Hina-matsuri (Dolls Festival) (雛祭り)

Hina-matsuri is an annual event of the seasonal festival to pray for the healthy growth of girls. It is also referred to as Hina-asobi.


In Japan, Hina-matsuri used to be observed on March 3 on the old calendar (around present-day April) which was on the seasonal festival (the first day of the Snake month) in March, by the Japanese calendar (lunar-solar calendar), but after the reform of the calendar in January 1, 1873, the festival has been generally celebrated on March 3 by the Gregorian calendar (new calendar). In some parts (mainly cold snowy regions such as the Tohoku region) of the country, however, Hina-matsuri is still observed on March 3 by the old calendar (there are other regions that celebrate the festival on April 3 according to the new calendar). Hina-matsuri was also named Momo no (peach's) sekku because the festival by the old calendar was held during the time when peach trees blossomed.

Hina-matsuri is a seasonal festival to display dolls centering around the doll representing the emperor called obina and the doll representing the empress called mebina with peach flowers, enjoying eating and drinking shirozake (sweet white sake), for example. The positions of the obina and the mebina are reversed between the Kyoto styled dolls and the Kanto styled dolls. The dairi-bina (literally, Imperial Palace's dolls) originally indicated the pair of the Hina-matsuri dolls, the obina and mebina; however, the mistakes of calling the obina 'Odairi-sama' and the mebina 'Ohina-sama' became a common practice due to the lyrics of the children's song 'Ureshii Hinamatsuri' (Happy Hina-matsuri). Many other dolls representing, for example, accompanying ministers and attendants displayed under the dolls of the three court ladies are called 'tomozoroi' (accompaniment by a full retinue).


It is historically unclear when Hina-matsuri started in Japan, but there are several theories about its origin. Hina-matsuri in Japan is assumed to have originated in Kyoto since there is a record to show that the original festival was held as a courtly 'entertainment' by daughters of the nobles during the Heian period. At that time, a small imperial palace-like mansion called 'yakata' is believed to have been prepared for display. However, this play was just a 'play' in every respect and was never ceremonial matters; in fact, the name of Hina-asobi (literally, small doll play) originated from it.

During the Edo period, the girls' 'doll play' was combined with the 'ceremony of the seasonal festival' with the features of the season, which spread across the country and dolls began to be displayed. It was not until the Tensho era that this play 'Hina-asobi' was transformed into 'Hina-matsuri' as an event of the seasonal festival; thus, it is assumed that Hina-matsuri began to be held as purification during the seasonal festival of March from this era. During this period, however, Hina-matsuri increasingly had a ritualistic aspect of having the dolls suffer all the present and future misfortunes in place of people in addition to the traditional aspect of a display, and the Hina-matsuri doll set was considered to be one of the bride's household articles for high-ranking females such as the daughters of samurai families. As a matter of course, the doll set became more elegant and luxurious.

In the early Edo period, the tachi-bina (standing hina, or dolls), reminiscence of the katashiro (human-shaped paper used for prayer), and the suwari-bina (sitting dolls), also known as Kanei-bina (dolls of the Kanei era), were made, but they were still the display of a male and female pair of the dairi-bina. As the time passed by, the dolls became more refined; the Genroku-bina (dolls of the Genroku era) in the costume of the juni-hitoe (twelve-layered ceremonial kimono) and the large-size Kyoho-bina (dolls of the Kyoho era) were made, and, being displayed in front of gorgeous gold-leaf folding screens, these dairi-bina were magnificent. During this Kyoho era, the then government headed by a shogun temporarily banned large-size Hina-matsuri dolls to limit people's spending. By taking advantage of the situation, small state-of-the-art Hina-matsuri dolls (only several centimeters in size), called 'keshi-bina' (tiny dolls), became popular. In the late Edo period, the 'yusoku-bina,' dolls clad in the exact replica of the elegant court costume of the Heian period, appeared, and the 'kokin-bina' (traditional dolls with new designs), the precursor of the present-day Hina-matsuri dolls, also appeared. Afterwards, around the end of the Edo period to the Meiji period, new elements of the Hina-matsuri display such as bride's outfit, kitchen setting, attendant dolls serving for the dairi-bina, small tools, a palace, and multi-tiered platforms, were rapidly added to the original display of the pair of the dairi-bina, increasing the size of the display.

Characteristics of the Hina-matsuri dolls

The Hina-matsuri dolls wearl the costume of the nobles from the Heian period (costume of the Heian period).

The couple of obina and mebina called shinno represent the emperor and empress.

The kanjo, also known as sannin-kanjo represent court ladies serving in the imperial court, and one of them has blackened teeth called ohaguro and shaved off their eyebrows (in general, a woman with blackened teeth and no eyebrows was married, but in the case of a court lady who remained single all her life, it is assumed that she was senior).

The gonin-bayashi represent five musicians for playing the percussion ensemble for the Noh drama), respectively: their parts are the taiko (stick drum), the okawa (slide hand drum), the kotsuzumi (shoulder drum), the fue (Japanese flute), and the utai (chant) (in some cases, five or seven ancient court musicians are displayed in place of the Noh hayashi musicians.)

The dolls of the attendants represent the guard as well as the accompanying ministers Udaijn (Minister of the Right) and Sadaijin (Minister of the Left).

The helpers represent followers, and generally consist of three persons.

*Note that some manufacturers add the following items:
Three most famous tanka poets (KAKINOMOTO no Hitomaro, ONO no Komachi, and SUGAWARA no Michizane)
Noh drama 'Crane and Tortoise'
Two chigo (beautifully dressed children parading at festivals)

Position of the obina and the mebina

There are not rules fixed for the layout of the dairi-bina and the other dolls. The dairi-bina on the platform may, however, represent the position in the imperial court in the imperial palace. In Japan as well as the Tang Dynasty of China during ancient times, 'left' was considered to be ranked higher. Among the dolls except for the dairi-bina, Sadaijin (the senior doll with a beard) ranks highest and is placed to the left of the emperor (right from the viewer's perspective). Incidentally, the cherry tree decorations 'the cherry tree on the left and the tachibana orange on the right' are placed to the left side of the emperor, the position of which matches that of the actual trees planted in the property of the Shishinden (the Throne Hall) in the imperial court. Due to the tradition of regarding the left as a higher-ranked position, monarchs enthroned as emperor stood on the left side until the reign of Emperor Meiji. With the introduction of the civilization and enlightenment during the Meiji period, Japan became westernized, and the first emperor to hold the enthronement ceremony thereafter, Emperor Taisho stood on the right side, following the western style. Thereafter, this became a tradition for the Imperial family, and in the modern era, Emperor Showa always stood on the right while Empress Kojun on the left.

To give further details about the aforementioned position, at the enthronement ceremony, the emperor stands in the center of the Throne Hall and the empress stands to the right from the viewer's perspective. Regardless of whether left or right is ranked higher, the center is the highest. The reason why the emperor stands to the right of the empress is, at least at the enthronement ceremony, not because they are following the western style, but just because the emperor stands in the center while the empress is on his right from the viewer's perspective, meaning that they do not stand to the right or the left of each other. In China, the position is in the order of Empress Dowager Cixi, the emperor, and Empress Dowager Ci'an from the left; thus, hypothetically speaking, the order in Japan would be the emperor, and the empress since there is no position corresponding to Empress Dowager Cixi. Therefore, it is assumed that the position of the dolls of the Kanto region resulted from the position of the left and the right regardless of the center.

In Tokyo, according to this arrangement, more and more families placed the obina on the right (left from the viewer's perspective). In the old historic Kinai region (five provinces in the vicinity of ancient Kyoto) including Kyoto as well as in southwestern Honshu, Kyushu,, and Okinawa, many families, respecting old traditions, place the obina on the right from the viewer's perspective, even today. The Japan Dolls Association has called the placement of the obina on the left and on the right from the viewer's perspective the 'modern style' and the 'ancient style' respectively, since the enthronement of Emperor Showa; the association has nonetheless maintained that either style will do.

How to display the Hina-matsuri dolls

There are various kinds of display styles throughout the country, but most of them are categorized into the three types described below. However, there are no specific rules regarding each display style.

Display style of representing a palace and placing all the elements (including the style of a multi-tiered platform)

Display style of using a setting of a room in a palace

Display style of reproducing the setting of the a room for a noble person with a folding screen

Furthermore, musical instruments used for the musical accompaniment, household items, equipment such as the ox-drawn carriage are displayed in some cases. The doll displays on the five-tiered platform in the picture in the upper part of this section, the seven-tiered platform since the period of high economic growth and the eight-tiered platform since the bubble economy have been popular, but today, the doll displays on fewer tiers are mainstream to match the size of rooms or to take the dolls in and out easily. In some parts of the Kansai region as well as Kyoto and its vicinity before World War II, the doll representing the emperor and the doll representing the empress were placed in the imperial palace-like mansion modeled after an emperor's palace, and the three court ladies and the five musicians were displayed on the stairs or the garden in front of the two dolls with the fine miniatures such as a dressing table, tea utensils, and tiered food boxes on their sides.

The popular belief that a delay in putting the Hina-matsuri dolls away after the festival will delay the daughter's marriage is a superstition which began in the early Showa period. The origin of the superstition is believed to have come from the facts: unless putting them away soon, dolls and silk handicrafts were eaten by bugs or damaged by mold, for Hina-matsuri was held right before the spring rainy season according to the old calendar.

At the festival, people eat hishi-mochi (red, white, and green diamond-shaped rice cakes), hina-arare (cubic rice crackers for Hina-matsuri), the dishes (soup, for example) of red sea bream or hamaguri (common oriental clam), chirashi sushi (literally, scattered sushi, or a bowl of sushi rice topped with an assortment of fish, vegetables, and the like); and in some regions, they have shirozake for drinking and the fresh sweet hichigiri (a round sheet of rice cake with sweet bean paste tucked inside it).

Reasons why Hina-matsuri is not a holiday

During the Edo period, Hina-matsuri is said to have observed as a holiday' as one of the "go-sekku" (five seasonal festivals).
With the adoption of the new calendar in 1873, the holidays of the "go-sekku (i.e., Hina-matsuri)" were abolished, and accordingly, the holidays were further like 'holidays for the Imperial family' rather than 'holidays for the people.'
Consequently, the movement to create a new holiday came to be observed after World War II. Upon the creation of the new holiday, the dates of March 3 and April 1 (the beginning of the fiscal year) were proposed, but in the end, May 5 of the Tango no sekku (literally, the first day of the Horse month) was selected as the holiday (Children's Day). The major reason for this decision was because the weather in May was mild across the country, avoiding periods of cold, bad climate in many regions such as in Hokkaido and the Tohoku region.

Unique Hina-matsuri

Throughout the country, festivals displaying numerous Hina-matsuri dolls, displaying distinctive decorations, and festivals in which boys and girls or adults dress up as the Hina-matsuri dolls are held during the time of the festival.

[Original Japanese]