's ivory complexion and delicate features painstakingly built up face, hands and feet with layers of crushed oyster shell called gofun and held in place with a binder called rabbit skin glue. Tints of peach, pink, ivory and blue give blush and character to her face. Her fingernails are as miraculous as a newborn's. Her eyes, cut from the gofun's surface have depth and mystery. Her silk kimono and obi would be worn with pride by the finest lady; draped just so, with miniature fan and tiny pocketbook tucked into the stiff obi.

Miss Okayama arrived in North Dakota in 1927 and lived with the Fraternal Order of the Mason's for many years in their grand temple in downtown Fargo. The Red Cross was her next North Dakota home. In 1972 she came into hands of a loving curator at North Dakota State University, Miss Emily Reynolds, chair of the department of textiles and clothing and founder of the historic costume collection named in her honor. In 2001 funds were raised in Japan, and Miss Okayama, who'd grown rather dusty and bedraggled, was restored to all her demure beauty. The Japanese uniform company that helped to fund the restoration even provided Miss Okayama with a new outfit - a Japanese school girl's uniform that she keeps with her things, preferring to wear her faded but still sumptuous kimono.

Her home arranged behind the safety of glass and diffuse light in the Evelyn Morrow Lebedeff building, Miss Okayama welcomes students, school children and curious elders. She remains a serene and lovely ambassador and an embodiment of peace, inviting everyone to stop, visit and imagine taking tea. Domo arigato. Sayonara.

-- L. Baker

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.