The History and Tradition of Japanese Hina Dolls

October 04, 2012

Japanese hina dolls, or hina ningyo, are often seen during the “Hinamatsuri” festival, literally “dolls’ festival” and celebrated as Girls’ Day. Held on the 3rd day of the 3rd month, the festival dates back to the Heian period (794 – 1185), and is dedicated exclusively to dolls representing the Imperial court in Heian period dress.

Hina dolls at Haneda Airport

Families begin to display their hina dolls in February and take them down immediately after the festival, as superstition contends that displaying the dolls after the 3rd of March may indicate that in the future, the daughter of the family will encounter difficulties in finding a suitable husband to marry.

Hinamatsuri is celebrated as a way for families to carefully ensure that bad spirits are kept at bay. It was believed that the dolls themselves could become receptacles for a daughter’s troubles, in a sense, removing the troubles from their life to allow them to live happily. In ancient times, straw hina dolls were placed atop waterways in a small vessel and sent forth from the river to the sea, taking the troubles along with them to a place far away where they could cause no further harm. This practice was known as “Hina-nagashi” and is to this day, is still celebrated at the Shimogamo Shine (part of the Kamo Shrine complex in Kyoto) where dolls are sent to float out to sea, in prayer for the continued safety of children everywhere. Another type of dolls are “kazari-bina” which are dolls for display on tiered platforms, given as a gift to daughters getting married.

The main centrepiece of the celebrations of “Hinamatsuri” today revolves around a special display of dolls of significance ? dolls which represent the Emperor, Empress, their attendants and musicians all wearing traditional court dress of the Heian period. These dolls, which are wooden in construction, are placed on platforms usually of either three, five or seven tiers covered in red cloth. The top platform is reserved for the most senior of the imperial dolls, the Emperor holding a ritual baton known as a “shaku” with his Empress grasping a fan between her fingers, in front of a screen of gold with green trees at their sides.

The second tier of the platform holds three court ladies, each with sake equipment along with circular table-tops for seasonal sweets to be placed upon. The third platform of the display is the place where five male musician dolls, known as “gonin bayashi” are placed. Each of the musicians holds their own musical instrument (a small drum, a larger drum, a hand drum and a flute), with the singer holding a fan. On the fourth platform two ministers are displayed, one young and one older, often equipped with bows and arrows. In the middle of the two ministerial figures are covered bowl tables and diamond-shaped stands topped with diamond-shaped ricecakes. The fifth platform holds three samurai, whose role it is to protect the Emperor and Empress, whilst on the sixth and seventh tiers a range of miniature furniture, such as chests, storage boxes, mirrors and tools may be placed.

As with most festivals, distinctive food and drink have a role to play in Hinamatsuri. The customary drink for the festival is known as “Shirozake” ? a sake made from fermented rice. Small rice crackers flavoured with either soy sauce or sugar, as well as diamond-shaped rice cakes are often consumed with this. In addition, a salty soup made with clams still in their shells is often enjoyed at this time. This dish is thought to be quintessential to the idea behind the festival, as the clam shells by their very nature (being that the pair of shells fit together perfectly) symbolise the peace and unity that a married couple hopes to experience throughout their lives.

There are many different types of dolls in Japanese culture, all of which hold special significance. To find out more about this tradition, look through the dolls section on

The post The History and Tradition of Japanese Hina Dolls appeared first on Sakura Ave.

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