Jul 15

The Story Behind the Friendship Dolls of 1926


Even before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, there was strife between Japan and the United States as early as 1907 when the US passed immigration laws making it challenging for Japanese citizens to immigrate to the US. In 1924, an Immigration Act effectively barred Japanese from entering the US, even making it difficult for Japanese war brides to return to the US with their husbands.

Saddened by the deteriorating relations between the countries, in 1924, Reverend Sidney L. Gulick, a missionary to Japan, founded a committee called World Friendship Among Children. They began collecting dolls from United States children, planning to send them on a good will mission the children of Japan and scheduled to arrive in time for their national doll festival on March 3rd.

The committee collected 12,739 blue-eyed, blonde haired dolls, and dressed them in typical American clothes. They attached a message to each doll. “May the United States of America and Japan always stay friends. I am being sent to Japan on a mission of friendship. Please let me join the doll festival on March 3 in your country” The dolls carried a passport which read, “This doll is a good citizen of the United States of America. She will obey all the laws and customs of your country. Please take care of her while she is with you.”

The dolls were well-received by the children in schools and kindergartens around Japan. As a return good-will gesture, in November, 1927, fifty-eight Japanese Ambassador dolls were returned to the United States. Each was named for a particular province or Japanese town, such as Miss Akita, or Miss Ehime. Each stood 81 cm tall and was exquisitely dressed in authentically styled kimonos of fine silks and brocades, each created and valued at $2,400 (by today’s monetary standards).

The American Friendship dolls and the Japanese Ambassador dolls were displayed in museums and places of honor until the war in 1941. Sadly, large numbers of the US Friendship Dolls were destroyed in Japan during the war and most of the Japanese Ambassador Dolls in the US were put in storage or lost.

To date, at least 270 of the American dolls and 35 of the original Japanese Ambassador dolls have been recovered in Japan and America by people interested in preserving history. Many hold places of honor in museums, schools and collections both in Japan and the U.S. Many of the Japanese Ambassador dolls make their way annually back to Japan in time to celebrate the March 3rd Japanese Doll festival.

Reverend Gulick’s family continues to make and send dolls to the children of Japan in a continued friendship gesture. Since 1986, they have sent approximately ten dolls each year to schools in Japan, each dressed in traveling clothes and carrying a handbag and a passport.

A local Sacramento author, Shirley Parenteau, has written a delightful children’s book about the Friendship Dolls called SHIP OF DOLLS. It can be purchased at her website, www.shirleyparenteau.com or at Amazon under the title SHIP OF DOLLS.

As I child, I collected storybook dolls. I still have several of my childhood dolls on display in china cabinets. Tell me about your favorite doll or doll related story. I’d love to hear from you.



4 Responses for "The Story Behind the Friendship Dolls of 1926"

  1. Elaine Faber says:

    Hope you all enjoy this post and will leave a comment.

  2. Sherry Joyce says:

    Great blog, Elaine. My dad would have loved this story, as he served in the war in Japan (US Navy), and my mom loved dolls.

  3. Comment: Thanks for mentioning Ship of Dolls, Elaine. I'm thrilled that Dolls of Hope, telling the story through the eyes of a girl in Japan will follow in September 2015. I'd like to expand a bit on the comment that the committee collected the dolls. The most heart-warming part of this true story in our history is that all across America, children earned money to buy dolls with "Mama" voice boxes, then saved money again to buy visas, passports and tickets for each doll. Church groups, children's organizations and individual families bought and dressed the dolls. Children wrote letters to travel with each (the inspiration for my two books), promising the dolls would be good citizens and asking that they be welcomed. Children in Japan also wrote letters which accompanied the 58 dolls from their country. Each of those dolls brought many accessories (tiny tea sets, silk-shaded lamps, cabinets and even small dolls of their own) to show how they lived at home. It truly was a wonderful expression of friendship between children of both countries.

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