Antique Japanese Festival Dolls

Arts of Asia - September/October 1986 issue

Text by Timothy Mertel
Photographs courtesy of Honeychurch Antiques


Figure 1 Hinamatsuri display of the Imperial

THE HUMAN FIGURE in miniature can be found in some form or another within cultures around the world. In Japan, the doll, having risen to the height of craftsmanship, is now considered an important example of fine decorative art. The most popular Japanese dolls are those crafted for two important festivals, Girl's Day (Hinamatsuri) March 3rd and Boy's Day (Tango-No-Sekku) May 5th. Both of these are festivals which honour children with elaborate displays of dolls set up for them in the home.

Figure 4 Ladies-in-waiting, Meiji
period. Height 7 3/4 inches.
Hinamatsuri is a celebration of spring when the peach blossom opens. Girl's Day is often referred to as Momo-No-Sekku or Peach Blossom Festival. The peach blossom is the embodiment of softness, daintiness, tranquillity and gentleness-all desirable traits for girls to aspire to. The literal translation of Hinamatsuri is "small doll festival".

Figure 2 Hina doll of the imperial couple.
Meiji period. Height 10 inches,

The festival evolved from an assortment of traditions dating back to the seventeenth century. Displaying dolls on Girl's Day is an extension of the superstition that placing dolls near children's beds will ward off evil spirits. The display originated from a celebration in the Kyoto palace. It was so well received that the aristocracy adopted this practice and its popularity spread throughout Japan. By the nineteenth century, the tradition of displaying the imperial couple (dairi) and their court was the focus of the Girl's Day festivities.

Figure 3 Hina doll ministers of the right and
left. Meiji period. Heights 9 inches

These dolls, constructed of straw, silk brocade, wood and crushed shell (gofun) are impeccably created delights for both young and old. They would be given on the girl's first Hinamatsuri by relatives and close friends. They are often passed from mother to daughter as family heirlooms. They are works of art to be admired and appreciated, never to be mishandled in play.

Figure 5 Hina doll set of the five musicians,
Meiji period. Tallest figure 9 1/2 inches

Hina doll display of the imperial court is arranged in a stair step arrangement on red fabric -a symbol of good luck. The dolls are accompanied by a varied assortment of doll furniture (Figure 1). Most sets consist of fifteen dolls. They are arranged in descending order the exact order varying depending on the family's taditions and the number and types of dolls they have. The Emperor and Empress are, as a rule, always placed on the top step.

Figure 6 Hina doll set of three pages. Meiji
period. Heights 54 inches

Hina dolls vary in size from about 4 inches 14 inches tall. The larger the doll, the more intricate the detail as seen in a fine, large set of the imperial couple (Figure 2). The Emperor is seated, clad in black silk brocade with his black lacquered imperial hat sporting a large fanion or banner (usu-bitai). He carries a gilded sword which is removable from its sheath and an unfinished wood sceptre (shaku). The Empress is seated also, clad in elaborate multi-layered robes (itsutsuginu) of colourful silk brocades. The lapels are embroidered with gold wrapped threads in a phoenix design and her sleeves are intricately embroidered in a floral motif with undulating scrolls The rear layers of her costume are aped with a phoenix painted gauze train (mo). Her head-dress is crafted of gilded brass as a phoenix coronet (hokan) with flowering tassels of coral beads. She carries a folding fan decorated with a finely painted pine tree. Both figures are seated on tatami pedestals. Their faces are finely carved of wood covered in crushed shell. The Empress' hair is quite long and flows to the back of her gown.

Figure 7 Hinamatsuri furniture display. Meiji period. Height 6 inches

On the second step are the ministers of the right and left, udajin and sadaijin, characterized by an old man and a young man. Figure 3 is a set of two seated figures costumed in red and black brocades. They wear court hats with straw fan blinders (oikake). Each one holds a halberd and carries a set of bow and arrows on his back. They are seated on black lacquered stools draped with fabric resembling tigers' fur.

Figure 8 Hinamatsuri doll palace, Meiji
period. Height 23 inches

On the third step are the female Hina the figures of the three ladies-in-waiting. Their purpose is to serve sake to the Emperor and Empress. Figure 4 is a simple set of the ladies (kanjo). They are costumed in colourful brocades with red undergarments. The two standing figures hold sake pots and the seat figure holds a tray with a sake cup.

The fourth step holds the five musicians (hayashi). Figure 5 is an elaborate example of large musicians clad in garments made of specially woven fabric. They are wearing blue robes with white butterflies and stripes, under-robes of red, embroidered and with gold brocade butterflies, unusual black lacquer caps, sword and lacquer inro (medicine box), ojime (slide bead) and gourd netsuke set. Two percussionists are seated on black lacquer stools with gold arabesque design. Other musicians include the kneeling percussionists with large drum and drumsticks, the flautist with red lacquer flute and the leader with bamboo and painted gold leaf folding fan Each doll has exquisitely modeled wood and gofun hands and head with glass inset eyes dressed in simple attire.

Figure 9 Hina doll of the imperial court. Late Edo period. Height 10 inches.

The final set of dolls are the three pages. They are known to be the most whimsical of the lot with expressive faces and are always dresses in simple attire. The set pictured in Figure 6 is a fine example of three faces expressing three human emotions: laughter, worry and anger. The three seated figures are clad in plain white robes with different coloured undergarments. Each figure is shown with a utensil: a broom, a rake, a pitcher and an Imari bowl with a large fish and other condiments contained within.

Figure 10 Detail of the
Empress head of Figure 9

The entire Hinamatsuri display is made complete with various items of doll furniture. Primarily, they are constructed of wood and then lacquered black with an elaborate arabesque motif painted overall in gold. Some of the items include serving trays, dishes, stands for festival cakes, chests, trunks, ox carts, sewing kits, mirrors, palanquins, and hibachi (charcoal braziers). Some displays have a complete doll furniture set for the household (Figure 7) displaying kimono racks, basin, hibachi, boxes, sake service, chest, mirror stand and box.

Variations on the Hina doll display can be found. Groups of actors are displayed as entertainment for the imperial couple, or the imperial couple may sit within an elaborate viewing platform known as a doll palace (Figure 8). The palace is assembled of wood and then lacquered with decorative motifs. It can be quickly disassembled for easy storage. 


Figure 11 Boy's Day doll horse. Meiji period. Height 9 inches

Most antique Hina dolls date from the Meiji era (A.D. 1868-1912). Dolls predating this period are characterised by subtle brocades and less intricate detail (Figure 9). The most amazing feature of the Hina dolls is their heads (Figure 10), carved of wood for the basic form, covered in crushed shell for facial features, glass insets for eyes and human hair or cotton fibres for hair. The faces portray perfection - a sense of reality with their innumerable expressions always happy, to please the children.

Figure 12 Boy's Day armour set.
Meiji period. Height 13 inches

The Tango-No-Sekku is a Japanese celebration to pay tribute to their sons. The literal translation of Tango-No-Sekku is "first day of the horse". The horse is strong and loyal as boys should be. It can be found in the Boy's Day display with elaborate trappings (Figure 11). The earliest record of Boy's Day is 730 A.D. when the roof of the Imperial Palace was wreathed with iris leaves, symbolic of swords, and a grand horse race was held in the palace grounds. The festival is an occasion when all manly virtues, including courage, persistence, combat skills, filial piety and respect for authority, are portrayed in dolls representing folklore heroes. They are arranged in a stair step manner similar to that of the Hinamatsuri display yet without an ordered placement of the dolls. A typical display would include the accoutrements of the samurai, such as armour (yoroi) elaborately crafted of lacquered paper bound together with cord ties and gilded metal fittings, displayed on a wood stand (Figure 12) complete with the warrior's helmet (kabuto). Other items are arrows (ya), spears (yari), swords (katana), and banners (hata).

Figure 13 Boy's Day doll of Chuai-tenno. Meiji period. Height 18 inches.

Folk heroes are depicted in various sizes, the most breath-taking being 12 inches tall or taller. Handcrafted in a manner similar to the Hina dolls, their faces express strength and pride. These dolls are costumed in armour typical of the Kamakura period (A.D. 85-1333). A large doll of Chuai-tenno, the fourteenth Emperor of Japan (Figure 13), exemplifies the style of dress. He is costumed in elaborate silk brocades and lacquered paper armour. His shoes are covered with hair resembling bears' fur and he wears a gold lacquered cap of the period. Chuai-tenno carries two swords with the hilts covered in shark-skin and a bow with feathered arrows. The folk heroes come from all periods of Japanese history. The most popular characters are Minamoto Yoshitsune (A.D. 1159 ) and his faithful companion of gigantic portions, Benkei (Figure 14).

Figure 14 Boy's Day dolls of Benkei and
Yoshitsune. Meiji period. Height 15 inches

Yoshitsune, the youngest of the Minamoto (Genji) clan, was destined for the priesthood but decided to walk in the footsteps of his ancesters. He escaped and met Benkei at the Gojo bridge in Kyoto where they held a famous battle. A doll set (Figure 15) depicts this scene, with Benkei wearing numerous weapons and holding his halberd, while Yoshitsune leaps from the Gojo bridge onto Benkei. Having been overpowered by young Yoshitsune, Benkei became his follower.

Figure 15 Benkei and Yoshitsune in battle
at Gojo bridge. Meiji period. Height 10 inches.

Benkei's past was similar to that of Yoshitsune. He too was destined to become a bonze, but evinced a greater taste for fencing and other military exercises than the coenobite life. Together, Yoshitsune and Benkei led expeditions defeating the Taira Heike clan at the battle of Dannoura in 1185. Yoshitsune's downfall came when he was escaping the pursuit of his jealous brother Yoritomo. Yoshitsune defended himself with great valour, but upon his realisation of imminent defeat, he killed his wife and children, and then committed suicide at the age of thirty-one. Yoshitsune represents the classic warrior who started at a very early age and conducted himself with great valour. Legend has it that he might have lived on and escaped to the island of Ezo and is now honoured by the Aino, or possibly that he escaped to Mongolia where he become the famous Gengis Khan (A.D. 1157-1226 All sorts of possible destinies exist for the famed warrior.


Figure 16 Empress Jingo, Takenouchi-No-Sukune and the baby Ojin.
Meiji period. Height 6 inches

An empress and her minister make an interesting pair of folk heroes for Boy's Day. Empress Jingu, wife of the fourteenth Emperor of Japan (A.D. 192-200) is carrying-on her husband's expedition to Korea after his death. She conducted herself in the true manner of a military leader with the help of' her faithful first minister Takenouchi-No-Sukune. While she was in Korea, she gave birth to a son, Ojin known for later becoming the God of War. Takenouchi-No-Sukune is known for his great loyalty to the Emperor and Empress and is said to have lived for over three hundred years. This set of three (Figure 16) is a well known grouping with Empress Jingu outfitted with bow and arrows and Takenouchi-No-Sukune kneeling at her side with the baby Ojin in his arms.

Figure 17 Doll of Oda Nobunaga,
Meiji period. Height 15 inches.

Another historic Japanese figure is Oda Nobunaga (A.D. 1534-1582), the famed shogun of Japan; bold and persevering, he rose from the rank of a petty daimyo, to the honours of the empire. He put an end to the civil wars that had been ruining his country for more than a century. His reputation for flamboyance is characterised in a Boy's Day doll of a seated Nobunaga (Figure 7), which shows him viewing himself in a hand held bronze mirror, costumed in elaborate silk brocades and heavy silver lacquered armour, complete with fur covered sword sheath.

Figure 18 Boy's Day doll of Shoki,
Meiji period. Height 8 1/2 inches.


The foreign figure displayed on Boy's Day is the Chinese warrior Shoki, the demon queller. Whether depicted in a painting for the takunoma, (display above) or portrayed as a doll, no Boy's Day arrangement is complete without Shoki. He is said to have been an apparition of the Chinese Emperor Ming Huang (reigned A.D. 713-756) to quell the little demon Hsu-hao who had been pestering the Emperor. A small example of Shoki (Figure 18) is clad in Chinese brocade robe with full black beard and carrying a Chinese sword. His stance is firm and his belly is slightly large with a demon masked belt buckle beneath.


Figure 19 Seven gods of good luck. 20th century. Height 1 1/2 inches.

Figure 20 Clay doll of Ebisu. Meiji period.
Height 7 inches.

Clay dolls are an important component of the Boy's Day display. Moulded pieces were handcrafted all over Japan. They are the less expensive versions of the display dolls and are considered a form of folk art.

The most common figures in clay are the seven gods of good luck, Shichi Fukujin. A miniature set of clay dolls (Figure 19) depicts all seven gods. (1) Ebisu - the daily provider with a red carp under his arm. (2) Daikoku the God of Plenty, white sack, gold mallet and purple cap. (3) Benten - the Goddess of Music holding a brown biwa (Japanese lute). (4) Bishamon - the God of War clad in samurai armour. (5) Fukurokujo God of Longevity with orange head-dress (6) Jurojin - a scholar with blue cap. (7 Hotei - the happy Buddhist monk with exposed belly and white sack.

Figure 21 Clay doll of Bishamon.
Meiji period. Height 11 inches

Of these figures, two are displayed as a part of the Boy's Day festival. Ebisu, the daily provider, always carries a red carp under his arm. The carp is revered by the Japanese as the noblest of fish. Like the samurai, the carp is said to be undaunted in the face of death, never flinching even when a knife is put to its gills. The combination of the daily provider and the fearless carp are traits that Japanese parents hope their sons will aspire to. A large clay doll of Ebisu (Figure 20) is worn of pigmentation but well moulded. The other god that is seen at Boy's Day is Bishamon, God of War. The most fearsome of all gods, he is depicted in full armour (Figure 21) with an intrepid expression.

Figure 22 Clay doll of Motamaro,
Meiji period. Height 9 inches.

Folk-tales are popular subject matter for the Boy's Day festival. Momotaro, the Peach Boy, is one of these folk heroes. The folk-tale starts with a childless couple who discovered a large peach floating down the river. When they retrieved the peach, a boy from the God of Heaven popped out. The old couple took very good care of him and he grew up to be a fine, strong youth. One day, Momotaro wanted to do something great for his country. He set out on an expedition to the Island of Ogres. Along the way, he me with a dog, a monkey and a pheasant. Together, they went to the island. The pheasant flew into the fortress and pecked the ogres' eyes out. The monkey climbed up and opened the fort's gates. Then Momotaro and the dog fought a great battle and became victors, making the ogres promise never to harm to anyone again.

Figure 23 Clay Kintaro wrestling a bear.
Meiji period. Height 51 inches

This foursome can be seen in the Boy's Day display. A clay example of Momotaro and the dog (Figure 22) is a charming replica of the Peach Boy and his companion. Momotaro is a favourite for his great courage as a youth.

Another child folk figure is Kintaro, Golden Boy. He was known for living forever as a child reared by Yamauba, the Mountain Witch. He had incredible strength. One Boy's Day doll of clay depicts Kintaro in orange pigments wrestling a black bear (Figure 23).


Figure 24 Clay doll of Kato Kiyomasa,
Meiji period. Height 14 inches.

Another interesting clay doll is of Kato Kiyomasa (A.D. 1562-1611), one of the famous samurai figures in Japanese history. He is known for leading the great 1592 expedition to Korea. This is evident by the depiction of Kiyomasa standing on the great tiger of Korea (Figure 24). This clay doll is of large size with the front side in brightly coloured pigments, dressed in armour with the tiger and a wood sword hilt.

Figure 25 Takeda doll of Kato Kiyomasa.
Circa 1800. Height 13 inches

An older depiction of Kiyomasa is a Takeda doll (Figure 25). These dolls, known for their animated postures and kabuki-style faces, were crafted at the Takeda theatre in Osaka around the 1800s. This Kiyomasa is crafted of wood, straw and silk. The clothing is elaborately embroidered and the brocade is of fine quality. The dramatically posed figure stands with one foot on a stump and the other outstretched on the heel, clutching a large halberd in his left hand. The most fascinating feature of Takeda dolls are their kabuki-styled faces. Kiyomasa is portrayed with a frown and raised eyebrows. His hair is human hair tied to stand upright.



Figure 26 Gosho doll figure of a warrior,
Meiji period. Height 8 inches.

Takeda dolls depict characters in Japanese history. Toyotomi Hideyoshi (A.D. 1536) is one of the greatest role models in Japanese culture. Of low birth, he rose by intelligence to the first rank. He established order and prosperity, in a country that had been ruined by civil wars, not through might but through his great political genius. A Takeda doll of Hideyoshi (Figure 27) is quite dramatic. He is shown with a great gourd banner in an animated position. He wears the winged cap of a shogun.


The other variety of doll that may be seen in the Boy's Day display is Gosho dolls. These dolls, crafted in Kyoto, are known as plump little boy figures with milky-white skin and small facial features. They are either carved of paulownia (kiri) wood or moulded of ceramic, then coated in crushed shell, burnished and painted. They were principally used as permanent display pieces for the home and as votive figures in pregnancy and childbirth. However, warrior Gosho dolls (Figure 26) were set up as part of the Boy's Day display and Hinamatsuri sets in the Gosho style can be found. Their ever present charm, and unique depiction, is loved by one and all.

Antique Japanese festival dolls are still available in today's market-place at affordable prices. Unfortunately, little has been written in the West on this topic. A good book for collectors, whether one has an extensive collection or is just starting out, is Japanese Antique Dolls, by Jill and David Gribbin, published by Weatherhill in 1984. Their approach, from the collector's point of view, is invaluable with good examples of dolls that can be obtained today.

The dolls of Japan come in a great variety of forms and materials. As they were passed from one family member to another, their charm and exuberance warmed the hearts of young and old alike. For centuries, the lifelike beauty of these human figures in miniature has delighted all who have encountered them.

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