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The most exciting of the ningyo are probably the sets
collected by Japanese children and kept for display on Boys' Day (May 5)
or Girls' Day (March 3). These displays represent the cultural requirements
of manhood and womanhood: the boys' day displays include gods, warriors,
armor, a white horse and other valiant animals, while the girls' day ningyo
include a hieratic male and female "emperor and empress" (the dairi-bina)
attended, insofar as their parents' purses permit, by wise warriors, musicians,
ladies serving sake, and other figures of private life, all arranged according
to set patterns on the red steps of the hina-dan or tiered display.
The festival was legally established in 1687; many 18th-century dolls survive now as antiques. Although the basic pyramidal style of the two main dolls persists, there have been many styles and fads over three centuries. Only gradually did the doll-makers of Kyoto and Edo, and their wealthy customers, evolve the full display with at least 15 dolls and plenty of miniature furniture. In the early 20th century it became more accepted that every little girl should have a hina-matsuri display, and various smaller and cheaper formats were devised. Nowadays small sets may be valued by apartment-dwellers, and once again the emphasis is on the two main dolls.
The general word for the girls' day ningyo is hina (also ohina, and the combination form -bina, as in tachibina, "standing hina," or dairi-bina, the seated royal pair who feature in most displays) and the festival is known as Hina Matsuri (though its proper name may be Momo no Sekku, or Peach Festival).
A few days before the festival, girls and their mothers take out the hina and arrange them on a red cloth which may cover a structure, the hina-dan, with as many as 7 steps, each with its own designated set of hina: the Emperor and Empress (this is the way Americans have always identified them, though the doll pair is much older than the idea of the emperor having a single wife) at the top, three ladies serving them sake on the next step, then five or even ten musicians, two "guardians" with weapons, and three servants; also included may be toy trees, perhaps made of semi-precious stones, and various toy implements representing a dowry (small chests, carts, and so on). Girls play hostess to their friends, and also to the ningyo, who are "fed" in tiny dish sets.
A wonderful film portrayal of the Hina display is Akira Kurosawa's film Dreams: Yume (1990) The film consists of a number of short fantastic episodes, and the second one allows a small boy a vision of five complete sets of hina, like the ones his sister is displaying, come to life and dancing for him because of his sorrow at the loss of the family peach orchard. The story emphasizes (as do the film's other episodes) the intimate link between Japanese culture and the Japanese natural environment.
The third day of the third month was a day of purification in the Shinto religion from ancient times. The use of dolls in the purification rites is mentioned in the Tale of Genji, written nearly a thousand years ago. Hina Matsuri has some of its roots in this festival of purification, Nagashi-bina or Hina Nagashi (throwing-away dolls)i. Thomas Hull writes:
Celebrated on the third day of the third month of
a year was the Dolls' Festival (a.k.a. Girls' Festival). This happening
originated as a purification ceremony using many folded dolls. "This ritual
was performed by breathing on the dolls, rubbing them against one's body
to rid oneself of impurities, then throwing the infected dolls into a river
to be carried away" (Kenneway, Complete Origami, New York : St. Martin's
Press, 1987, p. 82)....Today, this ritual is for young girls in which dolls
representing the imperial family are displayed in the house.
This refers to the folded paper doll, resembling a kimono, called a Kata Shiro, used for purification in a Shinto ceremony. The Kata Shiro would be cast into a body of water, or burned, taking the user's sins away. In fact, in the earliest photograph of a hina display, a Kata Shiro of this type shares the dais with the emperor/empress pair. (Source: Luella Tilton Hart, The Japanese Doll, 1952). Another version relates Hina Matsuri to agricultural festivals casting straw dolls on the river
The Nagashi-bina ritual still exists at some Japanese shrines; a boatload of dolls (big display dolls, not paper dolls) is sent to sea on March 3 in connection with the Awashima Shrine of Wakayama Prefecture, a shrine particularly important for women, who pray there for good fortune in marriage and childbirth. "Hina-nagashi Matsuri (Floating Dolls Festival) - girls and women dedicate dolls to the shrine deity. The dolls are brought to the beach at Kada and floated away on a wooden boat, taking with them all evils and sicknesses that befall women." --Japan File, March 1998
Today in Japan some towns sell "nagashi-bina"sets, paper doll pairs designed to be set afloat--already sitting in boats of wood or straw; a good photo at Folkcraft. At the Meiji Shrine these hina are made of environmentally-friendly fish-food! Similar hina float in round straw "boats" on the river at Hina Matsuri, in a ceremony "for the safety of children" at Shimogamo Shrine near Kyoto. There may even be a ceremony in which participants dress like the most elaborate hina dolls, and set them afloat.
Doll burning ceremony is a Japanese-text site that shows some kind of ceremonial cremation involving dolls. Burning Dolls in Ueno Park is a "traveler's tale" of stumbling upon the annual September 25 ceremony in Tokyo. Another site, which is now gone, described in English the burning of dolls in hopes of conceiving healthy children. These ceremonies are quite separate from the March 3 casting of dolls on the water.
The Japanese hold ceremonial burnings of many types of objects--needles and umbrellas, dolls and toys, papers, letters, and various other tokens of work accomplished during the year. In some places there is an annual burning of Daruma dolls, which represent the year's undertaking. .
To me, as a Westerner, the idea of crafting elaborate and beautiful dolls intended for destruction--by water or by fire--is strange, an idea to think about when I look at these delicate creatures which have a life of their own.