Sidney Gulick, a former US missionary, was devastated by the impact of the Immigration Act of 1924, which banned Japanese immigration to the US. Seeking a way to maintain close relations with Japan, he arranged a gift of almost 13,000 dolls to be sent from US children to Japanese children in 1927. In Japan, dolls are often seen as traditional symbols of good luck or health, and are even said to have their own souls. The US dolls arrived just in time for Hina-matsuri, Japan’s doll festival, and became well-known throughout the country. Japan quickly responded by tasking its best doll makers to craft and send a reciprocal gift of 58 dolls, representing different Japanese prefectures and territories.
Exactly 90 years later, the American cities that received the dolls are celebrating the anniversary of the exchange. Rochester, New York, which received Miss Nagasaki, is hosting a month long museum exhibition and several special events highlighting the importance of the friendship doll exchange, as well as the people-to-people connections it inspired. Rochester has commemorated the event through its International Friendship Dolls Exchange Day, and invited a survivor of the 1945 atomic bombing of Nagasaki, as well as Gulick’s grandson, to speak. Since 2003, Miss Nagasaki has returned several times to her home prefecture in trips organized by the Nagasaki Friendship Doll Association, to help spread the message of US-Japan friendship, as Gulick originally hoped.
New York currently maintains seven sister city relationships with cities in Japan, including one between Rochester and Hamamatsu. Aside from the friendship doll, New York is also home to several cherry blossom trees donated by Japan, as well as a variety of traditional Japanese gardens and art museums. Japan has become an increasingly popular interest in New York, as evidenced by these cultural links and the growing number of colleges with Japan Studies programs. This is thanks in no small part to exchanges like those of the friendship dolls, as well as a number of educational initiatives sponsored by the Japanese government to help people-to-people ties between Japan and America continue to develop.
Savannah Shih is a research intern at the East-West Center and a graduate student of Asian Studies at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.