A Dollmaker Brings Her Childhood to Life

In Michiko Ishii's world, you are always 7. It is always a golden summer afternoon, blessedly grown-up-free, leaving you to the real work of children everywhere: slaying monsters, playing princess, roughhousing.

At first glance, Mrs. Ishii's world looks like a small one. The dolls she makes of cement and wood stand barely 12 inches high, and she outfits them to represent young children in 1950s and '60s Japan.

But the scenes she creates with those figures - of play, of fights, of quiet time with Mom - resonate far beyond the confines of poor, postwar Japan. They have prompted letters from foreigners who recognize their own childhood, tears from older Japanese who see memory brought to life, and questions about Japan today.

"I asked myself, 'What's universal?' " says Ishii, a part-time aide to the elderly who began making dolls to share her early memories with her children. "I wanted to show people the childhood experiences that don't change: friendship, family, the kids in the neighborhood."

A warm, chatty woman, Ishii began dollmaking in 1991, working from photographs and memory. She held her first exhibit five years ago, and now draws immense crowds; 14,000 people thronged a recent Tokyo show. A group of supporters is building her a permanent gallery.

"I have no clue where I stand in terms of fame," Ishii says. "I just want people to laugh, and to feel something." She makes about 10 dolls a year, lovingly dressing them and creating their environments.

She portrays children playing on dirt roads in traditional geta sandals beside a fully stocked general store. Their hair is often russet-colored from malnutrition. The dolls are in historically accurate settings, but they transcend place and time.

All the disappointment of "The Lost Game" is clear when you see the long-faced little boys at the edge of a dirt field, their baseball gloves and bats at rest. Anyone can understand the hurt of two friends who have squabbled in "The Fight".

The detail and humor of Ishii's work evoke Norman Rockwell's rosy nostalgia. But the postwar setting gives her creations an added edge: They implicitly measure how far Japan has come in the last few decades and what the country and its children seem to have lost in the process.

These are questions that trouble Japan today, as it struggles with recession. A recent spate of violent crimes by children has also prompted widespread introspection about the way kids are raised and educated. Recess doesn't exist here, as parents prefer time be used for structured learning. Many children go from school to cram schools, and leisure time is often spent playing video games.

"Kids [then] had more time to learn how to live, how to express themselves, solve problems on their own," Ishii says. "Japanese parents take very good care of their kids, but maybe too good. They're overprotected now."

Ishii's own childhood was far from protected, and she has put herself in some of her funniest and fiercest scenes. "The Scuffle" shows a no-holds-barred tussle between a boy and the little girl Ishii used to be. Ishii sees fighting as a part of the way children learn about fairness, cooperation, and respect, and one suspects it was a common occurrence in the group home where she grew up.

She went there at age 4, after her mother died and her father remarried, but her memories of childhood are good. "It gave me a strong sense of what society means to people," she says. "Even when it's hard, childhood is a magic time."

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