Musha Ningyo - Portrait Dolls of Boy's Day

Portrait Dolls of Boy's Day

Daruma # 14 - Spring 1997 Issue

Text by Alan Pate
Photography by Kevin Walsh
Courtesy of L'Asie Exotique


fig 1. Minamoto no Yoshitsune,
Edo Period, (c. 1840)

ON A FADED hand-tinted Meiji era postcard (fig. 3) a festive picture: two shaven headed boys in strongly patterned kimono play before an elaborate display of banners, flags, fans, carp streamers and feathery whisks. To the side, a simple tiered stand with dolls arranged in rows: seated figures, men on horseback, hawks tethered to their perches, standing figures with swords at their hips, protected by armor: a miniature army to be led into combat? Or a tribute to the past?

The term Musha Ningyô generally translated as "warrior dolls," refers to the elaborately costumed figures displayed on May 5th for the Boy's Day festival (fig. 4); they feature great figures and heroic episodes from Japan's martial past. Stories about these figures told by older people to young males instilled ethics and values, and passed on heritage and pride in the past.

fig 2. Kato Kiyomasa, Edo Period (c. 1800)

For Westerners who know Boy's Day only through hand-tinted images or through the dolls found periodically in antique stores, the doll is pretty much the whole story; beautiful, an exquisite accent piece for our home. We respond to the beauty of the figures and admire the rich silk brocades. We marvel at the skilled craftsmen who created images so infused with life. We delight in the whiteness of the gofun (burnished oyster shell and rice paste) which give their faces that particular porcelaneous look.

But we are left untouched by the awe or pathos they were intended to evoke, emotions directly tied to the life and times for which these dolls serve only as a symbol. For the Japanese child, however, the doll was just the entry-point, the beginning of the journey to a time and a place where heroes lived and legends were made.

To us it is remote or unreal. Medieval Japan, the invasions of Korea, the conflicts between the Minamoto and the Taira clans are the stuff of foreign romance and legend, a TV mini-series.

But in Japan it is one of the well-springs from which the national character is drawn. The dolls provide an image on which to anchor what is heard and read. They symbolize and testify to the conflicts in Japanese history which helped create a culture unique in this world.

Ushiwaka-maru and Benkei on the bridge, Minamoto no Yoshitsune, Empress Jingu, Kato KiyomasaToyotomi Hideyoshi: these historical figures were embellished by legend and symbolized ideals and a spirit that long fuelled the Japanese imagination. Boys were weaned on their exploits and struggles, victories and losses.

fig. 3 Hand-tinted postcard, c. 1900   

These characters inspired an entire culture. Noh, kabuki, and kowakamai (dramatic dance) performances drew strongly from these legends. Classical forms of Japanese literature: the gunki monogatari (war tales), otogi zoshi (short story), joruri (dramatic chant), children's tales and historical novels focused largely on excerpts and scenes from their lives and battles till 1912. Ukiyo-e print artists like Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) found their muse in the tragedy and beauty of their lives.


Boy's Day traces its roots deep into Japanese history, combining esteem for martial success and bravery with an underlying supernatural context which typified the five principal feast days called gosekku. A closer look at the history of Boy's Day and the development of its symbology helps to pierce the veil that hides the deeper layers of meaning behind the stoic features and beautiful costumes of the musha-ningô.

The history of the festival spans some 1400 years, with earlier antecedents in China, but the pattern of development lends itself to three divisions:

(1) Early period, covering the origins of the festival and its symbols from the 5th century to the beginning of the 17th century, a time when the festival was more ambiguous in form, not tied so closely with children, but was more a day set aside for revelling in martial prowess and purging evil from oneself and the world.

(2) The Edo period (1603-1868) witnessed in its early years an increasing focus on children and a gradual abstraction of the martial and spiritual symbols combined with the rapid development of the dolls and display images which we have come to associate with the festival.

(3) The Meiji period (1868-1912), the enthronement of Mutsuhito and restoration of the emperor as the locus of power resulted in politicization of the musha-ningyô characters from history were stressed who were loyal to the emperor or added glory to the office.

   fig. 4 OjinTakenouchi no Sukune,
   and bannerman, c. 1880

Tango no Sekku

The martial element is embodied in the earliest term known for Boy's Day: Tango no sekku or Feast of the First Day of the White Horse. A white horse was believed to spring from a union between a dragon and a mare, a steed known for its valor and courage, suited for a hero (fig. 5). Horses were brought to Japan in the early 5th century. Records indicate that during the reign of Emperor Yuryaku (457-478), equestrian events were sponsored during the 5th month in conjunction with other spring rites to encourage mastery in this area. Called yabusame, the event consisted of shooting arrows from horseback at stationary targets.

The horse fundamentally changed the nature of Japanese combat, and images of the ideal warrior soon centered on the horse. The finest animals came to be raised in Kanto and warriors from this area were renowned for their skill and bravery. Kyuba no michi (Way of the Horse and Bow) was one of the earliest martial codes of behavior which later became the Bushi-do or "Way of the Warrior". Tango no Sekku celebrated this connection: horse and rider, courage and bravery.

fig. 5 White horse, c. 1900,   
Kuwabara Collection 

The conflicts between the Taira and the Minamoto clans during the 11th and 12th centuries celebrated in the gunki monogatari (war tales) brought an end to the power of the imperial court and gave birth to a new form of government that changed the course of Japanese history: the Shogunate. Under the feudal system established by Minamoto no Yoritomo (1148-1199) and refined and developed under succeeding generations, Japan developed not only an economy and governmental system based on military power but also an entire ethical, physical, and spiritual ideal that centered on the samurai.

The intense physical battles and extreme reversals of fortune witnessed during this period were greatly romanticized by later generations. Traveling blind minstrels (biwa Hoshi wandered the country reciting tales of heroic feats and tragic losses. More than mere story-tellers, the biwa Hoshi by telling the tale, were seen to placate the spirits of those lost in battle. They tailored their stories to fit the audience; travelling in the East they would sing the praises of the Genji (Minamoto), while in the West they would speak of the wrong done to the Heike (Taira). Myth blending with legend blending with fact. These tales ultimately would be set down in the form we know today: the Hogen Monogatari, the Heike Monogatari, and the greatest of all the war tales, the Taihei-ki (Chronicle of the Great Peace).

Shobu no Sekku

The supernatural or ritual element of Boy's Day can be glimpsed in the alternative name of Shobu-no-sekku or Feast of the Iris, which combined ritual displays of the iris as a protector and mock battles fought with iris leaves as part of the purifying and fertility rites of spring. Boy's Day always accommodated both aspects side by side: the martial and the ritual, infusing the festival with layers of meaning. The 8th century Shoku Nihongi records that the Emperor Shomu (r. 724-748) called for a 5th month yabusame display on the palace grounds. On that day, he and members of the court wore iris leaves fashioned into wigs, and it was decreed that all attending the event must carry these leaves as an amulet.

The reverence for the potent qualities of the iris in this respect was probably adopted from the Chinese where from early times doll-like figures made of iris and mugwort were fashioned and hung over doorways to dispel evil during the early spring and summer months.

In farming communities these "dolls" were taken to the fields during May and ritually stoned by children to purify the ground. In Japan this practice was repeated in the Heian period (794-1185) ritual of inji-uchi or "stone-slinging." Performed on the banks of the Kamo river in Kyoto during May, this mock battle pitted men with wooden swords against those armed with slings. Bunches of iris leaves were held as part of the exorcising rite. Excessive violence and injuries led to change.

Shobu-uchi or "iris-combat" teams armed only with bunches of iris ritually beat the earth to drive out demons, revealing the importance of the iris as a talisman. The customs that persisted well into modern times of stuffing pillows with iris leaves, bathing in water scented with iris petals, the eating of chimaki dango (wisdom dumplings) wrapped in iris leaves, drinking iris tea on Boy's Day and the prominence of iris arrangements in Boy's Day displays show the continued association of the iris with the festival and its purifying powers.

   fig. 6 Set of three Boy's Day banners, c. 1880


Boys' Day display elements (kazari) reflect the dual emphasis on the idealized martial and the talismanic spiritual. Fukinagashi (streamers) were military banners and pennants whose fluttering ends drove away evil. Kabuto, the distinctive battle helmet was believed to protect a house against evil and often made of spiritwarding iris leaves to further its talismanic effect. Musha-ningyô were heirs to the talismanic tradition: dolls were seen as substitutes (katashiro), diverting evil away from the child and revered for their protective powers.

Musha-ningyô developed to their fullest in the Edo period. From the later Muromachi era (1392-1568) to the early 17th century the helmet was the main display item on Boys' Day. Originally crafted of hinoki (cypress) or iris, these helmets were displayed outside the home alongside banners (nobori), streamers (fukinagashi), spears (yari) and other arms.

Records from the Tokugawa family note that in 1642 daimyo and members of the go-sanke (three branches of the Tokugawa family not in direct line to become Shogun) sent 15 banners, 5 white flags (commemorating the Minamoto), and a number of iris stalk helmets to the third Tokugawa Shogun, lemitsu (1603-1651). This honored the eldest son's first Boys' Day. Similar records for 1644 indicate that the number of helmets increased to over 200, indicating competition for letsuna's favor.

Screens depicting life in the early 17th century, however, include street scenes during the Tango no Sekku with crowds stopping to admire Musha-ningyô displayed alongside the noboriyari, and kabuto. Dolls were fast becoming a standard decorative element for Tango no Sekku during the early Edo period.

An interesting way to trace the development of these dolls is to look at the official notices posted restricting Boy's Day displays. One in 1648 limited what materials could be used for the helmet, reserving the use of maki-e and nashi-ji lacquer for the Shogun's family, indicating that helmets were a popular form. These laws also reveal that kabuto and kazari makers vied to create more elaborate forms.

In the early Edo Period dolls appeared on the helmet. Single dolls or dolls in combat soon became a popular motif. What began as added decor became an elaborate art form. In 1667 a notice appeared limiting the size and number of dolls on the helmet.

The increasing popularity of the figures led to greater extravagance. Large dolls totally separate from the helmet became popular: In 1672 a notice appeared limiting dolls to the "size of a small child". No other restrictive notices on this topic appeared until the reign of Tokugawa Yoshimune (r. 1716-1745). He invoked a long series of sumptuary laws in his campaign to promote economy. They limited the size of dolls to 1820 inches (45-50 cm), reflecting the renewed popularity of large dolls in the early 18th century.

The large exterior displays of the early Edo period gradually gave away to more personal, interior displays by the first part of the 18th century. Picture books (ehon) from this period record a rapid downsizing of doll displays, possibly in response to further restrictions from the government, as they moved briefly into a room just off the street before finally moving into an interior room called the zashiki.

It is the dolls and implements of the zashiki-kazari with which we are most familiar. Swords, banners and spears were miniaturized and displayed on a waku (wooden stand). Rather than focusing on large-scale dramatics or pairings with helmets, the warrior dolls took on a more refined form and structure.

Tiered Display

Though never totally rigid or codified, by the later Edo or early Meiji period a more elaborate arrangement for the interior display was called uijin mokusei dan-kazari or "First Encampment Formation." In this arrangement, the dolls were set on a tiered stand covered in green cloth as opposed to red for the Hina Matsuri or Girl's Day.

On the top row would sit a kabuto or a miniature suit of armor with helmet. This would be flanked by lanterns: behind would be flags, banners, streamers or a jinmaku (battle HQ curtains). On the next step would be found votive elements, chimaki dango, sake bottles with iris leaves and trays. Below that were a war drum, gunsen (fan) and/or saihai (tasseled stick). On the lowest level were three figures: two animal, one human.

On the left was a fine-haired white horse, often caparisonned, a symbol of the dragon, rain, and oceans, with many Shinto and Buddhist overtones. On the right was a tiger, symbolic of the wind and mountains, also a talisman against evil. In the middle were Shoki, the demon queller and the Chinese Sung Dynasty scholar Chung K'uei. He committed suicide after being disfigured by imps on the eve of his examinations and swore undying revenge. Said to have appeared to the Chinese emperor after his death in a dream vowing to protect all from these evil creatures, the emperor drew his vision upon awaking. The image of Shoki as tall, heavy-set, with a roiling beard and fierce red complexion, feet splayed and sword in hand is said to come from this rendering (middle photo in fig. 6). in this pattern the musha-ningyô themselves are arranged liberally throughout this display with no particular order or significance.

fig. 7 Kabuki doll of Emperor   
Jimmu by Eitokusai, c. 1920 

The exterior display did not disappear altogether, but became gradually more limited to banners, streamers and the like. The koinobori (carp banners ) of this period are a persistent symbol of Boy's Day today while many of the other traditions have fallen by the way-side. Carp have long symbolized perseverance, courage, and accomplishment; in Chinese mythology the carp which succeeds in swimming upstream and hurdling the upper rapids of the Yangtze river is transformed into a dragon.

On Boy's Day, koinobori are suspended on tall poles. The largest black carp represents the male head of the family, the eldest son gets a red carp (higoi) only slightly smaller than the father and all successive sons receive progressively smaller carp.

Another exterior element that continued to flourish was that of the sashimono, known today as the Boy's Day banner. The display of banners had a twofold meaning: originally intended for the family crest or mon during a battle, they were also hung in Shinto temples when boys celebrated their tateage or "lifting up" ceremony at the age of seven, a transition point from childhood to boyhood. For Boy's Day these banners were painted with many images of suitable characters (fig. 6).

They were hanging versions of the dolls so central to the interior display: Yoshitsune with Benkei, Empress Jingu and Takenouchi no Sukune making their way to Korea, Hideyoshi defending his castle at Shizugatake, Kiyomasa fighting the tigers in Korea or Shoki the demon-queller, all rendered in brightly colored pigments, fluttered aloft to commemorate the day, their memory, and the values they represent.

fig. 8 Chisho (wise general), c. 1780


The Characters

In contrast to the Hina Matsuri (doll festival) on Girl's Day which contains a relatively fixed set of court figures, warrior dolls could be drawn from any historical period or level of society. Many subjects came from the Minamoto clan like Minamoto no Tametorno (1139-1170), reputed to have been over 7 feet tall (215 cm.) and able to sink a Taira vessel with one arrow. Or Minamoto no Yoshiie (1041-1108), whose formulation of military and fighting principles called the Daito-ryu secrets allowed the Minamoto to come to power in such a decided way and earned him the status of spiritual founder of the clan.

Other figures ranged from the semi-divine Emperor Jimmu (r. B.C.660-580), the first emperor of Japan and said to be the human descendant of the sungoddess Amaterasu Omikami (fig. 7), to commoners like Honda Tadakatsu (1547-1610), the outspoken horse handler for Tokugawa leyasu.

Some characters were totally legendary like Momotaro the Peach Boy or Kentaro the little Hercules. Others were tributes to the founders of dynasties like leyasu. (1542-1616), the first Tokugawa Shogun (cover photo), or to contemporary political leaders, like Emperor Mutsuhito (1852-1912) also known as Emperor Meiji.

Though some figures in fact were not specific historical personages at all, but more like ideal figures called the taisho (general) or chiso (wise general) (fig. 8), the range of possibilities was limited only by their ability to inspire.

However, looking at the frequency of examples from the 17th-19th centuries, a core group is evident. The most significant of these include depictions of the heroic but tragic Minamoto no Yoshitsune; the famous battle scene between the mighty warrior Benkei and young Ushiwaka-maruat the Gojo Bridge; the amazon Empress Jingu and her faithful minister Takenouchi no Sukune; the brilliant Toyotomi Hideyoshi, unifier of Japan; and Kato Kiyomasa, the "devil general." These figures captured the imagination of Edo society, merchant and samurai alike, and continued to inspire into more recent times.

Minamoto no Yoshitsune

The meteoric rise and subsequent fall of Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189) has captured the Japanese imagination for centuries (fig. 1). Though young and headstrong, Yoshitsune's display of courage, filial piety, and forebearance made him a model worth emulating. Yoshitsune is the classic example of the fallen warrior tradition which combines the courage and heroics of the ideal warrior with an overwhelming sense of the futility of all worldly things-marking the profound Buddhist influence on Japanese.

Tales about Yoshitsune are a significant part of the arts and literature treating the warrior tradition. Of the approximately 240 Noh plays currently performed, 50 to 60 deal specifically with war tales; of these 30 focus on Yoshitsune (Hogan-mono). Similarly, of the 15 extant otogi zoshi (stories for women and children) of the Muromachi period, 8 deal with Yoshitsune.

Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724) the great joruri writer of the early Edo period wrote 10 Yoshitsune plays. In the Edo and Meiji periods over 70 plays were created about Yoshitsune for the kabuki theater, an early Edo innovation which provided a popular alternative to the elite Nohdramas.

fig. 9 Minamoto no Yoritomo, c. 1840   

While the body of literature and art about Yoshitsune is immense, his actual life and career were tragically short. For all his fame as a brilliant if impulsive military leader and tactician, he engaged in only four confrontations with the Taira in 1184-85 before their defeat and his estrangement from his elder half-brother, Minamoto no Yoritomo (fig. 9). Though brief in number and duration, the battles against the Taira at Uji, Settsu, Yashima, and the final decisive sea battle at Dan no-ura secured for the hero an unsurpassed place in the annals of Japanese history.

His story can be divided into three phases: as a youth prior to joining Yoritomo, in his fight against the Taira; his public military career; and his remaining years as a fugitive. His early youth is unknown but became a popular focus for later story-tellers: in the blank pages of history they could write in what they would. Fanciful tales developed around this period to help explain his extraordinary abilities and success during his military campaigns. A series of stories from this period revolve around his instruction by the king of the tengu or mountain imps.

Sojobo taught him heiho (military principles), swordsmanship, and magic. Prints depicting the battle at the Gojo Bridge often include hordes of tengu fighting on behalf of Ushiwaka-maru (fig. 13). Further tales chronicle his journeys to supernatural regions to visit the tengu no dairi (Tengu Palace) and the Pureland of Buddha where he sees his father, Minamoto no Yoshitomo. His fanciful voyage among the islands has him travel to the land of imps and giants, armed only with his flute and his wits, in search of the Law of Dainichi Buddha, a military treatise also used to explain his military prowess.

Most of what we do know about Yoshitsune comes from the Azuma Kagami, the Heike Monogatari, the Taihei-ki, and the 15th-century chronicle Gikei-ki; this latter combines many of the historical segments of his life with the myths and legends of the Muromachi period. The youngest son of Minamoto no Yoshitomo, assassinated by the Taira in 1159, Ushiwaka-maru spent the early years of his life with his mother Tokiwa, before being sent to study at Kurarna Temple.

   fig. 10 Minamoto no Yoshitsune c. 1830

When eleven, Ushiwaka-maru, who had been raised a Fujiwara, learned of his true Minamoto heritage from a former Minamoto retainer named Shomon. He decided against taking monastic vows as two elder brothers, Imawaka and Otowaka, had done. Instead, he fled the temple with the aid of a gold merchant named Kichiji and traveled north to Oshu. During his journey, Ushiwaka-maru, underwent the gempuku or coming-of-age ceremony and took on the adult name of Minamoto Kuro Yoshitsune.

Several years later, upon hearing the news of Yoritomo's revolt against the Taira, Yoshitsune left Oshu where he had been under the protection of Fujiwara Hidehira, to join Yoritomo. Their reunion at Kisegawa is said to have been happy and Yoshitsune spent the next three years with Yoritomo at his base in Kamakura before taking command of troops in 1181.

His rapid succession of victories, immense popularity among his fellow warriors, frequent hot-tempered confrontations with Yoritomo's chief advisor, Kajiwara Kagetoki, and his unwitting involvement in political intrigues at the court in Kyoto eventually alienated Yoritomo. Instead of recognition for his final victory over the Taira, and in spite of his impassioned plea to Yoritomo known as the Koshigoe letter, Yoshitsune was ignored.

Although singularly adept militarily, Yoshitsune did not have the political acumen needed to steer a safe course in this period and became embroiled in what was seen as a plot against Yoritomo by his uncle Yukiie. The order for Yoshitsune's assassination issued by Yoritomo was entrusted to the warrior monk Tosabo Shoshun. After defeating Tosabo Yoshitsune was forced into hiding; rather than sharing power in the new government, the hero of Dan-no-ura lived the life of a fugitive.

For nearly a year Yoshitsune managed to hide himself within the capital. Rumors were rampant as to his whereabouts. Ultimately he was forced to flee north to Oshu and once again seek the protection of Fujiwara Hidehira. Hidehira's untimely death in 1187 and intense pressure by Yoritomo led Hidehira's successor, Yasuhira, to turn on Yoshitsune. In April 1189 Yasuhira with several hundred men easily overran the sparsely defended Koromogawa castle, forcing Yoshitsune to put his wife and three-year old daughter to death before committing suicide at the age of 31. His head was preserved in sake, placed in a black lacquer box, and sent back to Kamakura.

fig. 11 Boy's Day banner of   
Yoshitsune and Benkei, c. 1880

Despite the scarcity of records for the latter years of Yoshitsune's life, stories and tales dealing with this period abound.

Though only mentioned infrequently in historical documents, Benkei became a major figure in stories, acting as a mentor and teacher to an increasingly passive Yoshitsune. Muromachi stories and plays about Yoshitsune's flight north, such as Funa BenkeiKanjincho and Ataka, focus almost exclusively on Benkei, his actions, his emotions. These stories, like those dealing with Yoshitsune's youth, draw more and more on the supernatural.

Even after his death, stories claimed that the head sent to Yoritomo was not Yoshitsune's and that he had moved to Hokkaido where he was revered by the Ainu. Indeed Isabella Bird, that indomitable 19th century traveller, recorded finding a tomb there said to be his. Buddhist accounts have Yoshitsune's childhood friends, the tengu, flying him away to a temple where he became a monk and spent the remainder of his days praying for the souls of those who lost their lives for him. Tales were even circulated saying that Yoshitsune had escaped to mainland Asia where he fulfilled his destiny as a great leader of men by rallying the Mongols to their heights of glory as Ghengis Kahn.

As a musha-ningyô Yoshitsune holds the highest place in the Boy's Day pantheon. The number of extant examples of this figure from the late 18th century through the Meiji period attest to his immense popularity. Typically portrayed in battle regalia, he sits on a camp stool, in full armor, chest plate emblazoned with the signature ryu (dragon) crest, sword at his side, quiver of arrows on his back and heavily plated kabuto bearing the dragon prow on his head (fig. 10).

In his right hand he holds the gunbai uchiwa (military fan) or saihai (tasseled stick) as token of his position as commander. His pose is always dignified, his face youthful and expression stoic. It is easy to imagine the victor of Dan-no-ura, sitting at Koshigoe, flushed with success yet waiting for a response from Yoritomo: "Though innocent, I am blamed; though deserving, and guilty of no error, I have incurred His Lordship's displeasure . What can I do but weep bitter tears!", as McCullough says. His ultimate fate beyond his control; hero and victim, the classic Japanese ideal.

fig. 13 Oban tate-e, triptych, depicting fight between Ushiwaka-maru & Benkei with tengu,
signed lchiyusai Kuniyoshi, c. 1850, Geoffrey Oliver Collection

Ushiwaka-maru and Benkei

Many of the myths about Yoshitsune concern the battle of Ushiwaka-maru (the childhood name of Yoshitsune) and Saito Musashibo Benkei at the Gojo Bridge. This is one of the most popular tales in all Japanese history and figured largely in the oral history that sprung up after the Minamoto/ Taira conflict.

It was the subject of some of the earliest of the 14th century Noh performances and is still a popular Noh theme. Karakuri-ningyô, a form of mechanical puppet first introduced from China in the 7th century, were used in a Benkei and Ushiwaka-maru play before the Emperor Go-Hanazono in 1436. According to the Kanmon Gyoki the emperor was so impressed that he ordered public performances to entertain the people.

In 1620 the first of the Daishi karakuri chariots were developed and included a rendition of Ushiwaka-maru and Benkei at the Gojo Bridge. In the Boy's Day decorations, Ushiwaka-maru and Benkei made their appearance early. A pictorial book about Tango no Sekku celebrations in 1688 shows a kazari kabuto depicting the battle at Gojo Bridge.

The story is simple but its simplicity and the almost mythical stature of its two protagonists, Ushiwaka-maru (the child ox) and Benkei (a warrior-monk of gargantuan stature and ferocity), allowed for many adaptations and subtle shifts of focus which ensured its popularity and freshness for generations. Legend has it that it had been prophesied that if Benkei, a masterless fighter, captured 1,000 swords in combat, he would find his ultimate master; alternative readings say that he was collecting swords from which he would forge a blade of his own.

Having stationed himself on the Gojo Bridge on the outskirts of Kyoto, Benkei terrorized travellers on the bridge at night and was fast on his way to garnering 1,000 swords. One moonlit night, Ushiwaka-maru, then serving as a page at nearby Kurama Temple, crossed the bridge, apparently unconcerned by the looming threat of Benkei. A fight ensued in which the young and nimble Ushiwakamaru easily out-maneuvered the hulking Benkei with his arsenal of weapons strapped to his back and his swinging halberd. With only a fan and cloak, Ushiwaka-maru defeated the mighty Benkei who swore fealty to Ushiwaka-maru for the remainder of his days. Thus began the adventures of Benkei and Yoshitsune which led them through the heart of the Minamoto/Taira conflicts to Yoshitsune's suicide (fig. 11).

fig. 12 Ushiwaka-maru and Benkei at the Gojo Bridge, ca. 1880

Boy's Day dolls often captured this scene at its climax (fig. 12); Ushiwaka-maru, fan in hand, springs from a bridge stanchion, deftly dodging the deadly halberd of Benkei. Young and lithe, Ushiwaka-maru is usually depicted with the tombo or "dragon-fly" hairstyle of court and temple pages. He has two false eyebrows marking his nobility. His robes are fine and under his coat can be seen the corselet Shikitae given to him by the abbot of Kurama Temple. At his hip he sports his un-drawn sword. Benkei, by contrast, is usually darker, reflecting his common birth. His features are exaggerated and fierce as he labors to corner the fleet-footed youth. Heavy black armor covers his chest and legs. Halberd is poised. The fight is on!

Empress Jingu and Takenouchi no Sukune

Another principal musha-ningyô is a character from Japan's remote history: Empress Jingu (170-269). The only female figure regularly associated with Boy's Day, she is paired with her faithful minister/ general Takenouchi no Sukune. The Nohongi (compiled in 720) states that her husband, Chuai Ten'no the 14th emperor of Japan, died just prior to invading Korea. Debate over the invasion had been strong and Jingu had been an ardent supporter.

fig. 14 Empress Jingu & Takenouchi no Sukune

Though pregnant, she donned his armor and invaded in his stead, tying a girdle of rocks to her waist to delay the birth. It is recorded that the sea crossing was rough and Jingu called fish to the surface to support the boats and keep them from floundering. The subjugation of the peninsula was swift and she returned to Japan 19 months later to give birth to her son, Ojin. Her courage and success have long made her a model.

Takenouchi no Sukune, the "Valiant Old Bear," who shares the stage with Jingu was said to have lived to 306, faithfully serving Chuai during his reign, then Jingu as Ojin's regent for 69 years, and finally serving Ojin during his 40-year reign. He rendered invaluable service to Chuai in suppressing revolts; his continuing loyalty to Jingu was shown while she invaded Korea and in defending her from Chuai's three elder sons. During the later years of her regency he was charged with treason, but successfully defended his integrity by placing his hand in boiling water. Though Ojin's reign was quieter, Takenouchi is said to have served him as a faithful advisor.

An interesting twist to this story is provided by contemporary historians who, citing the KoreanKojiki, maintain that Chuai was actually a native leader of the southern Korean Kayan league, and that Jingu, a shaman/princess descended from the Puyo of northern Korea, married Chuai in a political alliance. The invasion of "Korea" spoken in the Nihongi, it is reasoned, was actually a consolidation of forces within the Silla, Peakche, and Kaya areas under Jingu in preparation for an invasion of Japan, known as the "Land Across." Jingu thus actually represented the first Korean ruler of Japan.

As a musha-ningyô Jingu is usually portrayed following her successful return from Korea (fig. 14). One of the few figures traditionally depicted standing, she still wears the full armor of her husband. On her back is a full quiver of arrows, and in her hand a bow, which is sometimes unstrung with a fish attached to the end, recalling her stormy crossing to Korea.

At first glance she might easily be taken for a male figure, but a closer look at the delicate features and hair, usually tied in a lengthy braid behind her back, help to identify her. On her head she sports a tall lacquered nobleman's cap. On her breastplate we often find the chrysanthemum crest, indicating her imperial lineage. Her feet are covered in bearskin boots. Like Yoshitsune, her expression is dignified. The highpainted eyebrows appearing on her forehead and blackened teeth (ohaguro) anticipate later court customs.

Takenouchi is perhaps the most easily identifiable Boy's Day doll. He is generally kneeling on one leg. Edo pieces tend to have him dressed in full armor underlining his military role, while Meiji pieces often show him in court costumes with rich silk brocades and sporting a lacquered nobleman's cap, to stress the faithful advisor and loyal subject. His great age is shown by bushy eyebrows, mustache and long white beard. During the Meiji period pigment was often added to the gofun to create a fleshier color and convey a sense of age and wisdom.

The baby Ojin is shown wrapped in a cloth, cradled in his ancient arms.

Though rarely appearing as a separate figure during the Edo period, Ojin (201-310) became a popular figure in his own right during the Meiji period. Having served as emperor following the regency of his mother, history has deified Ojin as Hachiman, the god of war. Throughout the Kamakura period he was idolized and revered by the Minamoto who attributed many victories to his guidance and erected shrines in his honor.

As a musha-ningyô he is depicted seated either on a camp stool or cross-legged, with the everpresent Takenouchi by his side. Though generally in full armor, he rarely appears with a kabuto, sporting instead a lacquered nobleman's cap (fig. 4). By the Meiji period, great attention was paid to the textiles and accessories of the musha-ningyô, so Ojin is generally regally outfitted.

fig. 15 Toyotomi Hideyoshi, c. 1830   

Toyotomi Hideyoshi

From the Edo period on Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), builder of Osaka Castle and unifier of Japan is prominent. His humble origins and rise through the ranks to become head of the government inspired generations of Japanese boys. His display of leadership, strength, and courage in the siege of Gifu Castle, his decisiveness and determination in defending Shizugatake, and his political acumen in establishing himself and defending his position as Kampaku (highest political figure within the imperial court, serving as the intermediary between the emperor and all other officials) following the death of Oda Nobunaga, illustrated the depths of Hideyoshi's courage and ability.

In commenting on this breadth of character, the Tensho-ki as cited by Cook states: "Three talents were essential to Minamoto no Yoritomo's pacification of Japan. Yoshitsune excelled in battle skill; Kajiwara Kagetoki concentrated on world affairs; Hojo Tokimasa pursued the way of government. But now Hideyoshi, with a single heart, advanced his plans, laid in provisions, and then fought the wars. Truly he is a great leader, unknown to previous ages."

It is a testament to his position in Japan that Hideyoshi appears so often in 18th and 19th century musha-ningyô. Rather than being shown seated on a camp stool like Yoshitsune, or standing like Jingu, Hideyoshi often sits cross-legged in full armor, his breast plate bearing the paulownia crest granted by Emperor Ogimachi in recognition of his leadership (fig. 15).

For headgear, he may have a nobleman's cap, Chinese-style cap with side "wings," or occasionally a helmet with a giant "sunburst" display copying his actual helmet. Though slightly subjective as a reference, his face tends to be much rounder and fuller than those of other figures, sometimes even suggesting a double chin. At times he is paired with Kato Kiyomasa, his cunning general who led the invasion of Korea (fig. 16) and often carries his banner or spear.

   fig. 16 Boy's Day banner of Toyotomi Hideyoshi
   & Kato Kiyomasa, c. 1880

Kato Kiyomasa

Kato Kiyomasa (1562-1611) was an aramusha or "rough warrior", i.e. a fighter of common birth, wild and fiercely independent. Benkei fits this category, particularly during his early career, but Kato Kiyomasa is the definitive example. Kiyomasa had many connections with Hideyoshi: born in the same village, they both lost their fathers when young (Kiyomasa's blacksmith father died when he was three), and were distantly related through their mothers.

Like Hideyoshi, he quickly proved himself and advanced rapidly in the military. He distinguished himself during Hideyoshi's campaigns to consolidate power after the death of Oda Nobunaga in 1583, and was particularly helpful to Hideyoshi during the campaigns in Korea beginning in 1592; there he was nicknamed kisho-kan or "devil general," for his tenacity and cruelty.

Kiyomasa supported the regent Tokugawa Ieyasu during the turbulent years after Hideyoshi's death in 1598, detecting and foiling two separate assassination plots against leyasu. The peace that followed leyasu's victories at Sekigahara and Osaka Castle, brought Japan a stability not experienced since the later Heian period, five centuries earlier.

The military culture of the Kamakura (1185-1333) and Muromachi periods slowly became obsolete. Civil and cultural accomplishments became the order of the day. In 1611 just before his death, Kiyomasa wrote in Cook's words: "Having been born into the house of a warrior, one's intentions should be to grasp the long and short swords and die." Aramusha, like Kato Kiyomasa, who prized life and death by the sword above all else, became a relic of the past: the subject of nostalgia, but largely irrelevant.

As a musha-ningyô, Kato Kiyomasa is unmistakable. The stoic features of Yoshitsune, or the grand countenance of Hideyoshi are replaced by the intense grimace and furrowed brow of the aramusha(fig. 2). The face is slightly lifted, jaw jutting forward in defiance; the mouth turned down sharply at the corners; the eyebrows extend dramatically upwards on either side; the brown eyes glare intently. In keeping with his image, underneath his signature cone-shaped kabuto, his hair is worn long and straight, pulled to an exaggeratedly high knot on top with the shaved pate of a samurai.

Depicted either kneeling or seated, his breast plate often bears his circular crest. Over this he wears a flowing sleeveless coat with black lapels which in the Edo period were often embroidered with metallic threads. He holds a halberd, kamayari (sickle-spear), or banner. The halberd is a direct reference to his battles with tigers in the mountains of Korea; a popular subject for print artists and story books of the late Meiji and Taisho periods.

Unlike the bear-fur boots of other figures, Kiyomasa usually wears straw sandals, perhaps due to his humbler origins. Popular throughout the Edo period, his fighting against the Chinese and Koreans added a topical punch to his image during the Sino-Japanese War of the Meiji period; he symbolized the xenophobia of the day.

fig. 16 Emperor Mutsuhito,   
c. 1880, Ayervais Collection

Emperor worship and warrior dolls

On November 12, 1868, Mutsuhito became Japan's 122nd Emperor at the tender age of 15 and named his reign, Meiji ("Enlightened Rule"). 1868 also saw the dissolution of the Shogunate and the return of central power to the imperial household. Ten'noism, the Shinto belief in the divinity of the Emperor and his direct descent from the sun goddess, was revived and once again Japan turned upon the imperial axis politically, spiritually and culturally.

The musha-ningyô, of the Meiji period clearly reflect the change. Ojin, depicted with his faithful minister Takenouchi and Jimmu, the first Emperor of Japan, became central to Meiji displays. Emperor Meiji dolls also became popular, though many were destroyed following WWII as a backlash against Ten'noism and its role in the war (fig. 16).

One of the few ningyô of the lengthy Boy's Day tradition to be patterned after a living individual, the Emperor Meiji doll was the most decidedly portrait-like of all, accurately emulating his distinctive hair-style, eyebrows, mustache, goatee and clothing (fig. 17).

Historical characters which had previously received little attention on Boy's Day quickly emerged. The attempt by the 14th century Emperor Go-Daigo (r. 1319-1338) to wrest power away from the Kamakura Shogunate and Hojo regents, bore strong parallels with Mutsuhito's own situation and figures from this struggle became popular: Kusunoki Masashige (1294-1336), famous for his defense of Emperor Go-Daigo, had a temple erected in his honor by Mutsuhito in 1871 and is often depicted as one of the three Sanchu or Models of Loyalty to the Emperor.

fig. 17 Emperor Meiji, postcard, c. 1880

Kojima Takenori, famous too for helping Emperor Go-Daigo, is depicted inscribing his famous poem of encouragement to the emperor on the bark of a cherry tree; Nitta Yoshisada who led a campaign against the Hojo and cast his sword into the waves so that the sea would draw back and his attack could succeed, is often depicted in that dramatic moment.

Loyalty, courage, filial piety, perseverance, strength: these were the qualities which the Boy's Day warriors were designed to reflect and inspire. Lessons from the past were brought home in the astonishing and beautiful forms of these figures.

The two boys on the Meiji postcard sit and study while images of the past look on in encouragement. Art, custom and superstition, the musha-ningyo of Boy's Day is all of these. When we look into their faces and admire their beauty, what are we really seeing? A plaything, an ornament and a symbol of a tradition and culture with roots set deep in the past.


Helen Craig McCullough, Yoshitsune: A Fifteenth Century Chronicle. Stanford University Press, 1966

Harry Cook, Samurai: The Story of a Warrior Tradition, Blandford, 1993

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