Girls & Dolls

Happy Girl’s Day!

The third day of the third month is known in Japan as Hina Matsuri, Doll Festival, when the primitive ritual functions of dolls and the importance of the Heian era in Japanese culture are combined with a celebration of feminine qualities and a wish that little girls will develop them. Families with daughters pray for their health and future happiness, and celebrate with special foods, parties, and a display of traditional dolls in the best room of the house.

An older festival celebrated on this day is Momo-no-sekku, a peach blossom festival originating in China. Artificial or hothouse peach blossoms are an essential part of Hina Matsuri decoration – in Japan peach blossoms don’t appear for another month. They symbolise a happy marriage and the feminine traits of gentleness, composure and tranquillity.

In ancient times, dolls were believed to have the ability to contain evil spirits, and the beginning of Spring was a suitable time for a ritual to dispel the sickness and darkness of winter, combined with a day’s celebration in the open air for the whole community. Paper or straw dolls were sent out in boats to to carry away all the community’s ills and evils. Kyoto’s Shimogamo shrine still hosts an annual festival where dolls are put in boats and sent out to sea to pray for the safety of children.

The Hina Matsuri festival was legally established in 1687. During the Edo era (1603-1867)  a rich and sophisticated merchant class evolved with money to spend on leisure and entertainment, and festivals and celebrations became even more important. Over time, Japanese girls began to celebrate the day with gatherings of friends and special food, including colourful hina-arare rice crackers and hishi mochi, diamond-shaped rice cakes.

The historic origins of the festival are still honoured in the display set up in many Japanese homes with daughters. The dolls and their accessories are modelled on the Heian Imperial Court. Dolls representing the Emperor and Empress sit on the top tier of an elaborate red-carpeted stand in 12th-century Court dress. Three court ladies sit on the next tier down, with five male musicians, two ministers of State and three samurai on the three lower tiers. The two bottom tiers hold screens, lanterns, flowers, carriages, furniture and musical instruments. There are even miniature trays of food so that the Court can join the party.

A set of hina can contain 15 or more dolls. If the family doesn’t have an inherited set, or if a house has many elegant rooms and many daughters,  parents and grandparents of a newborn girl often buy  dolls as a gift for her, but these are not to be played with. They go on display from the end of February until 3 March, and are taken down immediately after the festival by the superstitious. Folk wisdom says that a girl whose dolls are left on display after Hina Matsuri may have a long wait to get married.

The more expensive sets are miniature works of classical art. Even the cheapest pop-culture editions follow the traditional form, though some are only three tiers high and others restrict the display to the Emperor and Empress dolls. These august personages have been played by pop culture icons including Hello Kitty and her boyfriend Daniel, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and the festival is referred to in many anime and manga, as well as in films and TV. Akira Kurosawa’s movie Dreams: Yume stresses the link between Japanese culture and the country’s natural environment. In one sequence, a little boy grieving over the loss of his family’s peach orchard is consoled when a group of hina dolls come to life and dance for him.

Boys can display dolls too, on Boy’s Day on May 5, but theirs are themed around the ancient attributes of masculinity, with horses, weapons, gods and heroes. What, I wonder, would be in a modern-day hina set to reflect 21st-century masculinity and femininity? It’s an interesting design challenge, but no modern decoration is likely to replace the traditional court of Imperial dolls in the near future.

If you want to celebrate Girl’s Day by sending a greeting to a friend, you can find the kanji for Girl’s Day, free to download in a variety of fonts, at The Japanese Connection.


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