The Japanese seem to love their celebrations, especially for children. A couple of months ago we, alongside the rest of Japan, celebrated Shichi-go-san, during which the Japanese wish for longevity for their children. Yesterday (3rd March) we were again encouraged to take part in a celebration. This time it was Hinamatsuri, Girls’ day or Dolls’ day. I have to confess that for a number of weeks I thought that Hinamatsuri had something to do with doors, and got some pretty baffled looks when I voiced my knowledge of Hinamatsuri being something to do with opening and/or closing doors. The misunderstanding was created by my Japanese acquaintance making an R-for-L error (typical for native Japanese and some other Asian language speakers) when she was telling me about Hinamatsuri and produced the word ‘doll’ as ‘dorr’ which to me sounded like ‘door’.
In the build up to Hinamatsuri, families, shops and restaurants had taken out from storage a stage consisting of steps, a red piece of fabric this is a little bit like a rug, and display dolls of an emperor, empress, court attendants etc. on a stage (see photo below). Families actually have big displays of dolls in their homes. This extravagant doll thing in private homes sounded a little bit weird to me initially, but it then occurred to me that in Europe, once a year, in December, we squeeze a 2 ½ metre tree into our living rooms and scatter figurines of a bearded fellow in red, reindeer, angels, stars, and a baby and a manger all around the house. All of a sudden, having a couple of dolls in one’s front room seems like a normal thing to do.
I think the significance of the dolls in Hinamatsuri is something to do with the fact that dolls are – or at least were – seen as being able to hold bad spirits inside them. Because bad spirits were trapped in the dolls, people used to float their dolls down the rivers all the way to the sea taking the bad spirits away, hence bringing them good luck instead. I am not quite sure what the drowning of dolls has got to do with girls, and when I’ve asked my Japanese friends about the meaning, significance or detailed customs of Hinamatsuri, their knowledge on the topic seems to be as good as your standard American’s knowledge of non-North American geography (actually, let’s throw in North-American geography in this comparison as well – I don’t think it would change the point here). Basically, the only things my friends know about Hinamatsuri and remember of it from their childhood is that (a) it was a day when all the adults exclaimed to little girls in the family: ‘Aw, it’s girls’ day!’ and then (b) they would all eat some cake.
In the name of equality, there is also a boy’s day – which, in a less equal tone, is called ‘Children’s day’ and is a public holiday, making it sound like girls are not children. You see, Japan is a little backwards in terms of equality between the sexes – and there is open sex discrimination here, women being perceived as the inferior sex. I will not go off on one but will give you just one very mundane example: My husband was booking a hotel for us in Tokyo a couple of days ago. I am from Finland and like most Finns, I love sauna. When my husband was booking our hotel he mentioned that the hotel had a sauna. Yay! But the joy lasted for about 2 seconds until he read the rest of the sentence, which stated that it was only to be used by the hotel’s male guests. I feel that kind of discrimination, even with reference to one’s right to use a hotel sauna, is not commonplace in Europe.
In any case, yesterday we celebrated Hinamatsuri to bring good luck to our daughter, who, if you didn’t already know, has Type 1 diabetes – something which my husband and I consider rather unlucky for a 3-year-old. We however didn’t go to the lengths of buying the expensive dolls and a stage, but luckily we were given some Hinamatsuri merchandise, which we had on display at home (see photos below and at the top of this page).
Our son had also made a Hinamatsuri drawing-origami art piece at school, which he gave to me as soon as he got home. It’s been a long time since anyone has perceived me as a girl (I mean as opposed to a woman, not as opposed to a boy) – in particular anyone who is younger than me. And for this reason, I think Hinamatsuri might be my favourite day of the Japanese festival calendar.
In addition to the Hinamatsuri stuff that we were given, we also bought a Hinamatsuri cake and exclaimed: ‘Aww, it’s girls’ day!’ I hope our daughter remembers the day with fond memories.
A friend also gave us some sweet snacks (see photos below) to have on the day. They tasted a little bit like a cross between Crunchy Nut cornflakes and caramel popcorn. Even if Hinamatsuri didn’t bring luck to our daughter, all that cake, sugar paste figures on the cake, and the Crunchy-Nut-Popcorn made her as happy as a British teacher on a Monday morning when noticing a handful of snowflakes on the ground. In fact, our daughter was happy all day because, erroneously, she thought that it was her birthday.
We are actually on the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Tokyo at the moment and will be in Tokyo for the next couple of days. Writing this blog post made me realize that last night we left all our Hinamatsuri stuff out. This is not good. Apparently, it is bad luck to leave the dolls out when the festival has ended. It is bad luck as the Japanese believe that leaving the dolls out means that your daughter will marry (and have offspring) late. I suppose ‘bad luck’ can be a relative term. Given that our daughter is British, perhaps it would not be such a disaster to leave the Hinamatsuri decoration out for an extra couple of days, or in fact until the summer solstice, so that our daughter will not in 10 years time add to the unflattering stats of being another 13-year-old British mother.
Perhaps us and some of our neighbours back in the UK can have a competition to see whether we put our Hinamatsuri decoration away sooner than they their Christmas decoration.