A Mission of Friendship

With the arrival of many Japanese immigrants in the early 1900s, waves of discrimination and resentment began to surface in the United States. A number of notable events marked this anti-Japanese movement. Among them were the founding of the Asiatic Exclusion League, President Theodore Roosevelt’s "Gentlemen’s Agreement," the Alien Land Law in 1913, the defeat of a proposal for racial equality at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and President Calvin Coolidge’s signing of the Immigration Act of 1924 which ended Japanese immigration to the United States.

In the midst of these anti-Japanese sentiments, one person, particularly sensitive to the plight of Japanese Americans, made his voice heard--Dr. Sidney Gulick--an American missionary and an antiwar activist who had lived in Japan for twenty years. Familiar with the Japanese culture, Dr. Gulick knew that Japanese children had a special love for dolls. So in 1926, in what became a monumental gesture of good will, Dr. Gulick established the Committee on World Friendship Among Children and began a mission of friendship which involved sending dolls from America to Japan.

This project received an overwhelming response from Americans, exceeding Dr. Gulick’s grandest expectations. Over 2 million people supported the idea, donating and collecting money to buy dolls, making tiny clothes to dress the dolls in, and then writing letters to Japanese children to send with the dolls. Among those involved were churches, Sunday schools, public schools, parent-teacher associations, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, women’s societies, and volunteer organizations throughout the United States. In total, 12,739 Friendship Dolls were made and sent to Japan. Each doll had its own passport, train and boat tickets, and handwritten letters. They were also named and given a place of birth by the giver. All of the dolls carried a message that read: "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 Girls’ Festival in your country."

Before being sent off to Japan, the dolls were given special going-away parties. When the American dolls arrived in Japan, just in time for the Girls’ Festival, Hina Matsuri, where dolls become a centerpiece of the celebration, they were welcomed with great anticipation and enthusiasm. In the spring of 1927, when the Ministry of Education distributed the dolls to schools throughout Japan, elaborate ceremonies took place to greet these dolls and welcome them to their new homes. Children were struck by the appearance of the dolls, particularly their blue eyes and their American clothing. A children’s song, "The Doll with Blue Eyes," became popular because of these new "celebrities."

In the Japanese tradition of reciprocation, preparations immediately began to send Japanese dolls to America to express their deep gratitude for the dolls and the spirit of good will which accompanied them. Only the very best doll makers were recruited for this project, resulting in 58 Torei Ningyo (Dolls of Gratitude). Most of these dolls were named after the 47 Japanese prefectures, and 6 dolls bore the names of the largest Japanese cities. Each doll was 90 centimeters tall, had black eyes, and was adorned with exquisite accessories. The dolls traveled with passports, steamship tickets, letters from children, and a booklet about Japanese children and dolls’ tea parties.

After their initial arrival in San Francisco, the dolls traveled to various ceremonies in other cities, including Washington D.C. and New York. Like their American counterparts, the Japanese dolls were given welcomes befitting foreign dignitaries. Eventually, the dolls were exhibited in museums and public libraries around the country with each state receiving at least one doll.

Sadly, when World War II began, dolls in both countries were perceived as symbols of the enemy, and as a result, many were burned, stabbed, mistreated, or disposed of. Fortunately, some citizens, Japanese and American, could not bring themselves to destroy them, remembering their message of friendship, and saved the dolls by hiding them. Because of efforts like these, 233 of the American-made dolls survived the war. Of the 58 Japanese-made dolls, 41 have surfaced in museums and private collections.

From July 27th through October 13th, 2002, the Japanese American National Museum featured twelve of the Japanese and American-made dolls in Passports to Friendship: Celebrating 75 Years of U.S.-Japan Friendship Doll Exchange. It is the hope of the National Museum that the exhibition will convey the story of children communicating with each other, overcoming the boundaries of their countries and the geographical distance between them, and to learn about the importance of understanding themselves and the world in which they live.

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