Nagoro’s Dolls of the Dead and Departed

"Hi, welcome to Scarecrow Village you guys"



“Eek-y-guy” is how you pronounce the Japanese word ikigai, which means having a sense of purpose.

For the Japanese jubilado Tsukimi Ayano, making scarecrows is her ikigai.

One afternoon last year around Hallowe’en, Lynn, Ward, Magellan and I found ourselves in the tiny village of Nagoro on the island of Shikoku in southern Japan where Tsukimi (and 34 other residents) live.

Tsukimi grew up in Nagoro, a lone-street village. In 2001 after living in Osaka for most of her adult life, she returned to care for her dying father. Fed up with crows pecking at the radish seeds in her garden, she made her first scarecrow. It was life-size and resembled her dad—she even dressed it in his clothes. As she told an NPR interviewer, it appeared so realistic that the neighbours thought it was her dad out farming and started up conversations with the scarecrow.

Tsukimi began thinking about Nagoro’s dead and departed. She had always been good at sewing, so why not create scarecrows in honour of all her family members? Soon she was making poignant dolls to resemble other villagers, too. I’m guessing about 100-150 mannequins were on display when we were there.

Click on the photos to see what we think the dolls would say if they could speak 

Tsukimi has turned Nagoro into a museum of motionless characters stopped dead in the fabric of their daily life, weirdly beautiful and often very droll.

Scarecrows tend potatoes they’ll never eat. Do schoolwork in a classroom they’ll never leave. (In 2012 after its last two pupils graduated, the school closed.) Wait for a bus they’ll never get on. Guard a village they can never protect.

As in many small farm villages in Japan, Nagoro has seen its young people leave for the animated bustle of city employment and entertainment, leaving behind mostly jubilados like Tsukimi, who at the age of 67 is one of the village’s youngest inhabitants. According to Japan’s Statistic Bureau, almost 27% of the country’s population is 65 or older (compared to 8% worldwide). In addition to immortalizing villagers who have died, Tsukimi creates dolls in the likeness of the young people who have left. She also sews made-to-order mannequins for those who want to bring back memories of loved ones, such as grandparents who once resided in Nagoro.

Beginning with a wooden base, Tsukimi uses newspaper, straw and cloth to fill out each scarecrow’s body. Often, the scarecrows are dressed in the villagers’ clothing or from hand-me-downs Tsukimi’s acquired. The mannequin—which are out in the sun and rain working the fields, fishing for trout and climbing trees—eventually succumb to the elements, so many of the scarecrows she’s created (400 as of 2016!) are replacements.

Each October the regional government sponsors a Scarecrow Festival in Nagoro for tourists. With her work as the artist, curator, registrar, caretaker and head of Nagoro’s Scarecrow Village, Tsukimi has an ikigai that gives her much pleasure. As it does to tourists like us stopping by for a glimpse of this graven homage to the dead.


Here’s the link to a short documentary about Tsukimi, The Valley of Dolls, made in 2014 by filmmaker Fritz Schumann.


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