By Iain Thomas - - - Much like the ever gaudier and grander Christmas trees we welcome in December, late March and early February sees the appearance of a special decoration in Japan—the hinadan. A red, collapsible staircase, the hinadan houses a cast of 15 dolls numbering 1 prince, 1 princess, 2 ministers, a band of 5 minstrels, and two sets of 3 servants—one for the prince, one for the princess. These dolls represent the royal court in all its splendor and are passed on to the young daughters of each new generation in a family. Accordingly, the day is a time to mark the importance of girls and femininity in general.
That question takes us back to the days of the Heian Period (794-1185 AD). Throughout Japan, a special purification ritual was annually performed in villages. The local priest would imbue wads of straw with the village's evil and chuck them into the river to float downstream and become someone else's problem.
But they hit a snag. Girls in the villages began to play with the wads of straw, eventually decorating them and turning them into dolls. Rather than dissuading them, parents encouraged this behavior. The clothing became more elegant. Faces appeared. Straw was replaced with more craft-friendly materials. In some regions the custom of floating dolls down the river remains; but, for the most part, the dolls are here to stay now.
In fact, it's tricky to dispose of a hinamatsuri doll. As my students have attested, throwing one away invites possible curses. Likewise with pawning it. The only surefire way to get rid of a doll is to go to a local shrine and entrust it to a priest.With what bright expressions and clothing they have, one wonders why that is.