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The Meaning of Hina Matsuri, the Japanese Girls’ Day and Its Dolls

Hina Matsuri is a festival celebrated on March 3rd to pray for the health and good future of young girls. When a girl is born into a family, it is customary for the relatives to offer hina ningyo (hina dolls). On the day of the festival, these dolls are displayed in the household.

The Origins of Hina Matsuri

The history of hina dolls is more than 10 centuries long and is a significant part of Japanese culture.

The roots of this celebration come from ancient China where on March 3rd, there was a festival designed to invite the spirits to purify and cleanse impurities. In Japan, it became a day to do harae, the Japanese version of exorcism and purification. People went near the rivers to perform purification ceremonies and had banquets. In Japanese, this day was called Joshi no Sekku, the Snake Festival, but is now called Momo no Sekku, the Peach Festival, as peach flowers bloom during this period. Peach flowers were also thought to repel bad luck in ancient China.

In ancient Japan, to purify yourself, it was customary to make a doll to take on your impurities. You would make a doll, rub it against your skin, blow on it, and let it flow along the river. At the same time, playing with dolls, hina asobi in ancient Japanese, was popular among young girls, such as mentioned in Japanese classics likeThe Tale of Genji.” With time, these two aspects of dolls in Japanese culture merged.

Japanese girls playing with porcelain dolls

In older times, it was difficult for children to grow up safely and they would get sick easily. The March 3rd Festival became a day to use dolls to cleanse children from possible diseases or calamities and pray for the kids to grow up without trouble. The dolls would be put near the children’s pillows and kept as sacred objects to be used again every year, until the children reached three years old.

From the era of medieval Japan, the dolls became increasingly beautiful, and from the Edo period (1603–1868), people started displaying and dressing them as the Imperial Court members of the Heian period (794–1185). With time, the festival became a day to pray for one’s daughter’s health and happiness.

The Different Characters on Display

As said earlier, the dolls represent the emperor court during the Heian era. Today, the princess doll is still meant to protect the child and take her place if something bad happens.  In theory, a family with one daughter should have one set of dolls and a family with three daughters is supposed to purchase three. This can be expensive, and there aren’t many households large enough to display multiple sets, so some people resort to simply supplementing their collection with other characters such as the “three court ladies” or “five court musicians.”

A three-tier display of hina dolls

The two dolls sitting at the top are the prince (called obina) and princess (called mebina), or the emperor and empress. They usually sit in front of gold-leaf folding screens. In the Tokyo style, when facing the display, the princess is sat on the right and the prince on the left. The Kyoto style displays them the other way.

Under them there are three court women holding sweet white sake. The two women on the sides are in a standing position and only the lady in the middle is sitting.  Sometimes she is represented without eyebrows, which was a tradition for married women.

Below come the five court musicians playing Noh. From right to left they are as follows: the singer, the flute, the small hand drum, the large hand drum, and the small drum.

On the fourth tier, there are the attendees. On the right side is the minister of the left, who presides over intelligence. On the left side is the minister of right who is physically more powerful. Both of them carry arrows on their backs.

Finally, there are the jicho (helpers). They take care of a variety of things for the prince and princess. From right to left, one with an umbrella, one with a stand for removing shoes, and one with a daigasa (a kind of umbrella with a hat). They respectively have angry, merry, and sad faces.

How and When to Display the Dolls

There are three common sets to display the dolls:

– A simple display, called shinno, with the prince doll and the princess doll. 

– A three-tier display, with a prince and a princess, three court ladies, and five court musician dolls.

– A five-tier display on which other attendees of the court and helpers are added, for a total of 15 dolls. This is the most common set. However, in public places, you may see displays with many more tiers than this!

Dolls of the prince and the princess

It is customary to display the dolls after the Setsubun celebration is over. It can be on the day following Setsubun, or any auspicious day according to the Japanese calendar. The dolls should be displayed and removed on sunny days (probably because dolls are fragile so choosing a dry day to display them helps keep them in good shape). In some areas of Japan, it is believed that the 19th of February is an especially auspicious day, as it is traditionally thought as being the day when young green leaves start appearing.

A popular belief says that waiting too long to remove the dolls after March 3rd is over will lead to the girl getting married late, however, the truth is March 6th is considered an auspicious day to do so. It is traditionally thought to be the day when insects that were hibernating during winter start going out.

A full set of Hina dolls can be very expensive (paying 300,000 yen for a five-tier set is not uncommon), but as most Japanese people live in small places today, it is quite easy to find small versions of the dolls that you can take back home as a souvenir of Japan.

Special Food

Some special food are eaten by the girls and their families on March 3rd. Here are a few of them and their auspicious meaning.

Hishi Mochi

Hishi mochi is of rhomboid shape and is formed of three layers of mochi (rice cake) which are, from bottom to top, colored in green, white, and pink (this shade of pink is called momo iro, or “peach color” in Japanese). The color white represents snow and the energy from the earth, green represents the energy of the roots and plants under the snow, and pink represents the energy of life. By eating them, the girls symbolically absorb the forces of nature to grow up in good health.

Hishi mochi

Hina Arare

Hina arare are colored rice puffs. In older times, it was also customary to take the dolls outside and “to show them the country.”. Hina arare were then an easy snack to bring on the trip. The rice puffs are colored in white, green, pink, and yellow, and represent the four seasons. Similarly to hishi mochi, eating hina arare gives the girls the energy from nature.


Hina arare on the left, chirashi zushi on the right.

Chirashi zushi

Chirashi zushi is vinegared rice on which different ingredients are scattered. It is a dish commonly eaten on celebrations and its ingredients like shrimp, beans, and lotus root are not only colorful but also considered auspicious.

Born in France, I've been living in Japan since 2011. I'm curious about everything, and living in Japan has allowed me to expand my vision of the world through a broad range of new activities, experiences, and encounters. As a writer, what I love most is listening to people's personal stories and share them with our readers.

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