Hinamatsuri: Girls’ Day Celebration History and Customs
Written by Nina M. Cataldo
Hinamatsuri, also known as Girls’ Day, is a celebration that occurs annually on March 3rd in honor of girls in Japan.
The celebration stems from the old customs of o-harae, a purification ceremony. The imperial court practiced the purification rituals twice a year, by transferring crimes and sins onto paper, wood, or straw dolls then releasing them into the river or ocean. Some regions in Japan still practice purification rituals by floating paper boats down rivers.
In the mid 1400s, about the same time writing began depicting sets of dolls being bought for girls, purification customs became popular among common people. The earliest record of displaying more elaborate and indispensable dolls is from 1625 when the women in the imperial court provided dolls for Emperor Go-Mizunoo’s daughter to play with during the Peach Festival. When she succeeded the throne in 1687, Hinamatsuri legally became a holiday and the production of various hina-ningyo (Hina dolls) went into production all around the country.
At the center of the festivities lie the hina-ningyo (Hina dolls), which always includes the imperial female doll and male doll (mebina and obina, respectively) that represent the bride and groom from a Heian period wedding. Decoration of the dolls range from just one tier (tiers being called hinadan) with the bride and groom and up to seven tiers (shichidan) and 15 dolls including attendant dolls, musician dolls, peach, cherry, and plum blossom trees, snacks, and miniature household goods such as shelves and swords that would be gifted on a wedding day.
The hina-kazari (Hina decoration) is traditionally bought for girls by their maternal grandparents before their hinamatsuri debut, or passed down from generation to generation as an heirloom. The hina-kazari is brought out from storage a few days before hinamatsuri to be set up and decorated by mothers and their daughters and be taken down immediately the day after on March 4th. Waiting longer to put them away, by superstition, is believed to result in late or no marriage for the girls in the future. However, in recent years, some homes and many festivals around Japan leave the dolls on display for a few weeks or a whole month.
With city life and more moving around than in past generations, some families opt for smaller and unique hina-ningyo options, such as palm-sized ones made of glass or porcelain, or displays to hang on walls.
Some parts of Japan still take part in the nagashi-bina (floating doll) ritual of floating paper and straw dolls down bodies of water to clear one of impurities and sins, which ties the hinamatsuri rituals back to its origins.
Hinamatsuri was revived during Japan’s modernization in the Meiji period with a new focus aligning properly with respect to the nation. The celebration symbolizes marriage and families, which was to fill the nation with hope and prosperity for the generations to come. With the dolls sometimes being referred to as the Emperor and Empress, it also fosters respect for the throne.
During hinamatsuri, girls and their mothers host parties together for friends and family in a very vibrant and colorful celebration. Guests enjoy chirashizushi (raw fish, vegetables, scrambled egg all in a big decorative bowl), hina-arare (rice crackers), hishimochi (white, green, and pink colored mochi), sakura mochi (red bean paste pastry wrapped in sakura leaf)), and amazake (sweet non-alcoholic sake) or shirozake (white sake). Celebrations often take place in the home where the dolls can be viewed or outdoors for a picnic.
You don’t need to be a mother or a daughter to enjoy hinamatsuri! Check out various regions around Japan and overseas that host celebrations and put up displays to be enjoyed by all.
About the author: Nina M. Cataldo is a Japan-born, US-raised hafu (half-Japanese) writer currently residing back in Tokyo. She is a travel writer whose passion is to share the stories of local people and cultures with readers worldwide. When she isn’t off exploring new parts of Japan, she’s busy organizing events for her fellow mixed-Japanese community as the founder of the “Hafu Ladies” group (on Facebook). Follow her travels on Instagram @nextstop_nina and her daily life @ninalalala