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The Hina Matsuri - A Living Tradition

Text by Alan Pate
Photography by Kevin Walsh
Courtesy of Alan Scott Pate, Antique Japanese Dolls

fig 1. Hina Matsuri display c. 1880
Kyoto National Museum
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The Hina Matsuri or Doll Festival has roots reaching back to antiquity but it has not lost its place in society in favor of economic expediency, time considerations or political correctness. It remains a widely celebrated and revered festival in Japan.

All that remains of Boy's Day, the May Festival with its own elaborate display of fierce warrior dolls (see Daruma 14), is the hanging of carp streamers from rooftops or crowded apartment balconies, but the Doll Festival has retained its essence and popularity.

Reiganji in Kyoto displays its vast collection of dolls in early spring and draws an amazing number of visitors. At Shibuya, Tokyo, a live version of the doll display is set up using schoolchildren dressed in elaborate costumes. But most importantly, daughters in individual homes still marvel as mothers bring out and display their old doll sets again, adding some new dolls.

On Doll Festival day girls play with a special set of dolls carefully stored during the year. The dairi-bina or "imperial couple", with their principal attendants, form the center of the festival's activities (fig. 1). Celebrated on March 3rd by the Western calendar, it is a day when young girls play hostess, emulating the social graces of their parents.

Ritual offerings are made to the visiting royalty in the form of sweet cakes and libations. Miniature lacquer furnishings to meet all their possible needs are displayed, and palanquins and ox carts for their conveyance (the three bottom tiers in fig. 1).

    fig. 2 Kyiho-ha bina c. 1760
This is a celebration with deep spiritual overtones. "Girl's Day" is known by several different names, each revealing different aspects of the festival's nature and import. Monto no Sekku (Peach Festival) is one of the earliest names. The peach has long been considered symbolic of spring. It is called the "fruit of progeny," and has connotations of immortality, fertility and marital happiness.

Used to symbolize women, the peach confers a sense of softness, mild mannerisms and peace (read obedience) - qualities associated with Japan's traditional feminine ideal. Contemporary displays still feature a peach blossom sprig, a tribute to the early roots.

The festival is also known as Sangatsu no Sekku or Third Month Festival. The third month's third day is considered potent by numerologists. 'Three' was a holy number symbolizing heaven, earth and man, and harmony between them. Based on the lunar calendar, this day often fell well into April by Western reckoning.

fig. 3 Kokin-bina c. 1820 

It was a time of planting and focus on the earth and man's fertility. Dolls had long been associated with fertility and the pairing of these two elements seems to have been a natural evolution even if it is unclear exactly when or how it came about. The inclusion in a woman's trousseau of an inu-bako, a pair of small dog-shaped containers - a strong fertility talisman-preserves to a small degree the fertility aspect of the festival.

As one of the Go-Sekku or five principal feast days among Japan's farmers, the Doll Festival was important in the purifying rites associated with planting and harvesting.

In China, it had a decidedly masculine quality, being celebrated with games of kick-ball, sparrow shooting, cockfights, heavy drinking and music. In Japan, this continued in the Tori-awase no Hi or cock fighting in early March celebrations.

As the festival evolved, it was the feminine side that was most visibly celebrated. In China the association with dolls was weak, but in Japan it was this aspect that gradually became most pronounced.

It is surprising that in a feudal culture which idolized the masculine virtues of the samurai, a festival should evolve focusing on the purity, gentleness and femininity symbolized by peach blossoms and dolls, and cast such a mesmerizing spell-that persists to this day (fig. 4).


It is hard to trace a direct line linking the Doll Festival of today through its immediate Meiji (1868 - 1912) and Edo Period (1603-1867) predecessors to its earliest origins. Dolls as toys (hihina), dolls as amulets (hitogata), and dolls as display elements (Kansho) seem to have coexisted for hundreds of years, one form influencing another, and creating yet new forms.

The Doll Festival revolves around the display of a male and a female doll pair, the imperial couple. Given the greater spiritual context of the March Festival, the origins of this male / female pairing seem connected less with the imperial family than with Japan's old talismanic doll tradition. It is this thread that we will follow.

Kawakami Shigeki, Textile and Doll curator at Kyoto National Museum points to the evolution of rough-hewn stone shapes with manlike morphology in the Jomon Period (8000? BC-200 BC), to suggest that man-like figures have been part of Japan's spiritual landscape from the earliest of times.

Evidence suggests that through the ages dolls were used in sin/disease purging rituals called harai, acting as substitutes for man and offering great protective powers. They were worn as amulets to protect children wherever they went, placed by their bedsides to divert evil from the sleeping infants and promote future fertility.

Temple records hold that in the 26th year of Suinin Ten'no's reign (3 BC) at the shrine dedicated to the Shinto goddess Ameterasu at Ise, a grass doll was blessed by the shrine priestess and thrown into the river Isuzu to purge all human sins. Although this tradition is believed to have been part of popular culture long before this event, the Ise hina is one of the earliest record of a doll as warding agent.

In later centuries tradition also holds that Ise Shrine sold male and female doll pairs that could be dressed and were meant for display throughout the year, presumably guarding the home. These would have been kept on the kamidana, a shelf often in the kitchen area which housed images of different protective gods in the Shinto faith. The display of dolls on the shelf is seen as precursing the more elaborate display of the festival.

   fig. 4 Female attendant with Chin, a. 1890

In China, cut-out paper dolls were used by Taoist priests for both positive and negative influences. Paper dolls in Japan, known as hitogata, the old reading of the modem word ningyô, seem to have appeared soon after paper technology was introduced by the Korean Priest Doncho in 610 AD.

Also known as kami-bina (paper hina), they were often used in misogi or purification rituals as "stand-ins" and burnt yearly to get rid of any evil influences or sins.

The word 'hina' itself, although translated as doll actually seems to be a contraction of hitogata or man shape, referring back to the use of hina as stand-ins for people.

Two other important early forms of talismans were the amagatsu ("heavenly child") and hoko dolls. Also known as guardian dolls or hoko-hina ("lowly child dolls"), these figures were kept by a child's bedside to ward off evil. Amagatsu were of simple construction. Pairs of sticks were strapped together forming a T-shape, a stuffed silk cloth head was attached and clothing draped on it.

It is thought that a child's clothes would be hung on the T-form of the amagatsu to take any evil elements away from the clothes. The hoko consisted of white silk stuffed with cotton and was presented to a child on his / her birth, often as an ubuyashinai (gift to a baby on the 3rd, 5th, and 9th nights).

Used for both boys and girls, these dolls were a constant in their early life. Boys would keep them until the age of 15, when their "guardians" would be consecrated at a nearby shrine.

Girls kept these dolls until marriage when they were replaced with an otogiboko or "nursery crawling doll" which had strong fertility symbolism and would be an integral part of her trousseau, with the inu-bako. The pairing of the larger amagatsu with arms thrust to the side and smaller hoko is often held to forerun the dairi-bina.

In these early doll forms we find no specific link between their talismanic, purifying powers and March Festival rites; their presence and influence were relied upon year-round.

However, a direct link between the hina and March Festival seems to have been in place by the late Heian Period (794-1185). The early 11th century Tale of Genji written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu is seen as an accurate portrayal of life and attitudes among the noble classes of the Period. It frequently mentions dolls as playthings and talismans; in one instance she directly links hina and third month rituals.

Prince Genji, temporarily in exile on a remote island, is reminded by an attendant that it being early in the third month and given his indefinite exile, he should perform the ceremony of purification at the upcoming Festival.

Hearing of an itinerant magician touring the area, Genji sent for him and "bade him perform the ceremony of purification. Part of the ritual consisted in the loading of a small boat with a number of doll-like figures and floating them out to sea." (see References, Arthur Waley, p. 293)

By the 15th century we find evidence of nagashi-bina or "wash away" hina made of clay and paper. In a purification rite dolls representing a man and a woman were set adrift on a river in a woven basket.

In Tottori Prefecture, Western Honshu, this practice lingers on: a set of nagashi-bina are kept in the house a year and set adrift on March 3rd; then a new set is bought, cleansing the house of all past negativities and preparing for the year ahead.

Although dolls have long played an important spiritual role in traditional culture, they have also been prized as playthings and works of beauty worthy of admiration. The fusion of spiritual and decorative aspects was a gradual process. Early evidence comes from Muromachi Period (1336-1568) documents that record hitogata talismans and hihina play dolls being sent as gifts as part of March festivities. (Kawakami, p. 11)

fig. 5 Postcard of simple Hina Matsuri, c. 1900 

However it was not until the early Edo Period that this particular festival seems to have become inextricably linked with dolls and their display in any wide scale. Documents of the Owari branch of the Tokugawa family point to the early 17th century as a time when the giving of dolls and their display became an integral part of March celebrations.

In 1629, the niece of Tokugawa lemitsu, the third Tokugawa Shogun (r. 1623-1651), became Empress at the age of 6. Known as Myojo Ten'no she was one of the few females ever to hold this position. On March Ord, as part of the festivities, it is recorded that a large celebration was held in her honor and that hand dolls were a significant part of the gifts received from her uncle lemitsu. (Tokugawa, p. 114)

Exactly what form these dolls took or how they were displayed is unclear. That they were valued is certain, and that they were offered in direct connection with the festival and were not meant to be destroyed or set adrift in some sort of sin-purging rite is also certain.

In 1644 another story about Tokugawa lemitsu relates how an attendant gave hand dolls to lemitsu's daughter, Chiyo-hime, for her 7th birthday which happened to fall on March Ord, Tradition relates that it soon became fashionable to send dolls and lacquered accessory items called dogu to help girls celebrate their festivals.

This is an early mention of expanded hand displays. The fact that sumptuary laws restricting doll displays were issued by the Shogunate in Edo in 1649 and again in 1658 indicate that the tradition blossomed rapidly.

The Tale of Genji records the incorporation of small kitchen sets and utensils as part of hihina (children's play dolls). This had long been part of managoto, a children's pastime when they kept house, entertained friends and generally emulated the activities of their parents. By the early Edo period some mamagoto dogu were incorporated into the March tradition.

In the Edo Period's new-found peace and increasing prosperity, March celebrations moved away from their early agrarian roots and were largely co-opted by the cultural elite. The upper classes established trends and helped develop this festival into an elegant display of exquisitely formed hand and accessories.

fig. 6 Muromachi-bina, drawing by Jack Keely 

Cock fights and drinking games may have continued in the countryside, but in the urban centers, somewhat consciously divorced from these more "common" elements, the Hina Matsuri increased in importance and grandeur. Given this visibility, its popularity spread.

Court Workshop

Unfortunately most of the documents and written accounts of the Hina Matsuri from the Edo Period come from the households of the elite. How the Festival was practiced in more modest homes is left to speculation.

Illustrated almanacs from the period indicate that by the year 1688 the simple display of hand dolls, sometimes with a pair of miniature folding screens, had become common practice among townspeople all across Japan (Kawakami, p. 12).

The Tokugawa family held supreme political and military power in the country and could indulge in extravagances well beyond the means of the vast majority of Edo society.

In simpler households the elaborate items of the upper classes were probably replaced with shells or other objects used to simulate the dishes, tableware and fittings needed to comfort and entertain the dairi-bina (fig. 5).

Under the rule of Tokugawa lenari (11th Shogun r. 1787-1837), the Hina Matsuri reached its zenith in ostentation and sophistication. lenari had an exceptionally large family. Of his 51 children, 31 died young. Most were girls and Ienari had a special atelier which worked exclusively on fashioning toys and playthings, particularly dolls and accessories for the Hina Matsuri which was celebrated with extravagance.

Dogu from this period include everything that the dairi-bina could possibly need: storage containers for a miniaturized shell-matching game (kaioke), hair band boxes (motoyui-bako), covered boxes for teeth dyeing utensils (haguro-bako), stands for tableware (kakeban), desks with writing utensils (tsukue kazari) and headrests with incense burners (makura koro) to name but a few. Each was in exquisite lacquer with painted gold decorations and real silver and gold fittings, imitating to exacting standards the actual item the Empress herself might enjoy (the three bottom tiers in fig. 1).


How the transition was made from talismanic dolls designed to be burned or set adrift, to the elaborate display of sublimely crafted dolls and furnishings designed to be admired is not entirely clear.

Anyway, by the early Edo Period, emphasis had shifted away from dolls as talismans to dolls as coveted objects. The hina had evolved a long way from the "lowly child doll" of the Heian Period. Vying to impress and outdo created what might be considered a "doll economy" with various styles and forms coming into vogue and then passing into oblivion as popularity waned and new styles captured the popular imagination.

Among the first styles to appear were the Tachi-bina, Kan'ei-bina, and the Muromachi-bina. In these early simple representations of the dairi-bina we can see both the beginnings of forms that will figure prominently in later styles, as well as vestiges of the early amagatsu and hoko dolls which were ultimately left behind as the dolls gained in sophistication.

Beginning with the Jirbzaemonbina and Kyoho-bina of the mid-Edo Period we see the first commercialization of March dolls and a consequent moving away from early Kami-bina which had kept some older, more spiritual roots. With the Yusokubina and finally the Kokin-bina of the late Edo Period, the Doll Festival had almost completely divorced itself from these earlier associations. The focus now rested squarely on fashion, opulence and presentation.


The earliest known standardized dairi-bina pair were tachi-bina (cover photo). The origins of these standing dolls is often linked to the pairing of the amagatsu and hoko male and female dolls. In overall structure an shape, these dolls are directly linked to the early kami-bina, the paper dolls that figured prominently for centuries in purification ceremonies.

   fig. 7 Jirozaemon-bina, drawing by Jack Keely

At first tachi-bina were simple* bodies of cut paper or wood, often painted or with textiles applied to the base. Auspicious symbols of longevity such as pine trees and cranes sometimes decked their adding to their visual appeal.

The emperor is shown standing with arms to the side, nearly identical to the stick amagatsu, without hands or feet. The wooden head was covered with a resilient oyster shell and rice paste mix called gofun. For the empress the body was fashioned in a tube-like form with no arms.

The standing tachi-bina style remained popular throughout the Edo Period and continues now, often included alongside more sophisticated siblings.

The tachi-bina, while perhaps the simplest of the Edo Period hina forms, remain truest to the talismanic origins of the hina: we see most clearly the line leading from the "grass" doll of Ise Shrine, to the bedside amagatsu and fabulous hina displays of the late Edo Period.


The oldest of the existing Edo Period hina ningyô. Kan'ei-bina are also believed to be the first executed in the seated style. They first appeared in the Kan'ei Era (1624-1644) and may well have been presented to lemitsu's niece at her coronation celebrations in 1629 and his daughter on her birthday in 1644.

The earliest Kan'ei-bina have the empress' arms extending directly out to the side with no hands portrayed, retaining some paper kami-bina aspects.

The emperor most often has his arms at his sides and his hands are depicted; notably, his ceremonial cap or crown is carved as part of his head so the hair is merely paint. Textiles are usually executed in shuchin, a silk satin-weave base with gold or silver colored supplemental paper thread added to form the designs in the fabric.

These dolls are extremely rare, found only in a few Japanese museums and private collections.

Muromachi Bina

Like the Kan'ei-bina, Muromachi-bina represent an early Edo form. Done in the seated style, the arms of both emperor and empress often extend directly to the side with no hands (fig. 6). Textiles are generally shuchin with large round motifs incorporated into the design, emulating Muromachi Period (1336-1568) tastes, from which the name comes.

The most important change is the introduction of hair on the head. Made from silk or other fibers, the hair fits close to the head: a top-knot for the emperor and a discreet braid down the back for the empress. The faces are simply executed, in the style of Jirozaemon.

Jirozaemon Bina

Perhaps the most famous and, from a collector's stand-point, most coveted hina style is the Jirozaemonbina. Named after the mid l8th-century Kyoto manufacturer Okada Jirozaemon. these dolls were seated.

fig. 8 Kyoho-bina, c. 1780 

Unlike the standing, Kan'ei, or Muromachi-bina dolls, the hands of the emperor and empress were folded loosely in their laps or just touched their bent knees - a style adopted by all subsequent hina forms. Hands and feet appear. Their garments were not overly elaborate, following to a certain degree court dress of the time-generally silk brocade, though shuchin examples are also known.

Immensely popular among the aristocratic and court families, their most striking feature was the simplicity of their faces (fig. 7). Formed of wood and covered in gofun, their features were exceedingly small and delicate: a small knob of a nose, the mouth painted as a small circle, giving them an almost surprised look, and tiny painted lines for eyes.

The face design seems to be from the Heian Period painting style known as hikime kagihana ("line-eyes, hook-nose") (Kawakami, p. 16); it is very like Muromachi-bina faces as well.

   fig. 9a Kyoho-bina, Emperor, c. 1760

Originating in Kyoto, these dolls were first collected by courtiers but by the 1760s they were actively sought by members of the feudal aristocracy in Edo. So popular did this style become that tachi-bina dolls were also done in the Jirozaemon - style. Examples of this doll are rare and avidly sought by Japanese doll collectors.


In direct contrast to the simple and refined Jirozaemon-bina are the Kyoho-bina, (fig. 2). Named after the Kyoho Era (1716-35) when they first appeared, these dolls tended to be more popular among the fast-rising merchant classes than the aristocratic elite and were noted for their very elaborate costuming.

Using rich silk brocades in addition to shuchin, the female figure wears the Heian-period twelve-layered kimono and an elaborate metal crown. The male figure wears an equally luxurious coat with an embroidered panel (hirao) hanging from the waist.

fig. 9b Kyoho-bina, Empress, c. 1760 

Extremely elegant, Kyoho-bina, represented more the merchant classes' fantasy of what the emperor and empress might wear at court: vibrantly patterned, matching silk brocades with elaborate cuts, quite unlike those actually worn by the imperial court.

The faces of the Kyoho-bina, tend to be distinctive too. In overall shape they are less round and more oval or elongated (fig. 9 a/b). Their features have been likened to ukiyo-e prints of he period. The faces are very expressive, especially compared to the Jirozaemon, and less stoic than the later Yusoku-bina. Mouths tend to be clearly defined and faces well modeled, often with a little extra flesh around the chin or a strong forehead.

The eyes are generally partially carved and then painted, unlike the Jirozaemon which are painted directly on the smooth surface of the gofun covered wood. With the Kyoho-bina, the hair is more firmly set with elaborate braids and fuller topknots fashioned out of silk thread, and occasionally real hair, though few examples remain with their original hair fully intact.

   fig. 10 Kokin-bina, Empress, c. 1820

These dolls can be most readily identified by their overall shape or silhouette. The lower garments and sleeves on the emperor extend out to the sides almost like a shelf, and his two feet just touching sole to sole in the front, look almost comical. The empress, too, has multi-layered gowns so voluminous that they extend almost laterally from her sides, and her lower skirt has an almost bean-bag shape (fig. 8).

These dolls were popular until kokin-bina developed in the later 18th century. Most dolls in this style date to the 18th century so command a premium among collectors.


The Yusoku-bina represents arguably the most elegant and sophisticated dairi-bina form. Created during the mid - 18th century, the Yusoku-bina was, like the Jirozaemon, more popular among the ruling elite. In these dolls we find a very high level of craftsmanship. Carved in wood and covered with gofun, the faces exude a realism or pulse that was rarely reached in any other doll style.

The name Yusoku-bina is derived from the Yusoku, a Heian-period manual which mapped out in excruciating detail the prescribed behavior expected of aristocrats. Touching on all matters of daily life, it dictated what rituals should be performed and when, what should be eaten and when, and what colors and cuts of garments should be worn on what occasions and at what times of year.

Their connection with the Yusoku is clear when one carefully examines the textiles of l8th century Yusoku-bina. The garments, in keeping with the dictates were elegant but simple so the male figure either wears a sokutai, noshi, konoshi or kariginu top coat.

Most formal of the four, the sokutai is generally black, though sometimes red with small auspicious symbols worked into the weave of the coat. The noshi, differs from the sokutai only in color: white was designated for winter use, a purple / blue color known as futai, for summer. In the sokutai style the female wears the formal juni hito-e, while in the noshi, style she will wear a lighter kimono called the uchigi-hakama.

During the Heian Period the konoshi and kariginu were considered private wear, but in the Edo Period gradually became accepted as more formal wear and so appropriate for official occasions. They differ from the sokutai and noshi, in cut but are also much livelier, employing silk brocades with more colorful patterns than the subdued monotones of the sokutai and noshi. Though not made specifically, the textiles for many of these dolls came directly from the ateliers that supplied garments to the court and aristocracy. (Kawakami, p. 16)

fig. 11 Kokin-bina, back view of Empress, c. 1800 

Although subtleties and attention to detail are lost on most observers now, it was precisely this precise refinement that appealed to the Edo feudal aristocracy and imperial elite. True Yusoku-bina are very rare; though certain similarities exist, they should not be mistaken for the more abundant Kokin-bina.


Kokin-bina were developed during the Meiwa Era (1764-72) in Edo (Tokyo now) by Hara Shugetsu (fig. 3). Named after a Heian-period poetry anthology, the Kokinshu, Kokin-bina are a compromise between the overblown textiles of the Kyoho-bina and the austere formality of the Yusoku-bina. Though not strictly court dress, they were a closer approximation.

   fig. 12 Kokin-bina, Emperor, c. 1880

The female wears the juni hito-e of the earlier Kyoho-bina though much more elaborate (fig. 11). She also wears a heavy crown with a central phoenix at the top with metal and bead-like strands dangling from rods emanating from the central portion of the crown (fig. 10). The males usually have a simple black ho, emulating the sokutai style of the yusoku-bina.

The kokin-bina were most popular among merchant and aristocrat alike and gradually replaced the previous forms at all levels of society. Variations on the kokin-bina remain the most popular today. They are one of the few dolls originating in Edo.

As their popularity increased, manufacturing was divided up: the heads were fashioned at the atelier in Edo before being sent down to Kyoto where they were painted and matched with a body. Although the heads of earlier examples were carved in wood and covered in gofun, later kokinbina, particularly from the Meiji Period used a wood composite mix called toso which was moulded and dried before being covered in gofun.

With this new method of manufacture came the extensive use of inset glass for the eyes (fig. 12). Contemporary dolls use a plaster-like substance called sekko which make the faces look very different.

Other Styles

Although the tachi-bina, jirozaemon-bina, yusoku-bina, Kyoho-bina and kokin-bina represent the principal hina styles of the Edo Period, these are far from being all. The thirst for new forms and styles from the merchant and the consumer led to immense variety.

When edicts restricted hina size, some doll makers went to the opposite extreme and created extremely fine forms only 3 - 4" tall (10 cm.). Called keshi-bina or "poppy seed" hina, these miniatures often rivaled the larger dolls for detail and intricacy, were very popular and went for truly princely sums (fig. 13).

Kawari-bina represented a different direction, depicting the dairibina as either an aging couple, called hyakusai-bina (100-year old hina) or a child couple, called chigo-bina (page hina).

The portrayal of the imperial couple as children had a strong appeal, both among the adults that purchased them and young girls who could more easily identify with young people (fig. 14).

This youthful theme continued through the Meiji and Taisho Periods, influencing the musha-ningyo (warrior doll) of the Boy's Day tradition as well.

fig. 13 Keshi-bina, c. 1850  

Our discussion of the different doll styles has focused principally on the dairi-bina or imperial couple, although by the late 18th century the hina display often included a much wider array of figures.

Ultimately 15 figures came to be associated with a "complete" hina display: the emperor and empress, three ladies-in-waiting san'nin kanjo) (fig. 16) five seated musicians (gonin bayashi) (fig. 15), minister of left and of right (zuishin) fig. 14), and, finally, three footmen (shicho) (fig. 17). By the Meiji Period we find the display increasing exponentially with the inclusion of gosho (fig. 18), tableaux or "story-book" dolls (fig. 20), ichimatsu, and any number of other dolls.

fig. 14 Ministers of Left and Right, Kawari-bina style, c. 1850 

Hina Display

Like the development of the Hina Matsuri, the introduction and standardization of these figures was a gradual one. Looking at extant examples, however, it seems likely that the musicians were the first to be added on a regular basis, followed by either the ladies-in-waiting or ministers (fig. 19), then footmen.


   fig. 15 Musicians, c. 1800,
   Mingei International Museum


Central to the hina display are the imperial couple (the top tier in fig. 1). Who these figures actually represent is controversial. To the Western collector, this pair is generally thought of as an idealized "emperor" and "empress" and I have used these terms in the article.

However, Casal states categorically in his discussion of the Hina Matsuri that: "It is decidedly wrong to call these two personages the Emperor and Empress: such an idea is contrary to the Japanese spirit." (Casal, p. 52). He asserts that the terms "Imperial Prince" (taishi-sama) and "Lady" (hime-sama) are more correct.

fig. 16 Ladies in waiting, c. 1850 

The Japanese today generally refer to them separately as o-bina and me-bina which roughly translates as an honorific form of male and female hina. The Tokugawa Museum uses the terms "Noble Retainer," "Lord" and "Lady" for the dairi-bina in their collection. Kawakami maintains that to most Japanese today the dairi-bina do in fact represent an idealized emperor and an empress, but that this is a rather new way of thinking.


 fig. 17 Footmen, c. 1850

When these dolls retained more spirituality, they reflected or were "stand-ins" for the self. Simple homes created simple dolls to act as their stand-ins during the purification ceremonies. Among the wealthier elite it was quite natural for their dolls to emulate their surroundings more accurately with silk and damask fabrics, and living in a miniature goten or palace.

Kawakami feels that as the dolls began to be exchanged as gifts and took on more secular elements of display, and as the merchant classes began to ape the styles and displays of the cultural elite, these two figures were gradually identified with the emperor and empress.

A second, minor point of controversy, is the positioning of the dairi-bina. Always located on the top tier, some displays will have the emperor to the right of the empress, others have him to the left.

fig. 18 Gosho-ningyô pulling treasure ship, dated 
Showa 12 (1937), Collection Vicky De Angelis

While the court was headquartered in Kyoto it was traditional for the emperor to sit on the right, symbolic of east. With the opening of Japan to the West and transfer of the imperial seat to Tokyo under Emperor Meiji, some began to place the emperor on the left. This created what some refer to as a Tokyo versus Kyoto-style of display.

Over time certain aspects of the dairi-bina have changed, but their basic form and accoutrements have remained much the same since Jirozaemon-bina. Most often seated, the emperor sports a black lacquered or cloth cap called a kanmuri, ceremonial headgear originating in the Heian Period.

In his right hand he generally holds a flat scepter called a shaku symbolic of his rank. A small ceremonial sword is at his left hip. The empress usually has a multi-layered kimono with an elaborate Chinese-style crown on her head and a collapsible fan (hiogi) held open between her hands (fig. 10)

   fig. 19 Standing minister, c. 1780

The o-bina and me-bina are also portrayed with the Heian style high-painted eyebrows called ten-mayu (lit. "heavenly eyebrows") and blackened teeth called haguro, both considered marks of beauty and strongly evoking Heian aesthetics (fig. 9 a/b). This is roughly the form today.


The Hina Matsuri is perhaps the most widely-celebrated of the original 'big five' festivals. Just as Japanese society has changed dramatically, so has the festival itself and its celebration.

The early focus on warding off evil with dolls has gradually evolved into the display of sumptuously attired hina with only token tributes to these early fears and wishes.

It is exactly this change that has likely allowed the festival to remain so dear to the hearts of the Japanese, focusing now on the more universal desire of parents to express love for their daughters. Gone may be the fetishes and talismans of an earlier day, but what remains for us today are exquisite examples of art and craftsmanship; finely wrought figures representing the imperial court, so infused with life they almost seem to breathe beneath their mask of white.

fig. 20 Story book doll of Modori Bashi, c. 1920

References Cited

Casal, U.A., "The Five Sacred Festivals of Ancient Japan", Tuttle, Japan, 1967

Kawakami, Shigeki, "Ningyo: An Historical Approach," Ningyo: The Art of the Human Figurine, Japan Society, New York, 1995

Tokugawa Art Museum, In Exquisite Taste: Hina Dolls and Furnishings, Treasures from the Tokugawa Art Museum No 5, 1989 Waley, Arthur, The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki, The Modem Library, New York, 1993

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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