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Hina-Matsuri: The Japanese Doll’s Festival

Frank Teichert, Curator of Archaeology and Human Remains at DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History, showcases some of the Japanese dolls in the museum’s collection in light of the upcoming Hina-Matsuri (Doll’s Festival).

DITSONG Japanese Dolls Festival Hina-Matsuri
The Maids of Honour (Kwanjo): The three maids of honour, or maids-in-waiting, wear white kimonos underneath long red pleated skirts that hide their feet. The two standing bear rice wine (sake), one in a long-handled receptacle (ochoshi) and the other in a similar holder but with a short handle. The middle maid or lady-in-waiting holds a ceremonial tray or stand (sambo), on which the sake cups are passed.
DITSONG Japanese Dolls Festival Hina-Matsuri
The Three Equerries (Shicho): The duties of the three attendants are to wait for a member of the nobility or daimyō (powerful territorial lords). The one carries an umbrella in a cover, another a pair of shoes and the third is in charge of a hat on the end of his staff. They are usually dressed in white kimonos and old-style hats of papier-mâché.

In Japan, Hina-Matsuri (Doll’s Festival), one of five seasonal festivals, is celebrated annually on 3 March according to the Chinese calendar. This festival has existed in Japan since the Edo Period (17th – 19th centuries) and has developed into an event symbolic of Japanese arts and customs. The festival is also known as Momo-no-Sekku (The Peach Festival). Momo-no-Sekku used to be held on 3 March each year as the peach trees used to blossom around this time. Today, the peach blossoms only start to bloom in early April.
     On this day, Hina-Matsuri, families with their young daughters celebrate the event at home to ensure their daughters’ future happiness. This is done by decorating Hina-Ningyo (replica dolls of an ancient emperor and empress and their subordinates). These dolls are placed on a multi-tiered doll stand covered with red cloth. These tiers represent ladies of the court, musicians and other attendants, with all sorts of accessories. The dolls are ‘ceremonial toys’, many of them passed on from generation to generation. They are displayed for a few days in the best room of the house during the festival, after which they are carefully boxed and put away until the next year. Parents who can afford it, buy new sets of dolls for a newborn baby girl, while relatives and friends make dolls to be passed on as gifts. Peach blossoms, symbolising a happy marriage, are indispensable decorations of this festival day. The blossoms signify the feminine traits of gentility, composure and tranquillity.
     In the early days of the festival, men, women and children made crude dolls of paper on 3 March (lunar calendar), transferring their ill fortunes or sickness to the dolls. Gathering the dolls, they went to a nearby brook or river, and cast them, bearing all their evils, into the water. It was thus an occasion for a family outing, just when the pleasant spring season started. The date of this festival marks the onset of spring.

DITSONG Japanese Dolls Festival Hina-Matsuri
The Emperor and Empress (Dairibina): The Emperor and Empress are dressed in ceremonial court robes. The Emperor holds a wooden sceptre in his right hand, with the old Japanese crown on his head. The Empress is clad in twelve garments, covered with rich embroideries. She wears a crown of the old Chinese style decorated with metal hangings. She holds an open fan in her hands. The thick decorated mats, on which they are seated, were formally used as seats, when floors were made from wood. Today, flat square cushions are placed on the mat-covered floor of the Japanese house. Folding screens of golden coloured silk represent larger screens that were used to partition large rooms or for privacy in the houses of the aristocracy.
DITSONG Japanese Dolls Festival Hina-Matsuri
The Five Musicians (Gonin bayashi): These musicians are models of those who form an orchestra for musical performances at the court or a No play – the flute (fue) player, the singer (utai), the drummer (taiko), the player of the large tsuzumi (O-tsuzumi), and the smaller tsuzumi (Ko-tsuzumi). A tsuzumi is a Japanese drum; the wooden body is shaped like an hourglass and has two drum heads with cords that can be squeezed or released. This either increases or decreases the tension of the drum heads, changing the pitch of the drum.

Hina-Matsuri used to be one of the very few occasions when little Japanese girls had their own parties. It was customary up to the pre-war years for them to invite their friends to these parties at which they took part of the sweets and food offered to the dolls. Sometimes they cooked and prepared the food and cakes to be offered to the dolls. They drank shirozake, a sweet mild rice wine, on the occasion. The main offerings are small diamond-shaped rice cakes called hishi mochi – tiny green, white and red dainties of osekihan (glutinous rice boiled with red beans) and coloured wheat gluten. Old country families still treasure their family Hina-Matsuri dolls and doll furniture, which are preserved for centuries. Brides used to take their own dolls to their new homes.
     The festival has different interpretations. Families observe it to encourage filial piety, ancestor worship, loyalty, but above all, the love Japanese parents have for their children, their pride and joy in them, and their desire to please them.
     The DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History in Pretoria has a collection of these dolls that can be viewed in the Objects with Stories exhibition. The dolls in the Museum’s collection are made from multi-layered textiles stuffed with straw, carved wood hands and feet covered in gofun. Gofun is a white pigment that is made by pulverising oyster shells. It is mixed with glue made from the bones and hides of cows. The head is moulded wood composite covered with gofun. The eyes were made from glass and the hair of the doll consists of human hair.
     An interesting side note about the Hinakazari doll set is that it was donated to the Museum by the Japanese Ambassador in the early 1940s, a few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. It is speculated whether the Japanese Embassy in South Africa at the time had any knowledge of this attack, which might be the reason why he donated the doll set to the Museum. 

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