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).
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.
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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