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Japanese Tradition in Bloom in Potomac

When the Smithsonian needs advice on Japanese dolls, it calls Akiko Keene.

The Saturday morning doll-making class in Akiko Keene’s basement studio is usually from 10 a.m. to noon.

In the weeks leading up to the National Cherry Blossom Festival, it stretches until 4 p.m. or later, as students help prepare dolls and accessories to sell at the Japanese street fair that concludes the festival, April 8 this year.

They won’t make a dime from the sales and neither will Keene: the money is donated to the Japan-America Society for scholarships and education.

Students’ devotion to Keene is obvious. She is among the leading authorities on Japanese doll-making outside of Japan, yet she charges less for an hour of instruction than the cost of a Frappuccino.

Many students have been coming to Keene’s classes for five or 10 years. Around the long oval table — surrounded by doll posters and calligraphy hangings and boxes of washi paper — the atmosphere is more family than class.

“Anybody who comes here never leaves. That’s how it is,” said Nandhini Kuntipuram, who lives in Reston, Va. and develops software for the Washington Hospital Center.

Kuntipuram found Keene on the Internet.

“I sent her an e-mail and she sent me a nice e-mail back,” Kuntipuram said. “She said, ‘Oh we have a class I want you to come take a look at my class, see if you like it.’”

That was six years ago, and Kuntipuram is a relative novice. Several of the 12 students present April 1 had studied with Keene since the mid-90s.

One student, Joy Aso of Montgomery Village, started in 1986.

“She really enjoys people. She loves dolls. She loves teaching. And because she loves it so much and she enjoys it so much, she wants to share it with others,” Aso said of Keene, who students call sensei, the Japanese honorific for teacher. “It’s not work to her. It’s fun.”

Keene, 63, grew up on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu.

“All the women have some hobby. I did flower arranging, koto music since I was a little girl,” Keene said.

As a college student in 1963, she and four college friends attended a free lecture on kimekomi doll-making at a Tokyo department store.

Kimekomi dolls are traditional crafts dating to the mid-19th century. They have solid bodies made from cork-like Paulownia wood and are clothed by gluing fabrics directly onto the figure’s surface.

“The only reason I started making kimekomi dolls was because sewing was not required,” Keene wrote in an on-line essay, but “the more I made these dolls, the more enjoyable it became.”

She attended a three-year course at the Tokyo Doll School, earning a teaching certificate. In 1968, she married David Keene, an air force lieutenant. The couple moved to Maryland. and Akiko Keene started teaching informal classes out of their home.

During the next 10 years, they lived the transient life of a military family, with stints in Maryland, Alabama, and Okinawa, Japan, where David Keene was commander of Kadena Air Force Base, before returning to the Washington area.

Along the way, Akiko Keene had two children and picked up a certificate as an expert in kimonos and an associate professor degree from the Japan Doll Teachers Association.

In 1979, Keene reopened her doll school and then moved to Potomac. In 1982 she earned the title of Gago — master professor — the highest degree in doll-making.

“It’s equivalent to a doctorate in doll-making,” Aso said. “She never stops learning.”

Keene is a consultant to the Smithsonian on Japanese dolls and her own dolls have been displayed in galleries and museums.

But she thrives on the basement classes, on the lectures she gives, and on events like the street fair at the Cherry Blossom Festival, where she can share her craft with others — and let them share with her.

“It’s something beautiful, human. The people who like doll-making are people, usually very kind, good-hearted people. Because you’re looking at the human body. People who are mean-hearted or busy or doesn’t think about other people, I don’t think they like to make dolls. They wouldn’t find beauty in the dolls,” Keene said.

She recalled a student who seemed ready to try for a doll-making certificate when the quality of her work dropped off precipitously.

“She told me she was having problems at home. And it’s really reflected in the doll,” Keene said. “Patience, concentration and most of all your heart is important.”

Keene’s students range in age from 16 to 94. They come from throughout the Washington area and as far away as Philadelphia and Spotsylvania, Va.

The students are mostly women. Present at the April 1 class were two natives of Japan, one Japanese-American, and an American who formerly taught English in Japan, but also Kuntipuram, who is from India, two Korean sisters and a teaching assistant from Spain. There were several retirees, a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law from Arlington, and a rocket scientist from Laurel.

Students enjoy shaping the dolls and admiring the results, but “It’s also the social interaction,” Aso said. “I think for a lot of us, that’s a big part of this. You get to meet women from different backgrounds—whether it be ethnic, cultural, professional, that sort of thing.”

There are men, too. Scott Kniffin, the 34-year-old rocket scientist (he works for the Goddard Space Flight Center) simply wanted to buy one of the kimekomi dolls he had seen on a calendar in a Japanese restaurant. He contacted Keene and learned about the classes.

“Why should I buy one of these dolls when I can make one myself?” he recalled thinking. “I’ve been making presents for my entire family ever since.”

When colleagues mock his interest in dolls, Kniffin is quick to point out that kimekomi-making is a historically male art in Japan. But work is the last thing on Kniffin’s mind on Saturday mornings.

“[It’s] very relaxing. It’s about as far removed from my day job as anything could possibly be. So it’s perfect. It’s a great thing,” he said.

WHAT IS KIMEKOMI?

The Japanese word kimekomi derives from the words meaning "wood grain" and "insertion."

Kimekomi dolls date back to the middle of the Edo period, some 260 years ago, when a Shinto priest in Kyoto is said to have carved a doll from a fallen willow limb.

The solid-bodied dolls (distinct from Oyama dolls and other types made with thread or straw-stuffed bodies) are made from a malleable mixture of paulownia tree sawdust and glue. Doll-makers shape the substance into the doll forms. The outer surface is then sanded smooth and the doll's clothing is applied taut across the wood surface by pushing it into small grooves with a knife-like tool.

The cloth never hangs loose on a kimekomi doll and the wood surface may not show. Thus the shape of the figure itself must include the effect of, say, a flowing kimono. The dolls are adorned with colorful accessories like fans and umbrellas.

Beginning and intermediate kimekomi doll-makers work from kits that provide molded but unfinished figures. Only the most advanced doll-makers design and shape their dolls from raw paulownia.