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Japan's Doll Festival

March 22, 2001
A traditional hina doll. (Toraya Confectionery Co.)

In Japan, families with daughters display a special set of dolls on tiered platforms and eat sushi and clam soup to mark the Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival), a celebration for girls that takes place on March 3. Nowadays, the traditional doll set of an emperor and empress, three ladies-in-waiting, five court musicians, and other attendants--all dressed in imperial court costumes of the Heian period (794-1192)--sometimes features trendy dolls modeled on popular characters. This year the most popular dolls were those based on the Hello Kitty character, which continues to have a loyal following not only among children but adult women as well, and Snoopy. One doll shop in Tokyo included the Sesame Street characters Big Bird and Cookie Monster in its window display, adding cookies beside the Cookie Monster to the hand lanterns, tricolored diamond-shaped rice cakes, and other items found in a traditional set. Despite a sign in the window saying the set was not for sale, the store was besieged with requests to buy it.

Thought-Provoking Dolls
Some doll manufacturers create and release a special doll set reflecting a current event to mark the festival. This year's lineup included an "Olympic doll set" portraying the gold medalist marathon runner Naoko Takahashi and judo champions Ryoko Tamura and Tadahiro Nomura, a "twenty-first century dream doll set," and a "'Keep your spirits up, people of Miyakejima!' doll set" dedicated to the people of the island of Miyake, who were forced to evacuate their homes in the summer of 2000 after a volcano erupted there. Information technology was another theme for these special dolls, which were on general display from January until the Doll Festival on March 3.

Toraya's doll set featuring antique miniature furniture. (Toraya Confectionery Co.)

The doll set on display at Toraya, one of the oldest confectioneries in the country, contained over 200 pieces of miniature furniture that were on public display for the first time in 60 years. The exhibit featured exact miniature reproductions of tableware, a vanity, and other bridal furniture, as well as tea ceremony utensils, musical instruments, pottery, and a popular card game based on a collection of 100 ancient poems called Hyakunin Isshu (Single Poems by 100 Poets). The doll set, which belonged to the grandmother of the current president, was ordered from a famous doll maker in Kyoto, with the furniture dating to the end of the Edo period (1603-1868).

The Festival's Origin
Various theories have been put forth on the origin of the Dolls' Festival. The most prominent holds that it began in the early Heian period as a ritual to pray for the health of girls. By the Muromachi period (1333-1568), the date of the celebration had been set as March 3, and by the early Edo period, dolls were displayed and foods eaten in a manner similar to that of today. The festival was initially celebrated mainly by women in aristocratic families but gradually spread to people of other classes, ultimately evolving into the celebration enjoyed today by girls all over Japan.

It is customary for the maternal grandparents of a baby girl to purchase a doll set soon after the child is born. With Japan's low birthrate translating to fewer grandchildren, today's grandparents have become more lavish in their spending on doll sets. Many spend between 100,000 yen (833 dollars at 120 yen to the dollar) and 300,000 yen (2,500 dollars) on a set, saying they want only the best for their grandchildren. People today are no longer bound by tradition in their purchases, as evidenced by the growing variation in the shape, color, and size of the sets.

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Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2001 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.