TsukuBlog

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

A Closer Look at the Evolution of Japan`s HINA DOLLS and the Hina Matsuri Festival

Antique Hina Dolls (dating from the late Edo Period) on display in Makabe, near Tsukuba

In the Kansai Region (Kyoto, Osaka, etc.) the male is on the left and the female on the right- this is the traditional way. In the Kanto Area (in which Tokyo and Tsukuba are located) the Male is on the right- the position the Japanese Emperor took after moving to Tokyo from Kyoto (and following European custom)

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.

Hina Dolls

In order 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 Doll hanging scroll at a home 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 a t a home in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture

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.

A pair of 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 -motifed 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).
Hina Dolls made out of scraps of kimono cloth (Hojo, Tsukuba)

Hina Dolls made out of scraps of kimono cloth (Hojo, Tsukuba)

Same dolls from behind

Same dolls from behind

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.

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 eveolved out of paper HITOGATA such as these- used for waping away impurities and casting into the water

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 AGE purification (YAKUBARAI)

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 Hotel 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.

3,000 year-old DOGU figurine unearthed in Nagano Prefeture. Perhaps these ‘dolls’ were used in the same way as HITOGATA – to cast away impurities and bad luck

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 off downstream after having been cast off

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 ( Standing Hina Dolls) 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 Museum of History in Sakura City, Chiba Prefecture). This was normal pracitce in Wakayama Prefecture until made illegal in recent years

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.

When there is not enough time ( or energy) to put away the dolls right after the festival ( as required by tradition) the dolls might just be TURNED AROUND like this

When families are too busy to put their elaborate doll sets away ( as they traditionally should) they sometimes just TURN THEM AROUND like this

A boxed lunch (bento) with a Hina Matsuri Motif



One Comment

  • alice says:

    Sorry, I couldn’t help laughing when I saw the dolls’ backs turned. It’s like they turned their backs on me. Is that obento yours?