When you are travelling in Japan, you see lots of vintage and antique Japanese dolls for sale. These dolls are a relatively cheap souvenir even if they are Japanese porcelain dolls. The most beautiful we found were the Hina dolls from the Hinamatsuri festival celebrated on March 3rd every year.
What is Hinamatsuri?
Hinamatsuri is a festival that ensures the healthy growth of a daughter. Usually a family gets the first two dolls (the Emperor and the Empress) by the first birthday of their child. You don’t need to have any more dolls. The dolls are offered little food offerings and sake. We discovered that Shintoism in Japan seems to love sake offerings!
Hinamatsuri is celebrated for daughters until their 10th birthday. They Hina dolls are displayed for only a brief time because of the superstition that if you left them up too long they would be responsible for the daughter’s late marriage. Heaven forbid.
The Hina Dolls
Each family brings out their Hinamatsuri set which is a series of dolls placed on a red carpet. They will always have a man and a woman on the top tier which is supposed to represent the Emperor and Empress.
How many more tiers of dolls you have depends on how much money you have. A Hinamatsuri set ranges from 5-7 tiers with 15 dolls.
Below is a 3-tier Hinamatsuri set which has the Emperor and Emperess and their courtiers and musicians in traditional court dress from the Heian period.
This period by the way, Heian, was named for its capital city which is now Kyoto. The Heian period was a flourishing time for Japanese culture. It lasted from 794-1185.
These dolls to buy new are expensive (for example a full 5 tier set of Japanese porelain dolls can cost a couple of thousand US dollars). Usually families pass down these dolls from generation to generation.
What’s So Dark About Hina Dolls?
You can, however, get them fairly cheaply in second-hand stores. Antique Japanese Hina dolls are not bought by Japanese families. Dolls are supposed to take on human characteristics by virtue of looking like humans. It’s fine to inherit your doll from your family members but you will invite bad spirits into your home if you bring a stranger’s Hina dolls into your home!
My daughter thought they were beautiful until she heard the superstition about them having spirits of their own. Then she just thought they were creepy.
Hinamatsuri also has a macabre origin story. The legend goes that one of the mythical founders of Japan (sort of like Romulus and Remus for Rome) purified himself after visiting the Land of the Dead.
This purification used to include human sacrifice. During the Heian period though, ritual purification could be done by transferring your issues to a doll and throwing it in the river or sea. Hinamatsuri eventually became the form Japan still has today by the late 17th century.
So there are lots of antique Hina dolls floating around Japan that no longer belong to a family. They get flogged to foreigners who appreciate them for their beauty and don’t have the attendant superstitions associated with them.
I did buy two Hina dolls before I learned about the legend. I’m still waiting for the Japanese spirits inhabiting these Hina dolls to pay me a visit though. Maybe they didn’t like to fly coach back to London.