The Soul of the Japanese Doll

Regional Museum of History, Plovdiv

An introduction to the beauty and history of Japanese dolls 

Japanese Doll Culture
Ever since ancient times dolls have been a part of the culture of Japan. They represent an item of veneration, a child's play thing, or an object of delight. The outer appearance of dolls has constantly changed, but the Japanese love of dolls has remained steadfast. There are two main doll festivals. The first is Hinamatsuri, the   Dolls' Festival or Girls' Day which is celebrated annually on the 3rd of March. The second is Tango No Sekku or Boys' Day, which is celebrated annually on the 5th of May.

Even to this day in Japan, dolls are not only considered objects of decoration or entertainment, but living creatures as well. An expression of such special behavior is found in the ceremonies of Doll Burial. When the doll's owner must reluctantly throw it away, he takes it to a temple where old and new dolls, both costly and ordinary ones, are piled together. After the owners say their last farewell and express their deep gratitude, the dolls are burnt to ashes.

The Hina Ningyo Dolls are found in many varieties but two main types are distinguished. The first group of dolls is called Kyohina. They are popular in the region around Kyoto, the old capital city of Japan. The other group of dolls is called Edohina and is characteristic of the region around Tokyo, the capital city of Japan.

Kyohina Emperor doll.

Kyohina Empress doll.

During the Hinamatsuri Festival, every home with a girl displays a set of Hina Ningyo dolls. The dolls are arranged on a special stand covered with red cloth. This represents the wedding ceremony of the Emperor's wedding in Edo.

Within a six-tier structure, the Emperor and the Empress are always placed on the top level. Immediately below are arranged three maids of honor.

Below the maids of honor, five young male musicians are carefully arranged from left to right according the volume of the sound of their instruments which they are shown playing.

This standing musician plays a traditional hand drum. Notice his raised hand, which suggests the moment just before or after he has struck the instrument.

In the fourth tier appear the Emperor's two armed guardians. The young man on the left is responsible for the warfare and the old man on the right side is responsible for the study of science, Below this pair sit three servants who take care of the Emperor’s garden.

The Minister of the Left (shown here) is shown as a wise, older statesman, carrying his bow and arrow, and sword. His younger counterpart, the Minister of the Right appears to his right.

The facial expressions of the Emperor's gardeners are varied, expressing the human emotions of joy, wrath and sorrow.

Imperial servant expressing wrath.

An imperial servant expressing sorrow.

Doll Furnishings
The set of Hina Ningyo includes not only dolls, but also pieces of exquisitely crafted furniture, which form a part of the Emperor’s dowry. 

Miniature pair of black and red lacquer table stands and matching set of serving bowls and containers are elegantly decorated with gold designs.

The two little trees stand for the tangerines planted on the left side of the Emperor's garden, and for the morellos planted on the right side.

Hina Ningyo of a flowering and fruiting Mandarin orange tree from the Imperial garden.

Hina Ningyo of a Blossoming Cherry Tree [Morello] from the Imperial garden.

With the help of Hina Ningyo the family utters up a prayer for happy marriage of their female child as the Japanese believe that if the decoration is left displayed after the festival is over she will marry too late.

Such ceremony is difficult to be understood by foreigners, but Japanese treat dolls as living creatures possessing heart and soul.

Their great admiration for their beautiful dolls has led to constant technical advances. The applied materials are more diverse and manufacture of items more precise, for example, in the weaving and dying of the textiles used for the doll's clothes.

The wood, lacquer and gilt elements of their furnishings and miniature accessories are made with great precision.

Here, the miniature lacquered headdress, sword, bow and arrow belonging to the Minister of the Left.

Although the range of colors used and the manufacturing method of the dolls reflect the typical style of the corresponding historic period, they always express the Japanese feeling for beauty.

Other Types of Girls' Dolls

Himedarma Dolls

As the old legend tells in the 4th century the Empress joined the Emperor on the road to the battlefield. At some point during their travels they stopped at a mineral spring on the island of Shikoku, where the Empress became pregnant. She nonetheless took part in the battle and gave birth to a child.

The Himedarma Doll wrapped in red diapers, represents the child who eventually became the fifteenth Emperor of Japan. In Japan there exists a belief that if a maiden is granted the Himedarma Doll she will marry within two years.

Kimekomi Dolls

To accentuate the doll's elegant silhouette, narrow grooves are carved into the body which allow the cloth of the dress to be precisely tucked in and around the body. This technique is called Kimekomi which means "tucked." Originally, these dolls were carved from the soft wood from the willow tree.

The eyes of most Japanese dolls are made of glass, but with the Kimekomi Dolls they are entirely hand drawn. The attractiveness of these dolls is due also to the fact that every individual artist adds something matchless and unique to the dolls' face expression.

Daruma [or Dharma] Dolls

Daruma is a traditional, hollow paper doll, which is an abstract representation of Bodhidharma, the Indian founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism. The doll is traditionally shown seated in meditation pose, and with the exception of huge eyes, and sketchy beard, the doll's whole body is typically colored red.

Daruma dolls symbolize perseverence. In spite of its round shape and wobbly appearance, the doll’s heavier lower-half keeps it stable and upright. It therefore embodies the idea that even if you fall, it is important to get up and try again because the next time you will certainly succeed.

Daruma dolls are popular good luck symbols and are often given as gifts to encourage the owner to on to success.

Initially, the doll’s eyes are not drawn in, but left as empty white spots. When one wishes for something or decides to pursue a new aim, she draws in left eye, and if the aim is achieved or the dream realized, she also draws the right eye. Whether Dharma will begin to see depends on one’s own efforts to realize her aim.

A set of the most popular Japanese dolls for girls.

Traditional Dolls for Boys
The male counterpart for Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival for Girls) is Tango No Sekku Festival (or Boys' Day).  Also called Shyoobu No Sekku, this boy-oriented festival is celebrated annually in Japn on the 5th of May, and has a very long history.  In fact, Tango No Sekku has existed ever since the Nara period (8th century CE). The date was chosen because it marks a change of seasons from spring to summer in Japan. Traditionally, this festival involved the performance of different rituals for protection from diseases and disasters. The Emperor’s court in the capital city was decorated with Japanese irises, and noblemen drank medicinal herbs. Equestrians shot with bows to chase evil spirits. 

A samurai named Yamanaka Shikanosuke lived in Japan in 16th century, who was both smart and brave. He was famous for his unusual helmet which was toppled by antlers. The samurai figure is shown on top of the set.

Samurai doll wearing antler helmet.

Full-sized Samurai armor in the Edo period gusoku style. This type of armor was portable because it was lighter weight and could be folded up.

When samurais came to power the Japanese iris became even more important in the celebration of Tango No Sekku because the name of this flower in Japanese (shyoobu) sounds the same as a word from the samurai code, which means “to value high virtues".

In the past, when a boy was born to a samurai family, Tango No Sekku was celebrated as a tradition.

On the occasion of Tango No Sekku Festival or Boys' Festival wishes for health and success of the family sons and well-being of the whole family are being sent. All family members celebrate together to strengthen the spiritual links between them and turn this day into an unforgettable memory. On this day the dishes of chimaki (sweet rice cakes wrapped in bamboo leaf) and kashiwa mochi (sweet rice balls wrapped in oak leaves are eaten. Oak leaves in Japan are traditional symbols of strength and endurance. The custom of eating chimaki had its beginning in the Heian period.

At that time the festival became very popular amongst common people as well, who began to follow the example of the samurais and decorate their houses with paper helmets and wooden spears.

In the Edo period (17th-19th century) the Tango no Sekku tradition was highly respected. In front of the entrance of the samurai home weapons, helmets and flags were arranged. In the middle of that period, people decorated their courtyards instead with Koi-Nabori (fish banners and windsocks) that fly overhead. A decoration of a school of carp (gold fish) - a traditional symbol of military courage - would appear to drift in the sky overhead, as if moving in a clear stream of water. This view is frequently seen in Japan in May.

Carp (koi) are a fish which demonstrates a strong will to live, inhabiting both clear and turbid (muddy) waters. They swim against strong currents, and are considered a very courageous animal. Koi, therefore, came to personify the hope that a male child overcomes difficulties, grows to be physically and mentally strong, and capable of taking full responsibility for his own actions.

By decorating their home with Koi-Nabori the family utters up a prayer to the gods to protect its boy. Yaguruma, a wheel with a ball rotated by the wind, is put on the top of the stick above the carps. The wheel symbolizes courage, and the ball represents a vessel to be filled with luck and happiness. A family of carps drifting in the sky expanse, which can be resembled to clear water, is a view frequently seen in Japan in May.

By decorating their home with Kodomo Taisho - the samurai doll shown here - the Japanese express the wish that a male child becomes a good man. Created around 1980, this doll has a relatively brief and new history.

On the occasion of Tango No Sekku Festival wishes for health and success of the family sons and well-being of the whole family are being sent. All family members celebrate together to strengthen the spiritual links between them and turn this day into an unforgettable memory.

About the History of the Exhibit

This exhibition has been established due to the cooperation between Regional museum of history, Plovdiv and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) , which dates back to 1999. In the beginning of 2004 we welcomed Yuko Nakajima and during one of our first talks she revealed us the magic of the Japanese doll, which uniquely represents the life in the distant country. Fascinated by the marvelous photos we accepted the proposal to set up an exhibition with Japanese dolls hoping to get at least ten original exhibits. Yuko sent an appeal for support to her friends from the Saitama Prefecture, which is found to the north of the capital of Tokyo. Marutake Dolls Company and the International Cooperation Association in Saitama responded to the appeal and set up a community called ”Let's Send Dolls to Bulgaria". The secured free grant needed transportation for which we got support under the JICA Program: “For Smiles All Over the World”. The shipment arrived in July 2005 – six cases with total weight of 430 kg. These dolls you see now at the exhibition which we called The Soul of the Japanese Doll. This exhibition has been realized in 2010 as per artistic design by Konstantin Kambarev with the financial support of the Embassy of Japan in Bulgaria. We say our thanks to Yuko Nakajima, to our Japanese friends for the wonderful gesture and to His Excellency Tsuneharu Takeda, ambassador of Japan in Bulgaria.

Regional Museum of History, Plovdiv
Credits: Story

Google Cultural Institute Presentation:
Plamen Chetelyazov - PR
Yuko Nakajima - JICA Volunteer
Marutake Dolls Company - Contributor
International Cooperation Association in Saitama - Contributor
Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) - Contributor
Embassy of Japan in Bulgaria - Contributor

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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