Big in Japan: Girls’ Day

Today’s column is written in honor of Hina-matsuri (雛祭り) or Girls’ Day, an annual March 3rd celebration for those of us with two X chromosomes. The striking focal point of this event is the presentation of up to seven tiers of handmade dolls, which have a material history dating back more than a millennium.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of life in Japan is the near constant occurrence of special events and festivals. Many of these are steeped in ritual and tradition, yet retain a firm place in the modern world.

Case in point: despite the decreasing size of Japanese dwellings, Hina-matsuri is reason enough to clean out the apartment and make some extra space for dozens of elaborate dolls. As symbolic representatives of the royal court, they are said to capture evil spirits while simultaneously bringing luck and love to young women.

Want to know more about this strange spectacle? Sure you do…Girls’ Day has its roots in the Heian Period (794-1185), which is often referred to as the ‘Golden Age’ of classical Japanese arts. With the the royal court flourishing, and peace reigning supreme across the archipelago, there was ample time to devote to the pursuit of beauty and personal fulfillment.

According to custom, in the weeks leading up to March 3rd, Japanese households would prepare an elaborate display of handmade dolls. From top to bottom, they would run the gamut from representations of imperial officials to more utilitarian items such as ox-drawn carriages and palanquins.

On the morning of March 4th, families would immediately set the dolls afloat on miniature boats and send them off to the sea. Failure to comply would severely harm the marriage prospects of any female members in the household.

In the modern era, the price of acquiring new dolls each year became prohibitively expensive for such a practice to continue. Still, old customs die hard, and today savvy matrons are quick to pack away Hina-matsuri dolls in discrete boxes, and store them well out of sight.

If you happen to be in Japan right now, consider taking a break from your normal routine to visit a local temple or shrine. There is a good chance that there will be plenty of dolls on display. And if you happen to have a Y chromosome along with an X, fear not as Boys’ Day is just around the corner on May 5th.

** All images courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons Project **