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Japanese celebrate festivals with traditional dolls displays

Posted on March 27, 2020 at 3:30 PM by Sarah Bartlett

There are over 200,000 festivals celebrated in Japan each year. Some of which have special objects which are used to help celebrate them. Girls’ day (hinamatsuri) and Boys’ day—now children’s day (kodomono hi)—are two such festivals. A full display for each of these festivals is included in the Contemplate Japan exhibition at the (currently closed) Brunnier Art Museum.

Girls’ day happens on March 3 and started in the 1600’s although celebrations had been occurring on this day for many years before. Doll displays for Girls' Day would be put up in mid-February and would be available for viewing until the end of the day on March 3. If the displays are left up passed the 3rd it is said that the daughters in the family will be doomed to a late marriage. Which brings us to the goals of this festival. Girls’ day is celebrated to promote the health and well-being of the young girls in the family and also to pray for a happy and healthy marriage. Some families only display the emperor and the empress and others opt for the full display. These displays can be bought at the birth of the first daughter or passed down through generations, some families even choose to make their own. A full display is 7 tiers. The top tier holds the emperor and the empress. Below them, sit the ladies in waiting, some of which may have their eyebrows shaved off and their teeth painted black. This was a practice done during the Heian period when a woman got married. On the third tier, are the court musicians. Each one holds a traditional instrument. Under the musicians are the Imperial Guards or the Ministers of the Royal Court. Just below them appear the court attendants. The bottom two tiers hold objects that are supposed to represent the dowry of the daughters in the family.

The other display in the University Museums’ permanent collection is the traditional Boys’ Day display. Beginning in the Edo Period (1600–1868), it was customary for Samurai to display armor outside of the entrance to their house. Later, merchants began to arrange displays in the doorways of their shops and craftsman began to produce miniature reproductions of samurai dolls, warriors, arms and armor.

On May 5th, the day of the Boys’ Festival, boys bathe in iris-scented water and drink iris wine as a protection against evil spirits and misfortune. The Shobu variety of iris, with its long narrow leaf shaped like a sword blade, symbolizes knighthood. For this reason, the festival is also known as Shobu-no-sekku or Iris Festival.  The sound “sho-bu” written with different characters becomes Bushido meaning “to encourage knightliness.” Bushido is the old Japanese code of chivalry teaching warriors to be strong yet tender-hearted, patient, frugal and fervent in their sense of loyalty and duty. Through the Boys’ Festival the Bushi come alive again. Figures of those famous for their knightly ways are brought out and their stories are re-told to eager young ears.

Following the samurai traditions, miniature images of feudal generals, warriors and characters from Japanese legends are displayed on a tier of shelves in the best room in the house. Figures of the samurai from the nobility to the infantrymen are depicted along with their armor, weapons and accoutrements. The samurai, most serving nobility as vassals, followed a strict code of honor. This code included absolute loyalty to death and honorable suicide. Traditionally, heirlooms of a warrior ancestor are included in the festival display.

Also included in the display are banners including a carp banner. Carp banners were often displayed on the tiers as well as outside of the boys’ homes on tall bamboo poles. The carp is a symbol of health, strength, and the samurai spirit, the carp allegedly has the power to fight its way up swift streams illustrating the ability and determination to overcome obstacles. The carp is held to be a fitting example to young boys, typifying ambition, strength and the power to overcome adversity. This display is not as specific as the girl’s day. The figures that appear on it are a mix of legendary, mythical, and historical. Each one holds a story that is supposed to inspire young boys to grow up strong, noble, and to embody the practices and beliefs of a samurai.

This festivals’ significance and purpose has shifted over time. In Japan, there is a cluster of annual national holidays that occur at the end of April and the beginning of May. April 29 is a celebration of past emperor’s birthday’s, not unlike the United States’ Presidents’ Day, May 3 is Constitution Day and May 4 is Greenery Day. These three days were all national holidays meaning many people got the day off work, but the days between them and the days following were not—including May 5, the day which tango no sekku is celebrated. In 1948, the Japanese government decided to make these days national holidays in order to give Japanese workers a full week off of work and school. This week is now called Golden Week in Japan.

When Tango no sekku became a national holiday and a part of this Golden Week it became Kodomo no hi or Childrens’ Day, since Girls’ Day was not a national holiday. Another reason for this change was because many families started to feel that the values of samurai were not the values that they wanted their male children to uphold. Because of this, the significance of the holiday shifted. It is typically now mostly religious. Many families on this day take their young children to be blessed at Shinto Temples. After this blessing, the families return home to have a special meal together. One aspect of this holiday that remains unchanged is the carp flags. These flags symbolize strength and determination as carp are known to swim upstream and are displayed on family flag poles and on monumental posts of Shinto shrines.



Image Left: The typical doll festival display is seven tiers, with the emperor and empress on the top.

Image Right: The flute (fue) player is part of the third tier of five musicians(gonin bayashi).


Sarah Bartlett is a senior at Iowa State, working on a BS in Anthropology and Classical Studies and a BA in Political Science. She was selected last spring as the first student for the Lynette Pohlman Museum Fellowship, a scholarship established through the estate of Lori A. Jacobson. As part of her fellowship, Bartlett has been working closely with University Museums Director and Chief Curator Lynette Pohlman on the Contemplate Japan Exhibition at the Brunnier Art Museum.

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