Woodblock showing a hina-dan, with mother and daughter planning the celebration. The display has several miscellaneous tachibina and dairi bina pairs, rather than one pair and attendants.  Mizuno Toshikata, ca.1900
Woodblock showing a hina-dan, with mother and daughter planning the celebration. The display is relatively informal, with several miscellaneous tachibina and dairi bina pairs. Mizuno Toshikata, ca.1900


The most distinctive Japanese dolls are probably the sets belonging to Japanese girls and kept for display on the Doll Festival, sometimes called Girls’ Day (March 3) . The two essential dolls are a hieratic male and female figure; these may be two-dimensional (folded paper tachibina or a picture of the dolls), or they may be a beautiful “Emperor and Empress” (the dairi-bina) attended, insofar as the young owners’ parents’ purses permit, by wise warriors, musicians, ladies serving sake, and other figures of aristocratic private life of the past, all arranged according to set patterns on the red steps of the hina-dan or tiered display.

What does it all mean? For many mothers and daughters today, the display in the home of these family treasures is a wish for marriage, and comes with a warning not to leave the display up for too long lest marriage be delayed. For wealthy people 200 years ago, it may have been simply having a bigger and better display than anyone else (laws were made to restrict the size of hina dolls). Through the entire history of the dolls, though, hina dolls seem to have been known for their ability to take away the troubles of those who treat the dolls properly.

The general word for the girls’ day dolls is hina (also ohina, “honored hina,” and the combination form -bina, as in tachibina, “standing hina,” or dairi-bina, the seated royal pair who feature in most displays). The word hina or hiina is similar to the word for “chick, baby bird” and is thought to have meant something like “little, pretty thing” when it came into use both for chicks and for girls’ dolls.

A 7-step hina-dan with the 15 dolls, plus a Takasago pair, and a full-size version of the dolls' dining-table.
A 7-step hina-dan with the 15 dolls, plus a Takasago pair, and a full-size version of the dolls’ dining-table.

Celebrating Hina Matsuri

In anticipation of a newborn girl’s first Hina Matsuri, relatives will co-ordinate to see that she has at least the two main dolls in some format. New dolls are usually very expensive, and come in boxes designed for storage during 11 months of the year; they constitute an important gift. An older set belonging to a female relative may also be handed down in the family. The annual celebration in the home, with display of the dolls, will continue at least until the girl is 8 or 10, perhaps much longer, especially if her mother feels strongly about it.

      A few days before the festival, girls and their mothers take out the hina and arrange them on a red cloth which may simply create a space for a doll pair, or may cover a structure, the hina-dan, with as many as 7 steps, each with its own designated set of hina. An alternative or complement to the hina-dan is a goten, a small wooden “palace” in which the dairi-bina, or even the entire doll group with their furniture, can be arrayed. On the hina-dan, one may see:
  • The Emperor and Empress (this is the way Americans have always identified the dairi-bina, and many Japanese as well)  sit at the top. They can also be referred to as obina (male hina) and mebina (female hina), or tono and hime (lord and princess), or O-dairi-sama and O-hina-sama; insofar as they represent the Emperor and Empress, they do not refer to the persons currently in those roles (with the exceptions of a very few pairs made in the Meiji era as portraits; see Alan Pate, “Japanese dolls and the Imperial image,” Doll News 2011, pp. 80–99), but rather to the idea of their roles in Japanese religion and culture. They need gold screens (byobu) behind them, a pair of lanterns flanking them, and a vase or two of flowers. This is also where the “dog boxes,” talismans owned by the girl and connected to her fertility, would be displayed. Normally the male doll sits on the right, the seat of honor in the Kyoto palace; to seat him to the left is a reference to the more Westernized seating pattern of the Tokyo Imperial protocols (post-1870; see Shigeki Kawakami, “Ningyo: An Historical Approach,” in Avitabile, ed., Ningyo, p. 13). She wears an elaborate “phoenix crown” or else the smaller tiara that came into use in the Meiji period, and carries an open fan. The lord wears a hat (kanmuri) with a tall piece of stiffened fabric on the back, and a sword, sticking out behind. He holds a simple wooden paddle which serves as scepter.
The dairi-bina and the sannin kanjo.  A wooden replica of a hisi-mochi (diamond-shaped mochi treat) is visible.
The dairi-bina and the sannin kanjo. A wooden replica of a hisi-mochi (diamond-shaped mochi treat) is visible.
The two ministers (one old, one young) and the five musicians, with plenty of dougu. The three valets are visible at the bottom.
The two ministers (one old, one young) and the five musicians, with plenty of dougu. The three valets are visible at the bottom.
  • On the next tier are three ladies (sannin kanjo) serving sake to the dairi-bina. Sometimes the central one is kneeling; she always holds a small table. The two other ladies hold metal serving vessels, one with a long handle and one with a short one. They wear red hakama over white kimono, and sometimes brocade jackets; they nearly always have very long hair.
  • Next come the gonin-bayashi, five musicians constituting the standard orchestra for a Noh theater performance, with two hand-drums, a larger drum with sticks, a flute, and a singer. They are often depicted as boys. There exist antique sets of 7 or 10 musicians; these are men (or in at least one case women, Pate, Ningyo, 122-23) of the Imperial court, playing a wider range of instruments as part of an imagined performance in the palace.
  • There may also be  two ministers or guardians (zuishin) with bow and arrow, one a young pale man and the other older, with white hair and a ruddy complexion; some take these as depictions of the Emperor’s bodyguards, others as his two principal administrators in Kyoto, the Minister of the Left and the Minister of the Right (udaijin and sadaijin).
  • Finally, three servants (sannin shicho), adult men whose three little faces express joy, sorrow, and anger. Older groups depict three gardeners drinking around a fire, but the current fashion is for three Imperial valets, waiting on the lowest shelf with the Emperor’s shoes, banner, and hat (or parasol and spear–the items are covered and hard to identify) “in case he wants to go for a walk.”
  • Other hina dolls for the display were created but never became part of the standard set: a court lady, dressed like the sake-servers, holding on a leash a small dog; a similarly dressed lady with a cart full of flowers; a child with a branch of blossoms. Also, dolls of distinction, such as gosho dolls, might be placed on the upper shelves, and everyday dolls would be arrayed below to share in the glory.
  • Of the furniture, the most important are the two diamond-shaped tables which carry colored mochi treats, and dinner tables for the two principal figures. Often there are also two trees, made of silk or even semi-precious stones, which may or may not represent the orange and cherry trees at the portal of the Shishinden, the audience room of the Imperial palace (Dairi) in Kyoto. In addition, the display includes various toy implements (dougu), some representing traditional pastimes such as games and picnics, others representing a wealthy Edo-period girl’s dowry (chests, shelves, tables, mirrors, even books).
  • An oxcart and a palanquin (kago) complete the display, providing at least originally an opportunity for real play, and now a reference to the long premodern period, going back to the Tale of Genji, when these conveyances were the aristocratic (and especially feminine) alternative to horseback or shank’s mare.
  • A full-sized tiered food box (jubako) is often included, and may be used to store some of the special treats shared by visitors to the display. (Thanks to Terry Brown for the note that he has used the jubako in the display in this way, as I have myself.)
A "goten" or palace for dolls. This can be used independently for display, or placed on the highest tier for the dairi-bina. This small goten holds all 15 hina of a tiny kimekomi set.
A “goten” or palace. This can be used independently for display, or placed on the highest tier for the dairi-bina. This small goten holds my collection of 13 small kimekomi hina.

The festival and the days leading up to it are a time for visiting; girls play hostess to their friends, and also to the ningyo, who are “fed” in their tiny dish sets. There is now a very popular song for the day, “Ureshi hinamatsuri,” many renditions of which can be found on Youtube. In some places, there are civic displays of many doll sets (always with the dairi-bina on the top tier, though it may be crowded!) or special events such as “living” displays featuring children in fancy dress, or the formal launching of nagashi-bina (floating hina, usually now a pair of paper dolls in a straw “boat”) on a river or stream near a shrine.

A wonderful film portrayal of the Hina display is Akira Kurosawa’s film  Dreams: Yume (1990)  The film consists of a number of short fantastic episodes, and the second of these allows a small boy a vision of five complete sets of hina, like the ones his sister is displaying, come to life and dancing for him because of his sorrow at the loss of the family peach orchard. The story emphasizes (as do the film’s other episodes) the intimate link between Japanese culture and the Japanese natural environment (the festival is associated with the peach blossom, though the peaches bloom early in the third month of the old lunar calendar, not on March 3).

The Third Day of the Third Month

A Meiji-era style dairi. He is a bit worn at the edges (and hairline) but his brocade robe is still fresh.
A Meiji-era style dairi. He is a bit worn at the edges (and hairline) but his brocade robe is still fresh.
This lady is the partner of the lord to the left. Her tiara is more "modern" than the phoenix crown worn by the older pair on the far left.
This lady is the partner of the lord to the left. Her tiara is more “modern” than the phoenix crown.


Bibliographical Note: As I write this, I have in hand a wonderful essay in English on Hina Matsuri: Momo Miyazaki, “Development of the Doll Festival as seen in paintings,” in Images of Familial Intimacy in Eastern and Western Art, ed. Toshiharu Nakamura (Brill 2014), pp. 218-248. The following essay would be much shorter without it! Alan Pate’s chapter on the Doll Festival in Ningyo is also an indispensable source of experience and information. I apologize to both authors for whatever mistakes I may have made in my own attempt at synthesis.


Note: To the left are photos of two large hina dolls. I have a page that shows more views of them.


The third day of the third month is one of the “go-sekku,” or five festivals, which came to Japan from China before 500 CE: the five sacred days are the first day of the first month, the third of the third, the fifth of the fifth, the seventh of the seventh, and the ninth of the ninth. Each day is associated with certain plants (the third of the third with peach blossoms, which would be prominent at the beginning of the third month of the lunar calendar used in these countries) and an animal (the third day of the third month was also First Snake Day). The 3/3 holiday was a day for banquets or picnics by a “winding stream” involving drinking and poetry. It also became strongly associated with cockfights. These were aristocratic pursuits, usually taking place in palaces, though a cockfight could of course be held in a public place too. In the course of the 17th century, hina asobi (doll play) on this date spread from the Kyoto aristocracy to the various regional rulers who obeyed the Shogun, and finally more widely. A physician and historian recorded this comment in 1676: “Today, the girl children of both prosperous and poor homes made dolls out of paper, and called them hina, and played with them” (Doyu Kurokawa, quoted in Miyazaki, “Development,” p. 227).
A 20th-century oshie (padded picture) hina pair. The dolls are designed to face each other, which softens the usual hieratic positioning and suggests mutual affection.
An oshie (padded picture) hina pair, probably from the Meiji era. The dolls are designed to face each other, which softens the usual hieratic positioning and suggests mutual affection.


In the Tale of Genji, written a thousand years ago, Genji, son, brother, and father of emperors, is advised that 3/3 is a good day for purification by means of a katashiro or surrogate figure; a katashiro was a doll-like figure made of paper, wood, or straw, on which the person to be purified breathed or which he rubbed on his body to transfer his sins or bad luck. (This article from HERITAGE OF JAPAN by Aileen Kawagoe clarifies that the usual day for such activitity was later in the year, at the end of the sixth month). Genji’s katashiro is cast into the ocean,  in an attempt to heal his troubled situation (he is in exile after being found in bed with an important wife of his brother, the Emperor). Later in the Tale of Genji,  there are references to nademono (“rubbing things”) or nagashi-bina (“hina for floating away”), as certain women are compared to this kind of useful but disposable doll. Today at certain shrines nagashi-bina, in the form of paper dolls in little straw boats, are sent floating on rivers for this purpose on 3/3. But the Hina Matsuri dolls, constructed so differently and for such a different purpose, can also be efficacious in receiving the transfer of guilt/bad luck; this is done by touching old dolls that will soon be burned in a public ceremony.
Traditional paper tachibina, emblem of hina matsuri.
Traditional paper tachibina, emblem of hina matsuri.

Thomas Hull writes: “This refers to the folded paper doll, resembling a kimono, called a Kata Shiro, used for purification in a Shinto ceremony. The Kata Shiro would be cast into a body of water, or burned, taking the user’s sins away. In fact, in the earliest photograph of a hina display, a Kata Shiro of this type shares the dais with the emperor/empress pair.”  (Source: Luella Tilton Hart, The Japanese Doll, 1952).

It’s hard to tell to what extent Genji’s adventure with his katashiro actually influenced the perception of 3/3 as a day for playing with dolls, but it may have done so, since in other chapters Genji and his future wife, little Murasaki, play with hina. At any rate, the idea of making paper dolls as gifts for 3/3 and of giving them to little princesses for play on that day is recorded occasionally in the diaries of the ladies of the Imperial court.

For a long time the custom was evidently to make a pair of paper dolls representing a man and woman of the Heian period Imperial court (the male with ballooning sleeves and trousers and an eboshi hat, the woman with her limbs hidden modestly and long hair); still today this tachibina, “standing hina,” pair, symbolizes the festival. In 1625, the first record appears of some kind of display of hina on 3/3: the Imperial court ladies took care of a stand and equipment used for doll play by the Empress Tofukumon’in (Tokugawa Masako, a daughter of a Shogun who had married the Emperor, thus bridging the gap between the traditional aristocracy and the military Shogunate which effectively ruled Japan). This would have been the first 3/3 after the birth of Tofukumon’in’s daughter, who would later be the Emperor Meisho, so it is possible to see this as the moment in Japanese politics as well as culture when hina asobi began to spread beyond the seclusion of the palace’s women’s quarters (see Miyazaki, “Development,” p. 225). The festival was legally established as Hina Matsuri, literally “Festival of the hIna dolls,” in 1687. (Note: a female tenno, or emperor, was rare in Japan but Meisho was not the only one to hold this sacred office.)

When doll-makers got involved, they developed new forms and styles for this pair of dolls, based on the actual or perceived fashions of the Imperial court. For a while dolls with spherical heads were desirable, but egg-shaped heads and pear-shaped heads went in and out of fashion, and the modern style settled into a type where the princess has a round, full face and the lord a more oval one. The most expensive types of doll grew very large (up to about 3 feet tall for the seated princess with crown) or, after laws were made restricting their size, very small. Gradually the doll-makers of Kyoto and Edo, and their wealthy customers, evolved the full display with at least 15 dolls and plenty of miniature furniture. As the dolls grew more expensive and decorative, the hina-dan developed more tiers, so that the best dolls were placed out of reach–though children might still make and play with paper dolls, or play with the furniture (see Miyazaki, “Development,” pp. 234-35). Many  elaborate 18th and 19th-century dolls survive now as antiques.

The Edo period had such a distinctive cultural continuity because the Shogunate barred all contact between the Japanese and foreigners, starting in 1616. In 1854, the American Commodore Perry began negotiations to force Japan to enter trade and diplomatic relations with the rest of the world. After the Shogun was deposed and the Meiji Emperor took his throne in Tokyo, every aspect of Japanese life was examined in light of the need for, on the one hand, swift modernization and industrialization, and, on the other, preservation of a strong sense of national identity. Both of these were necessary to resist colonization or exploitation by Western powers. The lunisolar calendar with its go-sekku was replaced by the Gregorian calendar on January 1, 1873, and at the same time the old holidays were replaced by new ones focusing on the Emperor’s mystical bond with his nation. For some decades there was doubt as to whether Hina Matsuri should be celebrated on March 3, or according to the old lunar calendar later in the year, or not at all; practices varied. Eventually, however, the festival, like the 5/5 festival (Boys’ Day, from the American point of view), became important as an opportunity to ritualize specifically Japanese hopes and values, including marriage and families, and also respect for the Imperial family and their role in Japanese history.

The hina doll celebration weathered its deprecation by the Meiji government quite well, and thrived despite such disasters as the 1923 earthquake which obliterated many treasured hina stored in Tokyo homes or in “fireproof” buildings (kura) which could not protect them. It was brought to the Americas by immigrants and to Korea and Manchuria by Japanese families as the empire expanded, though (so far as I know) it did not spread outside the Japanese communities. A great challenge was the end of World War II, which brought not only the destruction  of Japanese cities and people, but also the failure of the proud autonomy and imperial ambitions with which Japan had confronted the West for almost a century. However, Hina Matsuri was a part of the traditional culture–along with the Emperor and Empress–which some Westerners respected–perhaps romanticized–and encouraged. It survived and still flourishes now in the 21st century.

As new ideas about marriage and the role of a wife in society have developed, the celebration of Edo-period domesticity and Heian-period romance probably seems harder for some mothers and girls to accept; I infer this from conversation with some Japanese women, but I don’t know whether the problem has been formally discussed in public. New standards of “cuteness” have also affected the hina display, though the traditional figures are still very popular. In years of the dog or rabbit, animal dairi-bina are produced to celebrate; there are also dairi-bina of Mickey and Minnie Mouse (to see some, search for “Mickey hinamatsuri”), of Hello Kitty,  and of the Japanese Barbie-type doll Licca and her boy friend. But the dolls are still treated with great respect, and seen by many as capable of taking on the misfortunes of those who touch them in the right spirit, just as in Genji’s day.