When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor 75 years ago, museum directors across the nation had a decision to make: Should they continue to exhibit the Japanese Friendship Dolls given to the United States by the children of Japan 14 years earlier?
It is thought that only one, Harry Davis of the N.C. State Museum in Raleigh, chose to leave the elegantly dressed, handmade wooden doll at his museum on display. But Davis placed a new marker next to the doll, known as Miss Kagawa, under the ancient warning, “Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.”
“The Japanese made an insane attack upon the American Territory of Hawaii on December 7, 1941,” the marker begins. “With a grim determination we now are committed to stop for all time Japanese aggression. This has no bloodthirsty implications to destroy peoples as such. We still believe in peace and goodwill to live and let live.”
The marker remains next to Miss Kagawa, who has been restored and, along with fans, parasols, ornate lacquered boxes and other accessories, is on display on the second floor of the museum, now known as the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.
The story of Miss Kagawa during wartime is not well documented. Margaret Cotrufo, a librarian at the museum, said a written history of it refers to a letter that Davis wrote about keeping the doll on display, but she hasn’t been able to find the letter. In some accounts of the story, Cotrufo said, the doll was turned around to face the wall.
But the two paragraphs that Davis placed alongside this symbol of goodwill during a time of conflict and enmity have survived. Roy Campbell, the museum’s director of exhibits, said he has read lots of labels during his 40 years in the museum business, but few have had the impact of this one.
“I was struck by the bravery of a museum in such times keeping her on display,” Campbell said.
The marker’s second paragraph reads: “Men, women, and children of Japan have this good-will but they have now been dominated by ruthless leaders. Proof of such latent good-will are the Friendship Doll Exhibits exchanged between children of the United States and Japan during 1926 and 1927 and shown as here in Museums in both countries.”
The idea for doll diplomacy with Japan originated with Sidney Lewis Gulick, a former American missionary to Japan who was dismayed with the growing anti-Japanese feelings among Americans in the 1920s. Gulick’s Committee on World Friendship Among Children arranged to send more than 12,700 mass-produced dolls to Japan for Hinamatsuri, a doll festival held each spring. Each of what became known as “blue-eyed dolls” contained a message of friendship.
Touched by the gesture, thousands of Japanese children raised money to reciprocate with 58 handmade wooden dolls roughly 3 feet tall with skin of powdered oyster shell and rice paste and layers of silk kimonos. They began to arrive in the United States in time for Christmas in 1927.
Caroline L. Reynolds wrote a lengthy front-page article in The News & Observer about Miss Kagawa, the “good will envoy,” on Sept. 16, 1928, detailing her trip from Yokohama to San Francisco, then New York. From there, the doll made a series of appearances at schools and other public venues in cities and towns in eastern Pennsylvania, where hundreds, sometimes thousands, would come out to see her in a single day.
Perhaps taking her cues from the Japanese, Reynolds wrote about Miss Kagawa as if she were a real person and a celebrity. Her first stop in North Carolina, on June 7, 1928, was in Goldsboro, where, Reynolds wrote, “she was allowed a rest before being placed in the largest department store in the city to be viewed by many people.”
It was about this time that someone decided that taking the Friendship Dolls on tour wasn’t the most efficient way to share them with people, and they were given to museums, at least one in each state. The N.C. State Museum was largely a nature museum, but it was the most established one the state had.
If Miss Kagawa’s arrival in Raleigh in 1928 made the paper, the decision to leave her on display after Pearl Harbor did not. In a nation at war, people apparently had more important things to worry about.
Campbell and Cotrufo both assume that Davis consulted with his predecessor, longtime museum director Herbert H. Brimley, but that the words on the marker point to Davis. The title, a phrase first credited to the Greek playwright Euripides, would be known to Davis, a fan of the theater. And then there’s the less-than-eloquent syntax, which points more to Davis than Brimley, Cotrufo said.
“It’s just not a good sentence,” she said.
Lost to memory
Miss Kagawa remained on display through the war. But at some point in the late 1940s or 1950s, she was placed in storage, either during a renovation project or the shuffling of museum pieces as the N.C. Museum of History broke off from the State Museum.
“That was when she was lost to memory,” Campbell said. “It’s not unusual for things to go missing in museums.”
The doll surfaced briefly during another renovation in 1974, but by then the staff didn’t know what she represented and placed her in a box in a holding area for objects needing attention. There she remained until 1981 when a letter from a Japanese doll enthusiast in New York asking about her whereabouts prompted museum staff to look for her.
By then she was in bad shape, including a cracked head, dislocated legs and insect damage to her kimono. She was sent back to Japan twice for repairs, once in 1987 and then again in 1998, when she was refurbished by the son and grandson of her creator.
Science museum director Betsy Bennett traveled to Kagawa, Japan, with her niece to bring Miss Kagawa back to Raleigh in 1999. Bennett said there was a week’s worth of ceremonies and special events in Kagawa to celebrate the doll and what she represents, including a play written by elementary school students about her trip to America and her return to Japan.
“I realized even more when we went over there how these dolls are a symbol of goodwill and a way to communicate and make friends and learn a little bit about each other’s cultures,” Bennett said. “Sometimes it’s the children that can bring it all together.”
Every generation as stewards of our natural and cultural heritage is challenged to preserve values that we hold dear and vital to our future well-being. In that spirit Miss Kagawa’s label and story exhorts us to never lose sight of our better instinct to ‘live and let live.’
Roy Campbell, director of exhibits, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences
Miss Kagawa is an oddity in a museum full of animals, both stuffed and real, and there had been talk over the years of moving her to the state museums of history or art or perhaps what is now Marbles Kids Museum.
But Campbell said she belongs in the science museum, if only because of that decision to leave her on display after Pearl Harbor. Museums are places people go in troubled times to find refuge and reassurance that our society is strong and will continue, he said, and that’s what Miss Kagawa represents today.
“This is part of the story of our museum,” he said. “She’s not just a doll.”
Miss Kagawa’s friends
Though few if any besides Miss Kagawa remained on display following Pearl Harbor, most of the 58 Japanese Friendship Dolls have survived. Doll enthusiast Bill Gordon of Connecticut has a page on his website, www.bill-gordon.net/dolls/, that lists the whereabouts of 46 of the dolls.
As for the 12,700 “blue-eyed dolls” that the Americans sent to Japan in the 1920s, the Japanese government ordered them destroyed after the war began. But not everyone complied, and about 300 of the dolls that were hidden away have surfaced over the years.