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Hina dolls

From the middle of Feb to the Hina Matsuri on Mar 3, an army of kimono-clad dolls are liberated from their packaging to decamp in living rooms all over Japan. Elaborate displays appear in the homes of families with daughters, and friends and relatives pay their respects to the diminutive dolls with shirozake (white sake) and chirashizushi (sushi rice scattered with colorful vegetables).

There are 15 members in a full set of Hina ningyo(dolls) - Dairabina (the Emperor and Empress), two ministers, three court ladies-in-waiting, five musicians and three guards all dressed in ornate Heian period (AD 794-1192) costumes. Displayed on a five- or seven-tiered platform covered with scarlet felt, the figures are usually a gift from grandparents on a girl' first Hina Matsuri, or hatsuzekku. As it can be rather inconvenient to have a host of dolls in 2m-high display in the middle of your house for several weeks, it is now acceptable to display just the top two Dairabina, but regardless of number, girls are still expected to emulate the elegance of their Heian ancestors.

Originally the effigies were called hitogata and made from paper or straw. The paper dolls were rubbed on the body to remove all impurities then thrown into the sea or a nearby river to carry away sickness and bad luck - in some places, like Awashima-jinja in Wakayama, this is still practiced today. Generally, since a Hina ningyo display typically costs in excess of JY500,000 it is kept as an heirloom and passed from mother to daughter, rather than thrown into the nearest river.

As the role of the festival is to pray for the happiness and good health of little girls - with "happiness" encompassing beauty and early marriage - the void left by the departed "impurities" must be quickly filled with health and luck. This is done with the help of diamond-shaped, tri-colored rice cakes. The rhombus shape represents the heart, but there is some discrepancy about the meaning of the colors: One school of thought says white is for good blood pressure, green for healthy new blood and pink for the release of poison, but perhaps new growth, snow and peach flowers are more appetizing alternatives. Peach blossom is omnipresent during this festival, which is sometimes also called Momo no Sekku, (Peach Festival), because a girl should aspire to be as beautiful and delicate as a flower petal.

Like many Japanese traditions, Hina Mastsuri originated in China, where it was celebrated on Mar 1, with paper effigies tossed into rivers. The date changed to Mar 3 in the Edo period, when the Emperor's wife held a doll festival for her daughter. In the interests of equality, the celebration spread to all daughters, but is still not a national holiday like Boy's Day on May 5.

As soon as Hina Matsuri is over the display is dismantled to avoid the old superstition that families who are slow to pack them away will also be slow to find suitable husbands for their daughters. In essence, Mar 3 is to remind Japanese girls they should be as beautiful as a doll, as delicate as peach blossom, as colorful as chirashizushi, and as pure as snow with a healthy blood pressure, if they want to marry young!

Catherine Frances

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