Scarecrows in Japan: Valley of the Dolls
Scarecrows in Japan highlight two social tendencies that are somewhat more extreme in Japan - a rapidly aging population coupled with rural depopulation.
Scarecrows in Japan: Valley of the Dolls かかし
- Nagaro Village
- Origins of Japanese Scarecrows
- Pilgrimage Routes
- Types of Scarecrows
- Japanese Culture
Scarecrows in Oita Prefecture, Kyushu
For several years now a story from Japan has been doing the rounds in the world's mass media.
With headlines like "Japan's Valley of the Dolls" (National Geographic), "Time stands Still in Japan's Village of Scarecrows" (Reuters), or "In ageing Japanese village, dolls take place of dwindling population" (The Guardian) all the stories are about two social tendencies that while existing in most modern countries, are somewhat more extreme in Japan - a rapidly aging population coupled with rural depopulation.
The stories focus on the village of Nagoro, located in the remote mountains of Tokushima in Shikoku, and the efforts of local resident Tsukimi Ayano, whose life-size dolls now outnumber the human residents many times over.
Scarecrow in kimono in Oita Prefecture, Kyushu
With more than 160 dolls and only 35 residents, it may well be that Nagoro has the most of such dolls. However, Nagoro is certainly not the only place in rural Japan where such dolls can be found, and is almost certainly not the first place.
Origins of Japanese Scarecrows
Their origins lie in one of the common words used in articles about Nagoro's dolls - scarecrows! Japanese farmers and gardeners have been making scarecrows for centuries, and many of the more recent ones are realistic and inventive, possibly because it is not just birds who must be sacred away from the crops but monkeys.
I remember about 18 years ago on one of my explorations of Japan's rural backwaters seeing a group of people working in a field in a clearing in the forest up ahead.
It was not until I was just a few yards away that I realized the figures were not moving and were in fact scarecrows. The nearby hamlet had created a local scarecrow festival and competed with each other to create the most distinctive one.
Over the years as I continued to wander Japan I kept coming across more and more of these types of dolls. Sometimes dressed as samurai, sometimes as children, but most commonly as old people, the figures could be found, in bus stops, shelters, or in the fields.
Scarecrows skiing in Oita Prefecture, Kyushu
I'm not sure how many more there might be as I just stayed on one road. The first group I saw were all dressed as yamabushi pilgrims.
I had just left the Kumano Magaibutsu, a set of huge Buddhist cliff carvings. They, along with dozens of other sites in the Kunisaki Peninsula were once on an unusual pilgrimage route.
Scarecrows - kakashi in Japanese - in Oita Prefecture, Kyushu
Types of Scarecrows
I was following a trail that closely followed the old pilgrimage route. After reaching the main road, Route 655, I headed north and soon came across another group of figures, near the road a doll of a young woman wearing a kimono, and, back near an old wooden building that looked as if it was once a school, an elderly couple.
Another ten minutes of walking and I came across a rather strange group of figures by the roadside, a variety of ages, but they were skiing!
What that was about I have no idea as there are no ski slopes anywhere near the area. Another ten minutes and another large group of figures by the roadside, though these looked more like standard scarecrows. I suspect there must be more of these figures in the neighborhood, but there are certainly hundreds and hundreds more scattered across rural Japan.
All these dolls pictured were encountered along a 3 kilometer stretch of road between Taizoji (2579 Tashibuhirano, Bungotakada, Oita 879-0853) and Makiodo (1796 Tashibumaki, Bungotakada, Oita 879-0855).
Scarecrow with hands up in Oita Prefecture, Kyushu