Mon | Sep 27, 2021

Japanese Dolls – not just child’s play

Published:Sunday | April 7, 2019 | 12:00 AMAmitabh Sharma
Dahyachi Hakata doll - depicting a Yokozuna, grand chamipon Sumo wrestler, enacting a ritual before a match.
Kintaro: Golden Boy - a boy of Herculean strength who appears in a Japanese folktale. It is believed that the Kintaro doll represents boys’ health.
Shiokumi: Drawing Water at the Seaside - refers to a famous kabuki dance. A beautiful young woman, having gone to draw water at the seaside, is yearning for her lover who has returned to Kyoto.

“It has been 10 years since I left my home, but my mother still puts out Hina dolls every year and sends us a picture of the dolls,” said Haruna Higa, cultural officer at the Embassy of Japan in Jamaica.

Dolls, in Japan and many other countries, are more than playthings for children. They are symbolic of seasons, festivals, and in many parts of the world, used to stick needles and pins … well, we are not getting into that.

Japanese dolls are part of the traditional arts and craft in Japan. There are many types. While some represent the everyday life of the country, others honour warriors and heroes, and then there are those that highlight classical Japanese dances.

Symbolism is a critical element of all ancient ­cultures. Dolls in Japan have formed part of ­everyday life since ancient times. They reflect the customs of the country and the aspirations of its people, possess distinctive, regional attributes; and over the ­centuries, have developed in many diverse forms. Dolls also provide a showcase for ­traditional Japanese craft products such as textiles.

These time-tested traditions are relevant and ­followed with the same zeal and zest as they were back in the day.

“A well-known Japanese doll is the Hina ningyou, which is made for the Hina Matsuri (Girls’ Day),” said Higa. “This festival is observed on March 3 to celebrate girls and wish for their health and happiness.”

Hina dolls are displayed in homes where there are girls. Special dishes are prepared and served at home and school.

“In my case,” Higa said. “My mother puts out Hina dolls about a month before March 3 every year. On Hina Matsuri, my younger sister, and I used to sing a Hina Matsuri song and eat Chirashizushi (scattered sushi) and cake.

“How we celebrate Hina Matsuri is different from region to region,” she said.

Many varieties

There are many varieties of dolls in Japan. There are traditional dolls, some of which represent children and babies, while others showcase the imperial court, warriors and heroes, fairy-tale characters and gods.

Hina shared that many of the dolls are still made with traditional materials. These are primarily for household shrines, gifts, or to be used in festival celebrations.

Japanese dolls have also found their way into souvenir stores. Many visitors take a piece of the ­country back home.

There are several types of Japanese dolls. Hinamatsuri have an elaborate, pyramidal body, multi-layered textiles stuffed with straw or wood blocks, carved wooden hands and, in some cases, feet are covered with Gofun (a white pigment made from the shells of oysters, clams, scallops, etc. used in Japanese paintings). Kintaro dolls are offered to Japanese children to inspire in them the bravery and strength of the legendary Kintaro (a Japanese folk hero) child.

Musha, or warrior dolls, are usually made of materials similar to the Hina dolls, while Gosho dolls are representative of chubby babies in a simplified form. Kimekomi dolls on the other hand are made of wood. Karakuri ningyo (puppets or dolls) include the large figures on festival floats, for ­festivals like Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri where a musical element often ­accompanies the movement.

They often depict legendary heroes.

Wooden Kokeshi dolls, from Northern Honshu (main island of Japan), have been around for 150 years. They were originally made as toys for children of farmers. They have a simple design. The doll has no arms or legs: It has a large head and cylindrical body, ­representing little girls.

Iki-ningyo are life-sized lifelike dolls while Ichimatsu dolls represent little girls or boys. Daruma are spherical dolls with red bodies and white faces without pupils. Teru teru bozu are handmade with white paper or cloth and hung from a window by a string and believed to bring good weather. The Hoko doll is a soft-bodied doll given to young women and pregnant women as an amulet to protect both mother and unborn child. Bisque dolls are made of fired clay.


These are representations of many variants of Japanese dolls that find their place in the country’s homes, traditions, and festivities.

“I’d say that some parts of traditions are still passed down,” Higa said. “Hinamatsuri is still widely celebrated, and we also have Boys’ day, called “Kodomo no hi” on May 5. The dolls are displayed to wish for their health, safety, and success.”

She said, however, that it is expensive and difficult to care for the dolls, and many people, especially visitors, purchase paintings, fans, or other goods on which Japanese dolls are painted.

As for Hina’s mother, she religiously puts away the Hina dolls on March 4.

“She believes the superstition that the longer she displays the dolls, the longer it takes for her daughters to get ­married,” Hina said. “She tells us that she always wishes our happiness and will continue this tradition until I get married.”

We wish you the best, Haruna.