A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

The Evolution of Japan`s Hina Dolls (雛人形)- a deeper look

 Hina Doll Set in the Lobby of Tsukuba`s Okura Hotel

By Avi Landau 

If you are interested in Japanese culture, February is a good time to be invited into Japanese homes. Hotel lobbies, community centers and department stores  can also be interesting at the same time of year. This is because, traditionally, from early to mid-February through March 3rd, Japanese people take their HINA DOLLS, in all their variety, out of storage, and put them on display. These past few weeks I have seen and photographed a wide spectrum of these popular festive decorations, from enormous and elaborate ( and extremely expensive!) multi-level sets, to tiny, hand-made origami ( folded paper) dolls. Many families have put out more than one set, and then, other Hina Doll decorations, for example hanging scrolls or paintings, as well.

To simply explain what this custom is all about, Japanese friends will tell you that these dolls are meant to celebrate daughters-  and represent a prayer for their healthy growth and a happy marriage in the future. They will also probably tell you that these dolls should be PUT AWAY right after the Hina Festival, which is on March 3rd. The reason for this  is that there has long been the belief that if a family does not put the dolls away promptly, their daughters will not be able to find a  husband.

 Hina Dolls on a Hanging Scroll in Tsukuba


The fact is, however, that now, customs are changing. Even families without daughters might display dolls. In families with only sons ( or no children at all ), these are often the mother`s own Hina Dolls  brought from her parents home. Then there are those without family who simply like to decorate their apartments with Hina Doll motifs just to get into the spirit of the season.

 Interesting Dolls at a home in Matsudo


There are also many families with daughters these days who do NOT follow the custom of promptly putting the dolls away. Either they are too busy to do so, or they just like to keep them out on display. Anyway, they are not worried about the old superstition. Thus, you might find dolls still on display at people homes throughout march. For more on this read my past post: http://blog.alientimes.org/2008/03/tsukubans-in-no-rush-to-pack-up-hina-dolls/ .

What Japanese friends will probably not tell you ( because they might not know!), is about the amazing evolution of this beautiful custom and about how dolls, or figurines have been so important in Japan for millenia as SCAPEGOATS used for taking on the impurities and bad energies of  humans.

First lets look at why there is a festival held on March 3rd.

In ancient China, the first DAY OF THE SNAKE of the 3rd month ( in the Chinese calendar there is a 12 day cycle  with each day representing an animal of the zodiac) was a day for ritual purification known in Japanese as JOSHI NO SEKKU 上巳の節句 (which is still an alternate name for the Hina Doll festival in Japan).

These symbolic ablutions were performed by a pond or a river, with water and rice wine being used to cleanse the mouth hands and feet. 

 Hina Doll motif chocolates


The day for performing these rituals eventually changed to the 3rd day of the 3rd month according to the Chinese calendar. This is because for the Chinese, ODD NUMBERS were considered lucky, thus making 3/3 an auspicious day. The 3rd day of the 3rd month became one of the five seasonal change days, called SEKKU ( all on odd numbered days of odd months), which were celebrated ( in China , and later in Japan) with special rituals and foods. These days are the seventh day of the first month ( 1/7), the third day of the third month ( 3/3), the fifth day of the fifth month ( 5/5), the seventh day of the seventh month ( 7/7), and the ninth day of the ninth month ( 9/9)

 It became customary on this day ( 3/3)  for Chinese aristocrats to hold poetry parties by artificial streams. A bowl would be floated down the stream with a cup of wine . Participants sitting at various points downstream, would have to compose and recite a poem before the bowl reached them. This was an elegant and cultured festival game, played under the peach blossoms which bloomed in April( the month on the Gregorian Calendar which usually corresponds to the 3rd Chinese month).

 This is significant because the Japanese Doll Festival is still strongly associated with PEACH BLOSSOMS ( another alternate name for the festival in Japan is the Peach Festival and little peach trees are part of the full doll sets). Strangely, however, since 1873, when the Japanese changed their calendar, the Peach Festival has been celebrated in March ( the new 3rd month), making it fall about one month before the arrival of the actual peach blossoms- see my article:http://blog.alientimes.org/2009/03/where-are-the-real-blossoms-at-peach-festival-time/

 HITOGATA figurines at the Nara Culture Center


These Chinese customs were adopted by the aristocracts and noblity of Japan , probably in the Nara Period ( 710-794), when everything Chinese was the rage, and certainly by sometime in the Heian Period ( 794-1185). Thus, each of the seasonal change days ( SEKKU) was recognized and celebrated by the Japanese court.

However, as with so much else which came from China, customs evolved and blended with native Japanese traditions.

 Today`s Hina Dolls evolved from HITOGATA such as these


In Japan, the ritual cleansings  for the 3rd day of the 3rd month were performed in a typical and very ancient Japanese way- by rubbing the body with human shaped figurines made of paper, straw, clay or wood. These were called KATASHIRO or HITOGATA, and were believed to have the power to absorb all spiritual impurites and bad energies.

 Straw figurine used for UNLUCKY YEAR purification ( yakuharai 厄払い)


The Japanese have used figurines in this way for thousands of years. The clay figurines called DOGU, commonly found at JOMON period ( 10,000 BC-300 BC) archaeological sites, are believed to have been used for similar ritual purposes,  as surrogates to take on sickness or bad luck  before being smashed, to rid the individual or community of these evils.

Paper Hina Dolls at the Okura in Tsukuba


For the purification on the 3rd day of the 3rd month ( the Peach Festival) ,  however, under the influence of the Chinese poetry recitings by the stream, the KATASHIRO figures were cast off onto rivers or ponds, sending away impurites and bad luck.

DOGU figurine found at a Jomon Period site in Nagano Prefecture


From the literature of the Heian Perod, we also know that there were dolls for play ( not for ritual use), which were called HIINA ( at that time meaning little things), and were a male- female pair. It is possible that these were based on, or derived from the HITOGATA used for ritual purposes. It is the name of these play dolls, in shortened form HINA, which came to be used for the Peach Festival dolls. ( and thus we can see a blending of the two streams- the ritual dolls and the play dolls). 

(It is very important to keep in mind that at this early stage, the Peach Festival, the day for ritual cleansings with the HITOGATA was NOT yet thought of as GIRLS DAY, and the ceremony was carried out for both sexes.

No one is exactly sure when, but probably in the Edo Period, the seasonal change day on the 3rd day of the third month became associated with girls, while that of the 5th day of the fifth month became so for boys.

The rationalization for doing this can be seen in GORO AWASE ( association by similarity in shape or sound) which is so important in Japanese culture.

Simply stated the JOーSHI of JOーSHI NO SEKKU( First Day of the Snake, the original name of thr festival) was similar in sound to the word JOSHI 女子, which means female, while the SHOBU of SHOBU NO SEKKU ( which is a plant,calamis, used for ritual ablutions on the 5th day of the fifth month) is a homophone for sho-bu 勝負, which means TO BATTLE, which was associated with boys of the samurai class.)

The ritual dolls themselves then came to be more decorative, dressed in kimono etc., and children would sleep with them the night before they were cast off ( letting impurities be drawn out overnight!).

 Nagashi-Bina dolls floating away on a stream


By the Muromachi Period ( 1336-1573) beautiful Hina Dolls were being made for the aristocracy using new techniques imported from China. They were posed in a standing position ( Tachi-Bina)

Tachi-Bina in Tsukuba


It was only  later, in the Edo Period ( 1600-1868), that Japan`s craftmen created the elaborate Hina Dolls, which we know today, for a growing merchant class which could afford them, as well as for the warrior class and the aristocracy. There were special doll markets held in Edo, at tfor restraint and modesty during the festival.

 Still throughut the Edo Peiod Hina Dolls were mostly sold and displayed in Edo (Tokyo), and other major cultual and commercial centers.

It was not until the Meiji Period ( beginning in 1868) that the custom of displaying Hina Dolls became universal throughout Japan.

Even with the creation of the elaborate sets, which represented an Imperial wedding procession, the Japanese believed that each years impurities were absorbed by the dolls.

Interestingly, the custom of putting away the dolls right after the festival, is probably a replacement for the casting dolls off into the rivers. Naturally, the expensive sets could not be thrown away each year.

Hina dolls being cast off in a ship- at the National History Museum in Sakura, Chiba Prefecture

Through the 3rd of March you will be able to have a look at the various types of Hina Dolls at several locations near Tsukuba- most famously in Makabe  ( Sakuragawa City) which holds what is something like a town-wide open house for doll viewing.Some of the dolls are more than 150 years old.


  • Tomoko Seto says:

    Hallo Avi sensei.
    Today is” Usui”.
    I wrote the previous comment, “Usui” is one of the day of Hina- dolls decorate.
    I know Hina-dolls means scapegoat.
    When a child suffers from a smallpox, his(hers)parents ask God of smallpox. to get better soon.
    The God of smallpox is KATASHIRO or HITOGATA.
    After the recovery, his(hers)parents are grateful for God and flow a river.

  • Mamoru Shimizu says:

    Thank you for sound information about Hinamatsuri, I didn’t know many aspects Avi-san wrote, its history, meaning, even trend of nowadays.

    My memory of Hinamatsuri began back to when I was a Kindergarten boy around 1950. My eldest sister 8 years older than me had her own full set of Ohinasama made before WWⅡ, I don’t know why they survived because at the War end our house in Nakano Tokyo was burned by the Air-raid, at the time our family was evacuated to the village near lake Inawashiro in Fukushima prefecture, there I met with child bear in the entrance of the old farmers store house where we lived and that was my only clear memory. May be the Ohinasama-set was brought with us, like albums of family what were to be thought very important for us even those were not necessary for our life over there.
    Display of those set looked very gorgeous for even naughty boy, especially the sward of the Load took my interest very much. I could pull the blade from the sheath, it was made with workmanship.Holding that tiny sword I felt I was Samurai.
    For Japanese boys of those era (around 1950) Chanbara-gokko(sward playing) was one of the most popular hobbies, like Menko(a game of slapping a pasteboard card down on the ground in order to turn over to turn over that of opponent),Begoma(fight of tops made of iron) etc.
    I think the Ohinasama-set traveled several times according to my fathers transfer until my sister’s marriage, except spring time they were covered by soft paper and kept in boxes. She already passed away when she was 59 in Tokyo. I don’t know where her Ohinasama gone. Just in my memory….

    I have two daughters and when they were born my parent gave them Standing Dairisama pair set. As I had been working as public servant my family changed living place 6 times and always lived in tiny houses, my parent wisely thought it would be easy to keep a simple pair. Those went with my daughters as they married and have their homes.

    We haven’t presented our two grand-daughters any Ohinasama set, just thought they have plenty of dolls they love and their home have not have spare space. They are busy of everyday life, swimming, tromboneing, catting, game-machining, Kumon-studying, English conversation classing etc. They only wore Kimonos at the time of 7-5-3 festival.
    We think we are better take them Manabe-Hinamaturi near future.

    I think this is one few example how traditional aspects fading especially people living in urban area.

  • alice says:

    I am confused. Some sites say that the Emperor and Empress sit on the top tier but others day it’s the Prince and Princess. Which is which?

  • alice says:

    I am confused. Some sites say that the Emperor and Empress sit on the top tier but others say it’s the Prince and Princess. Which is which?

  • Avi says:

    Hi, all of you Tsukublog readers out there, wherever you may be.
    Im not sure when my next posting will be ( for the last couple of nights I`ve reposted my old articles). I am now at the hospital ( Tsukuba`s Medical Center) and will be having surgery tomorrow. I hope to be back online soon, but…….

    Anyway I will sure have alot to write about. The hospital experience itself has so far been amazing!

    Just one little tidbit ( I am in too much pain to write more than a few lines).
    The nursing staff, as part of the pre-operative procedures, came by to clean my belly button (HESO), of all things. One of the nurses filled it ( mine is an inny) with olive oil. They waited for a bit and then wiped it with a swab expecting to remove the grime but were surprised to find that my navel was spotlessly clean.

    They asked me if foreigners cleaned their belly buttons. I told them I couldnt speak for all foreigners, by I never heard of NOT cleaning it.

    Apparently in Japan, there has long been the belief that cleaning out your navel is not good for your health!
    Could there be a connection with the belief that when lightning flashes you should cover up your HESO?

    As soon as I recover from surgery I will tell you,along with lots of other interesting stuff about Tsukuba, and Japan.

  • alice says:

    Don’t worry about posting. Have a good rest first. Hope and pray that you’ll have a speedy recovery. I’ve gone through many surgeries before. You’ll be all right.
    If I am not mistaken, the Chinese believe that if you clean the grime from your navel, wind will enter through it.