Japan’s Hina Doll Festival
Japan, with its rich culture and traditions, has many interesting customs and festivals that are unique to the country. The Hinamatsuri (雛祭り; literally “doll’s celebration”) is one of them, and it involves the symbolic display of beautiful ornamental dolls. Held on March 3, it may be perceived by many as a day of celebration for girls, but being one of the five Sekku (節句), Hinamatsuri – also called the Day of Joushi (上巳) or Momo-no-Sekku (桃の節句) – was meant to be one of the five day-events for everyone to oust bad luck and wish for good luck and health for the upcoming season.
Hina Matsuri: The Origin of the Festival
Some believe that the name of Hinamatsuri came from “nagashi-hina” (流し雛), a custom – that dated back to the Heian period (8th – 12th century AD) – of floating dolls made of straw or paper down a river that supposedly took away with them the bad luck of the wishers. The custom is still practiced in different areas in Japan.
There is also another belief that Hinamatsuri originated from a game called “hina-asobi” (雛あそび), played by girls of the noble class in the Heian period. The dolls eventually became sumptuous and for display only in the Muromachi period (14th – 16th century). The modern-day version of setting up the dolls to wish for good health for girls in the house, is believed to be a combination of “nagashi-hina” and “hina-asobi” that started in the Edo period (17th – 19th century) and has become a celebratory custom for the March 3 Sekku since then.
The dolls – acting as substitutes to bear any bad luck of their owners – started with one female and one male only in the Edo period. The increasing dolls and platforms, which imitated the hierarchical system of the palace, were later additions over the years. It has been a tradition for the family on the mother’s side to give the set of dolls to the girls, in which the set will eventually become part of the girls’ trousseau. Nowadays, the cost of the dolls could be shared by both sides’ families. Doll sets of smaller scales have become popular among modern families as well.
Despite the size of the set, the Dairibina (内裏雛), in other words the Emperor (男雛) and the Empress (女雛), are always found on the top platform. There would be a vase with flowers in between the dolls, and two bonbori (ぼんぼり) lamps on two sides. The placement of the Dairibina depends on the family’s location or tradition; the general distinction is (from the dolls’ perspective) Emperor on the left and Empress on his right in Kansai, and the opposite in Kanto area.
On the third platform, there would be a five-person band, or Goninbayashi (五人囃子), who are holding (from left to right) the taiko (太鼓), the ootsuzumi (大皮鼓; large drum), the kotsuzumi (小鼓; small drum), the fue (笛; flute) and the sensu (扇; fan).
On the fourth platform, there will be two ministers, Minister of the Right (右大臣) and the Minister of the Left (左大臣). In between the ministers, you will find a rice cake in the middle and a kakebanzen (掛盤膳; bowl table) on each side.
On the fifth, there will sit three Shichou (仕丁; helpers) or Eji (衛士; protectors), with three different facial expressions: laughing, angry and crying. There could be the sixth or more platforms that follow that display things like furniture and carriages.
Like the placement of the Emperor and Empress, all of these little figures may be positioned differently or be holding varied decorations depending on the hosting family’s tradition.
The dolls are usually taken out and put on display in the house from Risshun (立春; First Day of Spring) until the day of Hinamatsuri. There is a popular saying that if the dolls are not packed and put away as promptly as supposed, the owner of the dolls will be married late. This is a superstition that began in Showa period, that was actually meant to encourage girls to get into the habit of cleaning up (so as to be ready to become a good wife). Or practically speaking, to avoid the dolls’ contact with the rainy season and humidity that follow Hinamatsuri.
And yet, another scarier saying goes: If the dolls are not taken out from storage on time (one week before Hinamatsuri is the latest), the owner will lose her eyesight over time. This too, started only as an encouragement for the girl to take out her dolls for Hinamatsuri and has no evidence to prove its validity whatsoever.
How to Enjoy Hina Matsuri Without Dolls
For those of us who do not own any dolls at home, Hinamatsuri can still be enjoyed through gastronomical means. Chirashi-sushi (ちらし寿司; sushi rice with toppings such as sashimi), hishimochi (菱餅; pink-white-green color-layered rice cake), hina-arare (雛あられ; three-colored candy), clam soup (はまぐりのお吸い物) and shirozake (白酒; white sake) are some of the popular foods used to celebrate the day.
Among these, pink, white and green are the colors that you will see repeatedly. Some say these girly colors give the image of spring (pink the blooming peach flowers, white the melting snow, and green the buds or new grass underneath); others, especially in the case of hishimochi, assert that ingredients of these beautiful colors give actual health benefits, coinciding with the theme of Hinamatsuri: to wish for good health for the girls and the family.
Whether you are a girl or have a child at home, Hinamatsuri gives yet another reason for everyone to celebrate and to relish some traditional, tasty Japanese food. So Happy Spring and Happy Hinamatsuri to all the boys and girls out there.