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This is a past article published in Hiragana Times. Each Japanese paragraph is followed by its English translation or vise versa, and furigana are placed above each kanji to make Japanese study even easier. [Magazine Sample] [Subscription Page]

How Dolls Exude the Japanese Sensibility

[From March Issue 2011]

March 3rd is Hina Matsuri (the Japanese Doll Festival) or Girl’s Day. This day of celebration is to pray for young girls to grow up healthy, during which it is also customary to display a set of traditional dolls, called hina-ningyou, along with peach blossoms and sweet sake. Behind this custom lies the belief that the dolls will absorb all of life’s suffering, such as illnesses and injuries, instead of the young girls. In some regions, small, simple hina dolls, made out of paper or grass, are put afloat into rivers or the sea.

Typical hina dolls usually include a couple clad in gorgeous garb from the Heian period (794~1192). They share a multi-level display, which resembles a short staircase covered with red cloth, on which not only they stand, but also musicians and a variety of other dolls and some daily tools. And while less expensive dolls sets are available, it’s not unusual for the average household to spend upwards of 100,000 yen for a set.

“The Doll Festival began in earnest in the Edo period (1600~1867),” recounts YOKOYAMA Hisatoshi, assistant administrative manager at Kyugetsu Co., Ltd., a doll manufacturer with almost 170 years of history. “During that period, there were hina-ichi, markets where hina dolls were sold, all across Edo (present-day Tokyo). Even in Asakusabashi, where Kyugetsu’s main store is now located, there was once a hina market,” he says. And today, Asakusabashi’s Edo-dori is still lined with a number of doll shops.

March is not the only time during the year when dolls are displayed. On May 5th (the day of tango no sekku) Gogatsu ningyou (May dolls) are put on display as part of the ceremony during which people pray for boys to grow up healthy. To further ensure a boy’s health, a samurai suit of armor (protective battle gear) may sometimes accompany the dolls. During the New Year’s holidays, hagoita rackets with accompanying dolls may also be seen. Furthermore, it is also customary for Japanese grandparents to give their grandchildren dolls as presents.

“New Year’s, the Doll Festival and tango no sekku (the Boy’s Festival) were originally all celebrations of sekku (the change of seasons),” says Yokoyama, adding that “At the turn of each season, the Japanese have long displayed dolls to pray for their good health and safety.” Yokoyama, who is in charge of hina doll design, explains his process: “I consider what kind of hina doll to make, and then decide on every detail one by one, such as its countenance, the colors and textures of its clothes, and the design of the accompanying tools. When I studied old documents and reproduced the costume colors of the old days, I was quite surprised to find out that their finish was mostly modern pastel colors.”

Bunraku is traditional Japanese puppet theatre, during which puppets are manipulated to the tune of old songs. Bunraku puppets are about 120 to 150 centimeters tall, and require dexterity to handle them. For example, a puppet that plays an integral role is usually manipulated by three people. One person moves the body and the puppet’s right hand, another moves the left hand, and a third manipulates the legs.

Bunraku puppets are meticulously designed to mimic human movement. Some puppets’ necks and eyebrows can even be articulated using special strings, while others have two faces so that they can transform into different characters. Depending on its role, a puppet may even wear different costumes and hairstyles, and sometimes its face is also painted different colors. Because of their detailed expressiveness, bunraku puppets have been registered on UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

The Japanese obsession with refined movement is also found in their karakuri ningyou (automata or mechanized puppets). Modeled on mechanical clocks from Europe, these puppets were designed by craftsmen of the Edo period to move using wheels and gears. For example, if you put a small, tea-filled cup in the hand of a mechanized puppet, a gear stopper would release and the puppet would start moving. These automata were featured in puppet theatres of the entertainment business during the Edo period.

Japanese children sometimes create teru teru bouzu dolls when they are going to wish for good weather. Shaped like a badminton shuttlecock, this doll is made by stuffing cotton or some other material into white paper or cloth and then tying it up with a string. It is said that if you hang one outside your window and pray, the weather will be fine the next day. However, it is also said that if you hang one upside down, then the following day will be rainy.

Kokeshi are the dolls that ordinary Japanese people have long been familiar with. Originating from the Tohoku region (the northernmost part of Japan’s main island), they are made by shaving down a piece of wood on a rokuro (or lathe). Around the late Edo period, kokeshi were sold as souvenirs at hot spring resorts in the Tohoku region, and then gradually became familiar children’s toys. The craft of creating traditional kokeshi has been handed down from skilled craftsmen to their apprentices, thus maintaining uniquely regional styles, of which there are about 11 presently available.

After the war (from 1945 onward), traditional kokeshi, as well as new “sousaku kokeshi” (creative kokeshi) were being made. Soon, people started appreciating the kokeshi’s artistic quality, which created more national interest. As a result, the All-Japan Kokeshi Festival of Naruko-Onsen, Osaki City that started in 1953, and the All-Japan Kokeshi Exhibition in Shiroishi City that started in 1959, have both been held annually in Miyagi Prefecture.

“When we were children, we weren’t that well-off, so our parents couldn’t buy us hina dolls for the Doll Festival. Instead, we celebrated the occasion by arranging kokeshi dolls,” says TAKAHASHI Yukie of the Nihon Kokeshi-kan (Japan Kokeshi Museum) located in Miyagi prefecture. “The charm of kokeshi is its simple shape. And because traditional Japanese houses are made of wood, I think Japanese people feel at ease with them,” she adds.

There are even temples and shrines in Japan that hold memorial services for dolls. Some Japanese customarily burn and pray for their dolls to show their appreciation and affection for their unconditional friends, rather than merely discarding them. So, it can be said that the Japanese attitude toward dolls reveals their notion that objects also have a life to live. 

Kyugetsu Co., Ltd.

Text: SAZAKI Ryo


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