Working alone Wednesday in the shadowy depths of the Putnam Museum in Davenport, a first-time visitor to the Quad-Cities felt at home, more than 6,000 miles from his native Japan.
It marked a reunion of sorts for Masaru Aoki, an expert doll conservator, and Miss Hokkaido — Iowa’s historic Japanese Friendship Doll.
“I met her in 1988,” said Aoki, a representative from the Yoshitoku Doll Company in Tokyo, who traveled here this week to assess the delicate artifact’s condition. “(She’s) very cute.”
The 32-inch doll, created almost 100 years ago in Japan, returned there temporarily in 1988 to be conserved. Draped in a silk kimono, the composite wood piece features human hair and glass eyes.
A passport that accompanies the doll, also known as Miss Hanako Hohkai, dates back to October 1927. Earlier that year, children in the U.S sent 12,739 blue-eyed dolls to Japan as a gesture of friendship. They arrived shortly before March 3, 90 years ago, for Hina Matsuri, the traditional Japanese doll festival.
In return, Japan sent 58 dolls to the U.S., 51 from the country’s states or provinces known as prefectures, six from large cities and one from the Empress. They were distributed throughout the states, including Iowa, where Miss Hokkaido landed at what then was called the Davenport City Museum in 1929.
Aoki’s notes showed that 11 of the Friendship Dolls since have gone missing. The majority of them, however, reside in public museums and libraries, while a small number have private owners.
The New York-based National Council of Churches of Christ initiated the cultural exchange in response to the Immigration Act of 1924, which prohibited East Asians from immigrating to the U.S.
Christina Kastell, curator of history and anthropology at the Putnam, called it a “valiant effort on both of their behalves.”
Although relations worsened dramatically during World War II, Kastell said the museum’s doll still serves its original purpose, more than 70 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“One of the missions of the Putnam is to connect people of the Quad-Cities with people and cultures of the world, so that’s her job for us,” Kastell continued. “She’s connecting Quad-Citians to Japan in a very real way.”
When the Putnam affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution in 2010, the governmental agency deemed Miss Hokkaido a National Treasure. The doll’s ensemble features dozens of miniature accessories, including a pair of tea sets, a lacquered chest of drawers and parasols.
For preservation purposes, the doll rarely leaves its protected space in the museum’s collection storage.
This past spring, however, the doll visited Adams Elementary School in Davenport. Now, the Putnam and Adams each plan to send an American Girl Doll to a school in Hokkaido, the most northerly of Japan’s four main islands.
“We’d like our kids to be able to Skype and talk with their kids,” Kastell said.
In the spring, the Putnam plans to exhibit Miss Hokkaido, along with Miss Miyagi, a fellow Japanese Friendship Doll on loan from a private collection in Kansas.
“We try to get her out every few years, but her silk is very fragile,” Kastell said. “We don’t want it to fade again, so we can’t have her out permanently.
“It’s that tightrope we have to walk all the time between preservation, exhibition and education.”
The museum requested Aoki’s presence here this week to prepare the doll for its upcoming show. On Wednesday morning, he positioned the relic on a work table in the museum’s basement and mended its slightly damaged left leg. He also restored the doll’s weathered clothing.
Earlier in the day, he surprised Putnam staff when he pressed against the doll’s belly, producing a squeaking sound.
“We had no idea she did that,” Kastell said.
The Putnam covered Aoki’s airfare and stay at the Isle Casino Hotel Bettendorf, but he is performing the work for free.
“I’m happy to handle the doll,” he said with a smile, later unveiling one condition. “I hope Ms. Hokaido will come back to Japan.”
“I’d be happy to bring her.”
Aoki is scheduled to speak this weekend at the Greater Kansas City Japan Festival before returning home.