Hinamatsuri is a day of celebration throughout Japan also known as Doll’s Day or Girls’ Day. It is celebrated each year on the 3rd of March. A red carpet like material is used to cover platforms that are used to display the set of ornamental dolls. The dolls represent the Emperor,Empress, attendants and musicians in traditional court dress relating to the Heian period (794-1185).

Five Seasonal Festivals

There are five seasonal festivals celebrated in Japan that coincided with auspicious dates in the Chinese calendar. After Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar these celebrations are fixed to the 1st of January, 3rd of March, the 5th of May, the 7th of July and the 9th of September. Hinamatsuri was traditionally known as the Peach Festival as this was a time when the peach trees began to flower. Although the date in the Gregorian calendar does not coincide with this event, peaches are still symbolically used in this festival.

The Display of Dolls

The display of seated dolls is the primary aspect of Hinamatsuri. The male and female dolls, obina literally meaning male doll and mebina, female doll are said to represent a Heian period wedding. The two dolls are also referred to as the Emperor and Empress of Japan. The display can be simple pictures of dolls up to intricately carved dolls set on a multi-tier stand. The number of tiers and dolls featured depends upon the budget of each family.

Girls will usually receive their first set of two main dolls before they celebrate their first Hinamatsuri. These dolls are expensive costing from US$ 1,500 up to US$2,500 for a set of five tier dolls. Sets of dolls are often handed down from older generations as heirlooms. The dolls will be kept in storage for most of the year before the girls and their mothers begin setting up the display a few days before the 3rd of March. It was also traditional for the dolls to be packed away the day after Hinamatsuri as leaving it later was thought to result in a later marriage for the daughter. In the modern world some families will leave the dolls on display for the complete month of March. Historically the dolls were used as toys but in the modern world the expensive dolls are intended to be used only for display purposes. Once girls reach the age of ten the display of dolls is usually discontinued.

Hinamatsuri Parties

During the period of Hinamatsuri girls in Japan will hold parties along with their friends. Food served includes hina-arare (rice crackers), chirashizushi (raw fish and vegetables on rice), hishi mocha (multicolored rice cakes), ichigo daifuku (strawberries wrapped in adzuki bean paste) and ushiojiru (clam soup, as the clam shells represent a joined pair). It is customary to drink shirozake (literally white sake) it is also known as amazake (literally translates as sweet sake, non alcoholic sake.

Doll floating ceremonies known as nagashi-bina are held on rivers. A paper or straw doll is sent downstream on a boat carrying away ones impurities and sins.

Placement of the Dolls

A full set of dolls will comprise of the imperial dolls being placed on the first or top tier. They can be known as the Emperor and Empress, the lord and princess or honored palace official and honored doll. The second tier contains dolls of the court ladies. Two hold serving utensils while a third doll holds a small table. On the third tier there are five musicians, each holds a musical instrument except the singer who holds a fan. There are three drummers, one with a large drum, another a small drum while the third holds a hand drum. The set of musicians are completed with a flute player. Some ancient sets may contain seven or even ten musicians while some of these sets comprise of female musicians.

The fourth tier holds two ministers; they could be the emperor’s bodyguards or administrators. Both can be depicted holding a bow and arrow. On the fifth tier are three helpers or protectors to the Emperor and Empress. They are the Crying Drinker, the Angry Drinker and the Laughing Drinker. On the sixth and seventh tiers, a variety of miniature furniture, tools, carriages, etc., are displayed. The items of furniture may include chests, storage boxes and a mirror stand.

The Origins of Hinamatsuri

In the Kojiki, a collection of myths, legends and songs written in the early 8th century AD, there is a story where Izanagi, one of Japan’s mythical founders purifies himself in the river after visiting Yomi, the land of the dead. The earliest known purification rites in Japan involved sacrifices of human, animal, food and property as punishment against crimes or sins. These sacrifices were completed during the KJofun period (300-538AD) and possibly originated in the Shang dynasty (16c BC- 1046BC) of Ancient China. However, these practices were seen as barbaric during the Nara period (710AD-794AD) when offerings of pottery, effigies and money replaced those earlier sacrifices.

During the Heian period the 3rd day of the 3rd month was chosen to perform such rituals of purification including the throwing of paper, wooden or straw dolls into the river or ocean. In the imperial court dolls were given as gifts to girls at that time of year.

The earliest records known of dolls being displayed dates from 1625. As part of the Peach Festival the dolls were displayed for Emperor Go-Mizunoo’s daughter Oki-ko. The ladies of the imperial court set up the equipment for Oki-ko to engage in playing with her dolls.  Oki-ko succeeded her father to become Empress Meisho and it legally became known as Hinamatsuri in 1687.

Doll makers began making more elaborate dolls for the festival, some as high as 1 meter high before restrictions were placed on the size of the dolls. Over time the displays evolved to include up to 15 dolls and their accessories. As the dolls became more expensive then tiers were added to displays so that the most expensive dolls were placed on the top tiers and out of the reach of younger children.

During the Meiji period (1868-1912), Hinamatsuri was deprecated in favor of new holidays that focused more on the newly restored emperor’s bond with the nation. The holiday was later revived when the focus was on marriage and families. The holiday represents Japanese values and hope. The dolls are thought to represent the emperor and empress as well as giving respect to the throne. The holiday spread overseas through the Japanese Diaspora although it remains to this day to be confined to immigrant Japanese and their descendants.