Arguably the most important of Japanese dolls, the Hina-ningyo play a central role in the Hina-Matsuri (Girl’s Day). Occurring on March 3rd each year, the Hina-Matsuri is an event focussing on the pleasure and prosperity of young women, ensuring that they grow up to be prime marriage material. Hina-Matsuri is also closely linked to springtime and the coming of peach season, the most sacred of all crops. These hina exist as the focal point of the festival, providing a medium through which purification, serenity, and good luck can occur. Can your Barbie do that?
Just like the hito-gata dolls we have seen in the purification ritual of the Suwa Shrine, so too do these ningyo signify eradication of impurities. The combination of sin-infused representative dolls and water allows one to wash away evils. We’re familiar with the concept of yorishiro – a type of miniaturized “temporary lodging place” for the kami. The use of hina-ningyo in the Girl’s Festival originates in the very same concept. Through a long process of evolution, the traditional use of dolls for purification expanded and multiplied, making the dolls catalytic in many customs. It was not until the 17th century that hina-ningyo were solidified as a display in the Hina-Matsuri, but the use of these minis goes back hundreds of years.
Linked to the Heian Period (794-1185), early forms of the dolls were simplistic. According to the luxurious trends of the Edo period, the scale of the dolls reached human proportions. Around the same time, this matsuri was demarcated as an official seasonal holiday, and the scale of the dolls was regulated by the government to permit widespread and affordable participation in the previously elitist custom.
I guess even the state believes that every little girl deserves a chance to decontaminate herself on her special day.
Annually, these dolls make an appearance in the best room of one’s home. The display itself can be an heirloom, home-made, or purchased as a gift for a girl’s first Hina-Matsuri. Little girls get a chance to host a party on this day, and often dress up like the dolls themselves.
No collection is complete without the most important dolls: the dairi-bina. Representing the Emperor and Empress, these lords and ladies are also the most basic part of the ningyo set. The Emperor stands to the left and usually has very broad shoulders. His wife tucks her legs under her, often making her appear to be sitting on a pillow. Originally made of materials like clay or paper, they were simply understood as miniaturizations. Early pairs were plainly attired and ambiguously gendered, yet through the ages the figure’s textiles, accessories, and body shape were developed into the ornate dolls of today.
During the 18th century, the dairi-bina made some friends, and are since accompanied by three women-in-waiting, five musicians (gonin-bayashi), two ministers, and three samurai protectors. In order to accommodate the new ningyo (normally 15 in number), the single stage of the Emperor and Empress became a 5-tiered podium (hina-dan) covered in bright red fabric (hino-mosen). In order to accommodate the kami spirits residing in the dolls, some hina-dan feature seven tiers. The bottom two levels are filled with miniaturized offerings in order to guarantee that happy marriage. These include peach blossoms to the kami who will reward the family by taking away impurities and ensuring the happiness of daughters.
Despite this wide variance among sets of hina-ningyo and the major changes that they have undergone, their symbolism remains the same. The dolls banish bad luck and other impurities so that girls can prosper in the year to come.
Word to the wise – always put away your hina-ningyo right after Girl’s Day, otherwise your daughter might have trouble finding theKen of her dreams.
Check out more dolls!
Modern and delicate dairi-bina
A more affordable home-made set, with servants too
Here’s an example of a 7-tiered hina-dan
Pop-culture dolls exist too!
~guest blogger, Mallory Bey