When the president of that doll club heard about a convention to be held in 1997 by J.A.D.E. (Japanese-Asian Doll Enthusiasts) celebrating the 70th anniversary of an exchange project, she suspected a connection to Mary Louise's treasures. Mary Louise called the contact person, explaining that she had sent a Friendship Doll to Japan in 1927, and wondered if this was somehow related to their conference.
"Hello? Are you there?"
"Yes, yes," the woman, Peg, exclaimed, "I can hardly believe this! None of us has actually met anyone who sent one of those dolls over to Japan. This is incredible! Our conference focuses on the Torei Ningyo, which means 'return dolls.' They are the reciprocal Friendship Dolls sent to the U.S. from Japan."
Mary Louise hadn't even known about them.
(Detail) Miss Tokushima, Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, Spokane, WA
(Image by Alan Scott Pate) Details DMCA
Peg continued, "In the 1920's, in response to the United State's termination of Japanese immigration, Dr. Sidney Gulick, a former missionary to Japan, developed what he called a 'quiet educational campaign.' He organized an initiative in which 12,739 'blue-eyed dolls,' like yours, traveled by steamship to Japan with their trunks of handsewn travel clothes, 'passports' and handwritten letters of introduction. It was an amazing, grass-roots friendship gesture. Many churches were involved, and nearly every school in Japan received a doll.
"In response, more than two million Japanese schoolchildren contributed a half penny each to support the creation of the 58 'return dolls,' one from each of the main geographical areas of Japan. Each of these magnificent dolls was 32 inches tall with human hair and a kimono made of the finest silk. Artisans created them with exquisite craftsmanship. In Japan, dollmaking is a revered craft, over 1000 years old. They believe that these dolls are more than toys, and that they are invested with a soul at the time that they are given eyes -- therefore they are truly ambassadors.
"When the dolls arrived they visited with Americans at receptions in over 450 cities before being placed in museums. Of the original 58, 39 have been located so far, and our doll group is still searching for the rest. Even though these 'return dolls' are the main subject of our conference, they were given to the U.S. in response to the gift of American dolls like the one that you sent."
When Peg told the other event co-ordinators about the phone call, they begged Mary Louise to attend the conference as a presenter.
At the event Mary Louise shared her experiences with an excited audience. Then Yu Kano, who was producing a Japanese television documentary about the project, invited Mary Louise and her husband to Japan so she could be interviewed there for the show. He even managed to locate the school that had received Mary Louise's doll 70 years earlier.
"What an exciting trip!" Mary Louise said. "When we visited the school I met five alumni who were there when my doll arrived. When I shared the contents of my treasure box with them, an 82-year-old gentleman stared at one of the drawings with tears in his eyes. He had drawn it when he was in eighth grade. They identified the names on the other drawings and letters, reminiscing about their childhood friends. And an elderly woman excitedly recognized one of the letters as the one she had written so long ago."
'Blue Eyed Doll' by Madame Hendron, circa 1926, Alan Scott Pate Collection
(Image by Alan Scott Pate) Details DMCA
The doll Mary Louise had sent to the school was missing, as are most of the "blue eyed dolls," destroyed during World War II. But a few dolls escaped-- a neighboring school had just rediscovered their Friendship Doll during reorganization of their warehouse. Fifty years earlier it had been carefully wrapped and hidden.
Mary Louise noted, "The school still had a photo of the doll that I had sent. I stared hard at the little bonnet and jacket. My mother had surely sewn them, and somehow the care that the school had given this aged photo helped me feel a special connection to her."
Mary Louise mused, "It is such marvelous serendipity that my box of treasures, forgotten for so many decades, could miraculously surface and be the link in so many lives! It's the people-to-people gestures that change the world, and I'm so grateful for my opportunity to participate in this extraordinary exchange -- it has enriched my life in so many extraordinary ways."
These dolls, with their souls shining through their eyes, continue their ambassadorship, even now. After the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the Milwaukee Public Museum exhibited its Friendship Doll, Miss Ibaraki, for the first time since 2008. The Ibaraki prefecture was one of the areas most devastated, and Miss Ibaraki was displayed alongside a collection station, where visitors could make donations toward relief work.