Hina Matsuri III

Japan's Festival Calendar: March 3 - A Doll's Life 雛祭り

Hina-Matsuri: The Soul of the Japanese Doll Back to previous Hina Matsuri article

Jono David

Hina Matsuri Dolls, Japan

A woman strokes her dolls with the affection of a mother for a child and with the sadness of one who has just lost a dear friend.

She then lays each to rest in a casket-like collection bin to make an offering to the Gods.

Turning to me she says, "It's sad." But the dolls were her granddaughter's. She then caresses the dolls for luck.

"I feel a little guilty too, I suppose," she laments.

But does her granddaughter share in the sense of loss? "No. She's nine and she says she's too big for dolls now."

Since I came to Japan in 1994, I have been intrigued by Japanese dolls. I made my discovery in the unlikeliest of places the garbage. I was out looking for used furniture, a table or a TV perhaps. Instead, I came face-to-face with not only a rich aspect of Japanese culture, but the discarded soul of an unwanted figure.

Hina Matsuri Doll Festival

When I collected my first doll, however, little did I realise I was rescuing a spirit. I just thought it looked nice. It was just so, well, Japanese.

The young woman's porcelain face seemed to smile at me. The floral kimono flowed about her feet. She was in perfect condition, neatly preserved in a glass case. No way could I let that beautiful thing be thrown out.

But now, before the doll Gods, I share in the grandmother's loss. Dolls after all, are no mere things in Japan, but members of the family, adopted to offer their human-like forms as hosts for the spirits and sins of their owners.

Hina matsuri, Dolls Festival, Japan.
Hina Festival, Dolls Festival

Awashima Shrine Kada

Awashima Shrine in Kada, near Wakayama City, central Japan, receives dolls from people who cannot discard their souls to the rubbish pile on the corner.

For believers, dolls are proxies employed to pray for forgiveness and absolution. They are, if you will, a sort of elixir. By breathing on or stroking the dolls, much as the woman before the shrine, sinners infect the dolls with their own wrongdoings or ills. Traditionally, one then casts the dolls off into the nearest running water to drift as far away as possible.

This nagare, or flow, symbolising the flow of life, ritually bathes the doll, cleansing and purifying the soul of the owner. Today, Awashima Shrine still practices this exorcism.

Just why Awashima Jinja became a doll repository may be explained in legend and a complex history. Early in the third century Empress Jingu was sailing home from battle in Korea when her ship was overwhelmed by a storm in nearby Kataura Bay.

With the help of the gods, the winds steered her vessel to Tamoga-shima Island where she found a small shrine to the God of Medicine. Emperor Nintoku moved the shrine to its present location in the fourth century. Awashima Shrine's most important annual festival, the Hina Matsuri (Dolls Festival), is connected to these events.

Origins of Hina Matsuri

The Doll Festival was derived from a Chinese purification ceremony held along a river in the third lunar month in which courtiers exorcised the impurities of diviners, transferred their sins to paper images, and tossed them into a river or sea. This cleansing ceremony was in itself a sort of medicinal remedy.

The exact origins of Hina Matsuri, however, are murky. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that there are several conflicting accounts of its precise origin.

What is known is that the festival dates to at least the Fujiwara Period (854-1166) when playing with dolls is known to have been a pastime. That doll-playing graduated into something ritualistic demands a deeper understanding.

Japanese, who historically regard the Emperor as a God, created the Hina Doll display as a means of expressing a deep loyalty to and affection for the Imperial Court. The exhibition is a veritable palace in miniature, complete with courtiers, attending equerries, ladies-in-waiting, musicians, and food offerings. Its presence in the home assures little girls of marriage, and brings the entire family closer to the Royal Family. Hence, the knotty ties between the shrine, the dolls, the festival, and God and Emperor are explained.

The Chinese-derived purification ceremony on the third day of the third month was chosen for the festival because this day was traditionally regarded as the day of the snake', an animal symbolizing evil. Marking this day involved offerings to the gods for people to rid themselves of their impurities and evil influences.

Whilst most people who visit Awashima Shrine do so to cleanse the soul and to refresh the spirit, women also offer dolls for anzan (to have an easy delivery of a baby), fujinbyo (to heal female disorders), or kosazuke (to be gifted with child). But most dolls are offered merely because a child has outgrown them, a family is moving, or space in the home is limited.

Awashima Shrine is small but has a striking appearance. A swarm of dolls crowds the grounds, somewhat like the push and shove of a Tokyo rush hour. At the entrance, a Kasuga-style Torii Gate burns a fiery orange like planks of steel yanked freshly from the furnace. The legion of dolls beckons the caller with a silent carol.

Meandering from one group of dolls to another, I sense thousands of watching eyes. The dolls' souls are still very much alive. The sensation is eerie. Surrounded by a myriad of dolls, they surreptitiously invite me to partake in a quiet plea to the gods for deliverance.

Meanwhile, the priest absolves a pile of new arrivals. But each year thousands more are consigned to the ceremonial funeral pyre. All Hina dolls, however, are spared from the flames. Instead, they are ritualistically sent out to sea on wooden boats during the Hina festival.

"The best dolls are set aside," explains assistant Manami Moriwaki. But how and by whom is it determined whether a doll shall remain with the 'living' or not?

"I do," she says with a grin. "Unusual dolls or those in exceptionally good condition are kept. Everything else is burned."

If history is an indicator of claim, then the Japanese were entrusted to make a science of doll making. Dolls have been a part of Japanese culture since prehistoric times in the form of folk art and decorative pieces.

The earliest doll discoveries were clay and stone figurines which date to the Jomon Period (10,000-300 B.C.). The first century saw the advent of animal figures. Though each period has its place in the history and evolution of dolls in Japan, it was not until the Edo Period (1600-1868) that dolls really started to flourish.

It was during the Edo Period that Gosho Ningyo (palace dolls) came to be. They were once given as gifts at the old Kyoto Imperial Palace, from whence the doll's name was derived. The distinct pudgy formed baby boys with oversized heads are absolutely laughable.

Both the Ichimatsu Ningyo (named for their resemblance to the kabuki actor, Sanogawa Ichimatsu) and the Kamekomi Ningyo (grooved dolls) also date from this 18th century time of new styles.

The most recognizable doll form from the Edo Period is arguably the Isho Ningyo (costume dolls), which are primarily model dolls for the elaborate garments with which they are outfitted. The advent of these and other styles lifted the status of doll making to an officially recognized art form in 1936.

Examples of nearly every type of Japanese doll can be found at Awashima Jinja.
As I make a closer inspection of the dolls in the heap before the shrine, I am reminded of the many nights before garbage collection mornings in search of wide-eyed, overdressed souls. It is tempting to slip one under my arm in mock rescue, for to burn them seems a terrible waste. But to take from the altar of the gods would be a sin and I don't want to sacrifice my own collection in order to cleanse my soul.

Awashima Jinja Shrine and Homotsuden Museum

Hina Matsuri Doll Festival

118 Kada, Wakayama, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. Tel: (+81) (0734) 59 0043

Hina Matsuri

Annually on March 3

Other Events

Hari Matsuri, or the Festival of the Needle: February 8.
Spring Grand Matsuri: April 3 and 4.
Autumn Grand Matsuri: October 3.

Staying in a ryokan by Jono David

Articles on Hina Matsuri (Doll's Festival)

Books on Japan & Japanese Festivals