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 Musha Ningyo: Portrait Dolls of Boy's Day -article from Daruma magazine by Alan Pate, giving the history of the use of dolls for this festival, well illustrated.
 Samurai Dolls   --article from Circa magazine by Timothy Mertel, illustrated with antique dolls.
Boy's Day  Ginkoya Japanese cultural items--includes image of a modern display

Boys' Day Dolls 


If you saw fish-shaped banners flying outside of people's houses, it would mean it is getting close to the May 5th festival. Families with sons all over Japan traditionally wish for the boys'  health and prosperity  by hoisting koi-nobori (carp-shaped banners or windsocks) outside. This fish, the carp, is said to swim upstream, and its heroic persistence makes it a traditional symbol and ideal for a boy. The celebrations may also include setting out  warrior dolls, representing legendary Japanese heroes, and warlike ornaments inside the houses; 200 years ago the display might have been of real weapons and visible from the street.

May 5th has  been made a national holiday, called since World War II "Children's Day" (Kodomo-no-hi). In principle, it celebrates both boys and girls, and koi-nobori may be flown for each family member. Displays of miniature weapons are still a part of the ceremony, but in general there is less emphasis on samurai virtues and history.

May 5 has other names. The fifth month is the month of the horse, so its fifth day is Tango no Sekku, the festival of the emperor’s white horse. This day is also traditionally Shobu no Sekku, the festival of the irises (in the old Japanese calendar, the day would fall closer to the summer solstice than it does in the modern calendar). The iris flower or flag has long been used in purifying rituals on this day, by farmers, townspeople, and courtiers. At least as far back as the twelfth century this was a day for gathering iris leaves and flowers for use in the bath, as an addition to food and drink, and in decorations on the roofs of houses and shops. The iris bath is still popular on this day in Japan. 

During the 12th or 13th century the word "shobu" came to be associated with its homonym meaning "military spirit", and people started  celebrating Shobu no sekku  by decorating paper samurai helmets with irises. Thus it became a day for boys, as the third day of the third month was a special day for girls, Hina matsuri.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, boys would stage battles using iris leaves as swords. They would also re-create, in a rather violent game involving teams in a mock battle, the struggle for power in twelfth-century  Japan between the families of the Genji and Heike. These more military and dangerous exercises are less popular now. 

One military tradition that has evolved and persisted, though, is the setting up of a special display celebrating warrior values and Japanese heroes. In fact, it originated in the seventeenth century, when actual civil wars began to fade into the past. It may have begun with a custom of making helmets out of iris leaves, which evolved into the crafting of beautiful lacquered display helmets for the day, along with painted banners and displays of real weapons. By 1700 dolls representing warrior heroes, Musha ningyo, had become very popular, and they still are today. Besides miniature helmets, weapons,  and suits of armor, the display might include a white horse, representing the Emperor, and perhaps a tiger. 

Nowadays the dolls usually look like sweet little boys and not terrible warriors, and the modern name is Gogatsu ningyo, or "May dolls." Still, along with the carp banners, they are a reminder of Japan’s history and of the evolving and complex Japanese  love of nature, ambition, artistry, and children.

What does a warrior doll look like? How does one "read" the details?

Name Historical role Doll formats
Jimmu Tenno First emperor of Japan, grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu, ancestor of all Japanese emperors. He would have lived around 600 BC Solemn pale but flesh-colored face, straight black beard, Chinese-style robes and boots. He stands, holding a pole on which a bird, a golden kite, perches. He wears around his neck the Imperial Treasure, a mirror and a necklace of jewels. 
Often paired with Shoki.
Shoki "The Demon-Queller." Chinese hero, a student or general who committed suicide but later appeared to the Chinese emperor and was able to protect him from demons.
Onmark Productions Shoki.
Angry-looking ruddy face, very bushy black hair, beard, and eyebrows. He wears Chinese-style clothes and boots, often golden or of rich brocades, and wears a hat with flaps sticking out to the side. His belt buckle is a demon's face, indicating that he has devoured the beast. He stands holding a straight sword in one hand and spreads the other hand out to ward off demons. 
White Horse The white horse is ridden by the emperor. It is supposedly the offspring of a mare and a dragon! A white horse with saddle and stirrups.
Empress Jingu When her husband died, she went fishing to get an omen as to whether she should continue his plans to conquer Korea. She led the army though she was pregnant, giving birth near the battlefield only after the Korean army was defeated. This would have happened some time around the year 200.  Always has a white face and almost always "skybrows". Hair is tied back and she wears red clothing, sometimes over armor, and a gold eboshi hat.
Usually shown with Takenouchi, sometimes with a soldier or bannerman as well. She may be fishing with a spear turned into a fishing-pole, or she may be seated or standing after having given birth to Odin.
no Sukune
Jingu's elderly councillor and general who also served her son.  An old man, usually smiling, with flesh-colored face and white hair and beard, in battle armor. Often shown holding the baby Odin.
Ojin or 
Jingu's son, deified after his death as the god of war. Appears as a baby in tableaux with Jingu and Takenouchi. Also appears as an adult emperor, with white face, usually hairless, seated holding a war fan. 
Yoshitsune or Ushiwakamaru A great young general of the late-12th-century wars of the Genji and Heike (Minamoto and Taira) clans, which heralded the end of the period when the emperor dominated Japanese culture. Minamoto no Yoshitune led his party to military victory but was condemned as a traitor by his brother, Yoritomo, who wanted to consolidate his own power.

Many legends arose around Yoshitsune's life: that he was raised by a bird-demon, the Tengu king, who trained him in agility; the fidelity of his wife; his adventures with his companion the warrior monk Benkei. He is even thought to have escaped to China where he became Genghis Khan. Plays were written about these stories and of course dolls were made. 

Yoshitsune always has a white face and often has "skybrows" indicating his nobility. He is often, but not always, depicted as a very young man. 
Ushiwakimaru (the young boy) may be depicted with a flute and a veil over his head, looking very young and girlish. He may have these attributes also in doll scenes with Benkei, where Benkei has a backpack with weapons and is trying to defend a bridge; Ushiwakamaru, in geta, flies up onto the bridge railing and beans Benkei with his fan. 
See below for the Kanjincho scene.
As a seated general doll, Yoshitsune wears an elaborate helmet. He may look quite fierce, but he usually has a youthful face. In post-WWII warrior dolls, a little boy in warrior gear with a big helmet is usually identified as Yoshitsune. 
Benkei The probably completely legendary companion and servant of Yoshitsune. He was said to be a very large man, almost a giant in size and strength. He was a Buddhist monk, and he represents the character, obsolete in the Edo  period, of a priest who is also a warrior or bandit
He met Yoshitsune (Ushiwakamaru)when he was trying to collect the weapons of 1,000 men crossing a bridge, with the idea of forging himself a perfect sword. Ushiwakamaru  was the first man able to evade him. Other versions of the story say that it was Ushiwakamaru who was bothering travellers, and Benkei who took charge of the younger man on the bridge!

He is an important character in a couple of legends which became important Kabuki plays: Funa Benkei, in which his prayers avert a storm, and Kanjincho, in which Benkei improvises an escape for himself and Yoshitsune across a watched border. Kanjincho is the basis for Akira Kurosawa's film They who step on the Tiger's Tail.

Benkei always has a flesh-colored face and is usually bald or nearly bald, with a handlebar moustache, though in some cases he may be clean-shaven with Kabuki makeup. He is often dressed in armor but rarely wears a helmet. 
He may be shown carrying a gigantic bell, which he stole from/gave  to a monastery according to a legend.
He may be shown, alone or in a scene with Ushiwakamaru, defending the bridge with a pack of terrible weapons on his back.
In Kanjincho, Benkei wears a particular costume, a black surcoat over a plaid garment and white pants, with white pompoms down the front, and a tiny black priest's hat. He should be holding a scroll and a nice accessory is the scroll case. Yoshitsune wears a large hat and a poor cloak to hide his identity. The third figure is the border lord who allows himself to be fooled into letting the heroes escape.
Few dolls of the Funa Benkei story exist, and they are more likely to be theatrical dolls, not meant for Boys' Day.
Benkei is sometimes portrayed in post-WWII dolls as a little boy dressed as a monk (often with a scarf over his head) with the pack of weapons on his back. 
Hideyoshi In 1590-98, this  general and statesman set in mortion the reunification of Japan and began to create the structures of the Shogunate which would ensure a combination of peace and repression through the long Tokugawa period. He was of peasant birth but devloped refined tastes (e.g for the tea ceremony). His emblem was the gourd. He is usually shown seated in a kneeling posture (not on a stool) in full armor, or standing. He may wear a helmet which has a metal sunburst fanning out from the back, or a Chinese cap with side flaps. His face is plump (though the historical man was thin)  and his expression somewhat fierce. 
Hideyoshi's general, from the same town and also of humble birth. He was a formidable fighter and leader, and helped with the invasion of Korea. He seems to have been a cruel man who loved only battle. He wears a distinctive conical helmet with antlers on it. He may be standing by Hideyoshi or he may be portrayed  by himself thrusting a spear at a tiger representing Korea.
Chushingura In 1701, an incident occurred in the Shogun's palace: Lord Kira insulted newcomer Lord Asano, and the younger man drew his sword. Since this was illegal, Asano had to kill himself (seppuku) and his family had to forgo vengeance. His men dispersed and became ronin, masterless samurai; however, nearly two years later, 47 of them reunited, having spent the intervening time plotting a raid on Kira. They slew Kira, offered his head at the grave of Asano, and then were themselves condemned to commit seppuku. Almost immediately this story of extreme loyalty (and conflict between legal and personal justice) became well-known and soon it was made into a play. Several films of this story have been made, entitled either Chushingura or 47 Ronin.
I have only seen a few dolls relating to this story, usually portraying Oishi, the leader of the 47. He is recognizable by his mon or emblem of two interlocking comma shapes on a contrasting ground. 

Momotaro The "Peach Boy." This is a children's story about a boy found in a large peach by a childless old couple. He grows into a valiant youth who, with the help of three animal companions, slays the local ogre and retrieves his treasure for his parents. This story became particularly important as an emblem of modern Japanese nationhood in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Japan seemed to be "growing up" very fast.
Momotaro is depicted as a child or adolescent boy. His face may be white or flesh-colored. In most representations from the first half of the 20th century, he has a banner reading "Japan #1." He usually wears armor and may hold a peach or his  banner may have a peach on it. He may be accompanied by one or more of his animal friends, a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant; in some more elaborate presentations, the animal is depicted as a child or warrior with some indication of the animal nature, such as an animal mask or garment motif. Momotaro may also be depicted enjoying the treasure or triumphing over the demon (who looks a lot like a Western devil).
"The fisher-lad of Urashima." This is another children's tale. Because of his kindness to a turtle, the youth goes to live in the palace of the ruler of the seas, and marries the princess. After a while, however, he wants to visit his family; he is given a box which he must not open; he goes home to Urashima and findes that hundreds of years have passed; he opens the box and instantly ages and dies. A young man in working clothes on a turtle or with a turtle. Frequently also he is shown holding the box. In two-figure scenes he appears with the sea princess, whose garments are designed so as to seem to float. 
The princess seems to have been a subject for Takeda dolls, an early-19th-century form of doll probably representing Kabuki actors in dramatic poses. 
Kintaro The childhood name of a legendary hero of the time of Yoshitsune and Benkei. He supposedly was born in the mountains of a rather wild woman.
He is usually shown as a very muscular, ruddy little boy, with minimal clothing and a triangular black lacquer hat. He may be catching a carp, riding on a bear, or teaching smaller animals to wrestle.