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by Alan Scott Pate

Me-bina lady (kokin-bina style), from classic Dairi-bina Imperial Couple, wearing a spectacular crown
10-1/4" (Overall: 16-3/4")
Late Edo/Early Meiji Era, Mid 19th C.

Dolls have formed a central part of Japanese culture for over 13,000 years! Just imagine! Not a type-o! Thirteen thousand years! The Japanese dolls we know and love today: the beloved ichimatsu play doll, the defiant warrior dolls of the Boy’s Day Celebration, the corpulent seated palace dolls, and the regally attired courtiers of the Girl’s Day display, can all be traced back in a single, continuous line with certainty through the millennia. What began as simple clay figures employed in fertility rituals in this almost inconceivably remote past, gradually developed into what can be rightly considered as the world’s richest and most diverse doll culture.
18th Century Tachi-bina (Standing Hina) Pair
O-bina 19 3/4" High; Me-bina 14-3/4" High
Edo Period, 18th Century

Ritual contexts dominated the majority of this early development. Dolls used in fertility rites, funerary ritual practices, along with doll forms developed specifically to protect children from diseases such as small pox and measles forged a close connection between ningyo (the Japanese term for doll) and deeply meaningful ceremonies connected with many fundamental aspects of life. Rather than a trifle, a plaything, ningyo have historically occupied a position of cultural prominence that is sometimes difficult for us in the West to understand and appreciate.

Over time, literally thousands of distinct doll types have emerged from this particularly fertile environment. Some retain their early ritual connections, but many have evolved into independent art forms admired more for their aesthetics and poetic beauty than any intrinsic, propitious meaning. Dolls commemorating theatrical performances, imitating popular customs, recounting famous legends and tales, mechanical figures created as parlor amusements, dolls designed as souvenirs, dolls given as gifts to offer auspicious wishes, and play dolls of staggering variety, all form a part of this rich cultural topography.

Perhaps the most famous of all are the dolls associated with the Hina matsuri or Girl’s Day celebration. The dolls of the Japanese Girl’s Day display have been popular among Western collectors for over 100 years. Noble lords and ladies, whimsical musicians, elegant ladies in waiting, stoic guards, and humorous footmen, whether retained together as a group, or found in isolation pepper many a doll collection outside of Japan. Frequently, the owners of these marvelous figures know little but scattered bits and pieces of the celebration wherein they were meant to be displayed, or whom the figures themselves represent. 

Classic Dairi-bina Imperial Couple for the Hina-matsuri Girl’s Day celebration, kokin-bina style
Male: 11-3/4" High (Overall: 15-1/2") Female: 10-1/4" (Overall: 16-3/4")
Late Edo/Early Meiji Era, Mid 19th Century.

Misinformation abounds.

The purpose of this short essay is to accurately describe the dolls traditionally used in the Hina matsuri and to give a brief history of the development of this important celebration.

The Hina matsuri was historically celebrated on the 3rd day of the 3rd month by the lunar calendar, which, by our reckoning, could fall anywhere from February to April. Today, March 3rd, in deference to the Western solar calendar, is the official day of celebration, with the display of dolls beginning a few days before and lasting until a few days after. The rest of the year the dolls are stored safely in boxes, preserving them admirably from one year to the next, one decade to the next, and in many cases one century to the next.

The origins of this particular festival can be traced back to the 8th century when certain spring ritual practices were adopted from China by the Japanese court in Nara.  These spring rites formed an important part of the annual round of rituals designed to purify the home and protect it from disease and ill-fortune. From the hanging of aromatic herbs, to ritual bathing, to the ceremonial destruction of simple dolls, the celebration was initially the exclusive purview of the imperial family, designed to protect the imperial household and thus the state. Over time, as the practice grew more elaborate, it was followed by ever widening circles of courtiers and members of the military elite, and, by the 18th century, merchants, farmers and commoners, each adding their own unique impression and contribution to this early rite.

Rare double yusoku-bina set
Dairi-bina: 14" High.
Edo Period, 19th Century

The formal display of dolls in a form more recognizable to us today dates from the early 17th century. Rather than ritually destroying dolls, either through fire or setting them afloat in rivers and streams as part of a purification ritual, dolls became part of an interior display. During this display the dolls were seen as temporary lodging places (yorishiro) for beneficial spirits to inhabit. By entertaining these spirits through the offering of wine and sweets, the protection of the household was insured for the coming year. The central doll pair, the dairi-bina or imperial couple, were adopted from Shinto votive forms which depicted imperial courtiers as deities. To this day, the dairi-bina remain the central focus of the festival, though many of these early meanings and associations have been forgotten by the Japanese themselves.

In the beginning, the dairi-bina were small dolls (hina as a term literally means “small and lovely”) averaging only 5 inches in height, and were dressed in remnant fabrics, typically silk brocade, plain-weave silk, and silk crepe. They were simply displayed with offerings and, initially, a few lacquer pieces to insure their comfort. Over the following centuries, the sophistication, and size of these dolls increased. Specific styles emerged, some regionally based, others were pure market creations designed to attract the eye of an increasingly broad audience. In chronological order of appearance, the following are the most important and commonly found forms: kyoho-bina, yusoku-bina, jirozaemon-bina, and kokin-bina. Each of these forms boast particular features, textiles, and tendencies towards size and manner of depiction and are a study unto themselves.

By the 19th century, the doll market in Japan was not an insignificant aspect of the economy. The Girl’s Day celebration had evolved from sacred ceremony to robust exhibitionism and the three central doll markets in Tokyo, Osaka and Edo/Tokyo emerged to fulfill the demands of an eagerly consuming public impassioned by dolls. Government legislation in the form of sumptuary laws was frequently enacted in order to curtail the size, use of precious metals, and overall sumptuousness of these displays. Dolls exceeding 30 inches in height, seated, were not uncommon. The use of gold, silver, and expensive lacquer techniques were typical of doll displays in the more affluent households. Rather than the domain of children, it was very much an adult festival.

Hina-dogu set (accessories) of black lacquered furnishings representing a bridal trousseau
Tiered stand 9-1/2" High
Meiji and Taisho Eras 1900-1920

Part of this expansionist tendency, was also the trend towards displaying dolls other than the original imperial couple as part of the celebration. Each new addition was thought to enhance the comfort and ensure the good graces of the central pair. By the latter half of the 19th century fifteen dolls came to be considered a complete “set.” In order of appearance, historically, these include the five musicians known as the gonin-bayashi, the three ladies in waiting known as the san’nin kanjo, the two ministers called zuijin, and finally, the three footmen called the shicho. These last did not appear until the very end of what is known as the Edo Period (1612-1868).

Exceptional Gonin bayashi musician set
Figures: 16" with cap
late Edo/Early Meiji Era 19th Century

For the collector of today, the richness of this cultural heritage makes for a treasure trove of dolls to collect and display. As with any art form, there are dramatic degrees of artistry and sophistication to be found within hina-ningyo. While the popularity of the festival in Japan has continued unabated, due to economics and the lack of display space, the dolls created in the 20th century tend towards the mass-produced. Historic doll ateliers, such as Maruhei Okiheizo in Kyoto, and Yoshitoku in Tokyo are the exception. These two houses still contract with the finest doll makers in the country and produce exceptional sets of real beauty (and real expense) even today.

Top Three Popular Misconceptions:

#1 The Girl’s Day Festival is for the social edification of young girls.

When Japan opened its doors to the West in the late 19th century it was very sensitive to being perceived as backwards or superstitious (i.e. not modern). The government took great pains to scale back or obliterate social customs and practices that might be perceived in a negative light. Foreigners initially mistook the Hina matsuri as an example of ancestor worship. So the government shifted its focus from earlier rites and practices to the more benign concept of a day for girls to display their dolls. This was a seismic shift in intent and carries through to this day.

#2 The top pair of dolls depict the Emperor and Empress.

The Japanese never refer to the central pair this way. They are known as the lord and lady from the inner palace (dairi-bina). They do not represent specific individuals, but more the institution of the imperial household, which is descended from the gods.

#3 The faces and hands of the dolls are made of porcelain.

gofun covered head of O-bina from classic Dairi-bina Imperial Couple, Mid 19th Century

One of the signature aspects of most Japanese doll forms is their use of a material called gofun. This is a crushed oyster/clam shell combined with an animal glue. It is also sometimes referred to as "shell white." This is applied like a lacquer over the base carving. In a thick form it can be modeled and sculpted and some of the features of the dolls are actually sculpted gofun. In the finest dolls up to 20 layers of gofun may be applied. The surface layer of older dolls tends to be quite shiny with a porcelaineous look. But the material is actually quite water-soluble. Porcelain was not a material embraced by the traditional doll makers of Japan. And even though the country has long been celebrated for its porcelain wares, dolls were never traditionally a part of this mix.

Hopefully this brief introduction will serve as encouragement to look more closely at this unique expression of doll art.

To read more about the wonderful dolls of the Hina matsuri please explore my book Ningyo: The Art of the Japanese Doll (Tuttle Publishing, 2005) (order here). Also look for us in the Sales Room at UFDC and NADDA events.

The author, Alan Pate, is the owner of Antique Japanese Dolls in McIntosh, Florida, USA,
Tel +1 (858)-775-6717

He received an M. A. in Korean history and language from Harvard University.

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