What is Doll Day?

Jessica Ellis

Doll Day, also called Girls' Day, Hina Matsuri or the Doll Festival, is a Japanese annual holiday. Held on the third of March each year, Doll Day involves the elaborate display of ornamental dolls that represent the Heien period court of 794-1185 C.E. Based on an ancient tradition, Doll Day has been celebrated since at least 1687 C.E.

Doll Day is celebrated every March 3 in Japan.
Doll Day is celebrated every March 3 in Japan.

In the Shinto tradition, the third day of the third month was a day of purification and the cleansing of evil spirits. Originally, families would breathe on special paper dolls called Hina Nagashi or floating dolls, to “infect” the dolls with any evil spirits. The dolls would then be placed in a boat floated away in a nearby river. In some places, this custom still exists, although care is taken to use environmentally-friendly material, and the boats are usually removed from the water and burned after the festival.

Beginning in the 17th Century Edo period in Japan, the displaying of intricate dolls became a custom of Doll Day. A special platform, called a hina dan, is used to lay out the dolls in the correct order, although the order may vary regionally. The platform usually consists of three to six levels and is covered in bright red material with a rainbow trim. It can be very large, with some hina dan being over six feet (1.8 m) in height.

Each doll has a specific place on the platform, as corresponds to their importance to the court. The top level holds two dolls representing an emperor and empress. These dolls are usually placed in front of a gold, painted screen and may have vases or lanterns next to them. Below the emperor and empress are three court ladies, each holding a traditional sake implement. Between each lady may be a small stand for traditional sweets.

On the third level, five dolls represent court musicians. These dolls have a variety of traditional instruments including a large drum, a small drum, a hand drum and a flute. The fifth musician represents a singer, and is distinguished by holding an intricate fan.

The fourth level of the platform is the domain of two ministers. The Minister-of-the-Right is depicted as a young man, and usually stands behind a cherry tree. The Minister-of-the-Left is older, and often has a peach-blossom tree in front of him. Some Minister dolls carry bows and arrows. The fourth tier also holds two covered small tables holding rice cakes called hishimochi.

Three samurai helpers stand across the fifth level, as well as a variety of plants. The sixth level of the hina dan is covered with tools or furniture of the court. Common displays include kimono chests, sewing kits and carriages.

The doll sets are intricately designed and often passed down as family heirlooms. They are displayed only on Doll Day, and packed carefully away for the rest of the year. Displaying the dolls is said to bring good luck to any girl children, and the festival is often considered the equivalent of Tango no Sekku, the Japanese Boy’s Festival.

In celebration of Doll Day, revelers drink amazake, a nonalcoholic sake. A traditional food of the day is arare, soy-sauce flavored crackers. Young girls sometimes hold parties for their friends or classmates. Doll Day is foremost a celebration of children, and has lasted over 300 years in recognition of the love Japanese parents have for their daughters.

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