Japan from the inside out


Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 15, 2010

HAS THERE EVER been a time when little girls didn’t play with dolls? In Japan, little girls have been playing with paper dolls since at least the Heian period, which began more than 1200 years ago.

Somewhere along the way, that diversion was combined with an old Chinese purifactory rite held along rivers in the third lunar month. People exorcised their impurities by transferring them to paper images and casting them on the waters. Those paper images were called katashiro in Japan.

Early in the Edo period, which began more than 400 years ago, people started displaying three-dimensional versions of these dolls in the home. As the custom became more widespread, the dolls and the displays grew more elaborate, and it became traditional to place a full set of figures consisting of an emperor, empress, attendants, and musicians on several tiers for Girls’ Day, which is 3 March.

That custom eventually became a part of every girl’s life. Parents gave a set to girls when they were born, or on their first birthday, and the girls took them to their new home when they got married.

Little girls and big girls both still play with the dolls. Here’s a look at this year’s Hina events from several perspectives.


The Tomisaki Shinto shrine in Katsuura, Chiba puts on a really biggu show every year for its Biggu Hina Matsuri, and it gives everyone a preview by displaying 1,200 dolls on a 60-tiered platform for the 60 stone steps leading to the shrine torii. Katsuura seems to have become something of a Hina Central. There’s a Shinto ceremony to pray for the success of the festival, and the miko, or shrine maidens, perform dances. Students at the International Budo (Martial Arts) University—an accredited school—gave a naginata demonstration.

The city’s main Hina Matsuri, or doll festival, was held from 26 February to 6 March and featured 25,000 dolls in nine locations. One local primary school had an exhibit of 1,366 folk dolls from 84 countries. The city also exhibited Japan’s biggu-est hina doll, which is a towering 120 centimeters tall, or just a skoche shy of four feet. It should be no surprise that the festival is a biggu deal for the city’s merchants—it attracts more than 150,000 people every year.

Those stone steps are 15 meters high and two meters wide, by the way. It took 20 people 90 minutes to set up the display, and boy that was fast work.


The hina season is the peak period for Kuroda Hiroshi and his wife Katsumi of Koshigaya, Saitama, who work together to make traditional crafts. Mr. and Mrs. Kuroda make full sets of hina dolls by hand. One set costs from JPY 150,000 to JPY 230,000 (about $US 2,540). That’s expensive, but customers are paying for handmade craftsmanship and a unique product. Said Mr. Kuroda, “I’ve been doing this with my wife ever since we got married. If one of us were lacking, we couldn’t make good products.” He says the most popular sets now are the smaller ones with dolls from 15 to 20 centimeters high (just shy of eight inches), perhaps as a result of the economic downturn.


Arita-cho in Saga has been one of Japan’s leading porcelain and ceramics centers since the late 16th century. They’ve had plenty of experience creating elaborate and elegant works of porcelain art, particularly during the 18th century, when European nobility went into a continent-wide collectors’ frenzy and spent enormous sums on their products. It stands to reason they’ve got their fingers in this pie too.

The Arita Hina Ceramics festival began last month, and the big draw was the display of porcelain hina dolls from kilns in three countries at the municipal offices on the 28th. The kilns represented were the heavy hitters in the world’s porcelain industry. From left to right: Lladro of Spain, Kakiemon of Arita-cho, and Meissen of Germany. That’s Arita’s chief municipal officer giving the glad eye to the Spanish team. Porcelain folk were particularly intrigued by comparisons of the three companies’ distinctive use of color.

The Kakiemon and Meissen kilns have been around for centuries, but Lladro is a relative baby doll, established in 1950. It didn’t take them long to become the world’s leading porcelain doll manufacturer, however. Aficionados cite their use of color and curves as the factors that set them apart. Their price sets them apart as well. A set of two dolls sells for JPY 1.05 million, or roughly $US 11,590.

Some people sigh at their beauty. Others sigh at the price.

Living dolls

Boys generally aren’t interested in this sort of thing—it is Girl’s Day, after all—and besides, guys are more likely to sigh over living dolls than the porcelain variety.

That’s why the favorite doll event for manly men was in Higashiomi, Shiga, last week, when three young women from the Tankai Calligraphy Culture Vocational School dressed up as Hina doll attendants. They even served visitors shirozake (white sake, made with rice malt and sake), a beverage traditionally consumed at these celebrations, and posed for photos. I’ve never had shirozake, but if they want to pour, I’ve got a cup to bring.

The event was called the Human Hina Festival, and it was the centerpiece of a larger local festival that will last until the 28th. This year’s festival is the 13th. The students appeared as living dolls two days running, for two hours each. Said 20-year-old Kato Mako, one of the human hinas, “It was difficult because my feet went numb, but a lot of people took my picture, so it was a good experience.”

Being a doll must be harder work than it looks!

I mentioned last week that some Japanese still believe inanimate objects have spirits, and that also applies to the hina. It just doesn’t feel right to dump them in the trash if they’re no longer wanted or needed. It’s worth clicking the link to find out the solution some people have devised.

And yes, the Tankai Calligraphy Culture Vocational School has a website, though it’s in Japanese only. You don’t have to read Japanese to appreciate their calligraphy gallery, however.

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