Japan, with its rich culture and traditions, has many interesting customs and festivals that are unique to the country. The Hina Matsuri (雛祭り — literally “doll celebration”) is one of them and involves the display of beautiful ornamental dolls. Held on March 3, it is primarily known as a day of celebration for girls, but being one of the five Sekku (節句), Hina Matsuri — 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 be rid of bad luck and wish for good luck and health for the upcoming season.
The Origin of Hina Matsuri Festival
Some believe that the name of Hina Matsuri came from “nagashi-hina” (流し雛), a custom from the Heian period (8th – 12th century AD) where floating dolls made of straw or paper down a river supposedly took with them the bad luck of the wishers. The custom is still practiced in different areas in Japan.
There is another belief that Hina Matsuri 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 to gorgeous to be used as toys and only used to display starting 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 on March 3rd since then.
Hina Dolls: Setup and Meaning
The dolls — acting as substitutes to bear any bad luck of their owners — started with only one female and one male doll in the Edo period. The increasing dolls and platforms, which imitated the hierarchical system of the Imperial palace, were later additions over the years. It was a tradition for the family on the mother’s side to give a set of dolls to the girls, which eventually became part of the girls’ bridal dowry. Nowadays, the cost of the dolls can 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 (the general Osaka and Kyoto area), and the opposite in Kanto area (the greater Tokyo area.
Under the Emperor and Empress, there will sit Sannikanjo (三人官女), or the three court ladies, with mochi placed on takatsuki (高杯) stands in between them.
On the third platform, there will 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 a sixth or even more platforms that follow displaying things like furniture and carriages.
Like the placement of the Emperor and Empress, all of these little figures may be positioned differently or hold various decorations depending on the family tradition.
When is Hina Matsuri Held?
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 Hina Matsuri. 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 the Showa period, that was actually meant to encourage girls to get into the habit of cleaning up, but practically speaking, putting the dolls away before the humid rainy season following Hina Matsuri helps to preserve their lifespan and condition.
Another scarier supersition says if the dolls are not taken out of storage on time (one week before Hina Matsuri 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 Hina Matsuri.
How to Enjoy Hina Matsuri Without Dolls
For those of us who do not own any dolls at home, Hina Matsuri can still be enjoyed through special traditional foods. Chirashizushi (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.
Pink, white and green are the colors that you will see repeatedly. Some say these colors represent the image of spring (pink the blooming peach flowers, white the melting snow, and green the buds or new grass underneath). Other beliefs, especially in the case of hishimochi, assert that ingredients of these beautiful colors give actual health benefits, coinciding with the theme of Hina Matsuri: to wish for good health for the girls and the family.
Whether you are a girl or have a daughter, Hina Matsuri is another reason for everyone to celebrate and to relish some traditional, tasty Japanese food. So Happy Spring and Happy Hina Matsuri to all the boys and girls out there!
Original article updated by Todd Fong on March 2020.