Have you ever wondered what this emoji🎎—two pale dolls in fancy clothing sitting next to each other with matching spikes on their heads—means? These two dolls are the odairisama and ohinasama, the emperor and empress (similar to the king and queen) of the March 3rd Japanese hinamatsuri (雛祭り) celebration.
Hinamatsuri originates in the Heian-era nagashibina ritual. In this tenth century tradition, people sent paper dolls in palm-sized bamboo boats down rivers hoping that these dolls would carry illnesses and danger away from children. Over time, hina dolls evolved to become more elaborate and lasting, similar to the design of other non-hinamatsuri-related upper-class dolls.
There are various forms of hina-doll sets. The simplest are those with just the obina and mebina, the emperor and empress dolls, frequently flanked by plum flowers in vases and standing lanterns, backed by a byobu-screen. The placement of the emperor and empress can differ in Eastern and Western Japan. In Eastern Japan, the emperor sits on the left and the empress on the right from the audience’s point of view, while Western Japanese decorations flip the placement. The more extravagant sets are assembled on red felt-covered, stainless steel or wooden steps that families erect specifically for Hinamatsuri in a spare room. Two carriages, jubako-lacquerware, chests of drawers, tea ceremony sets and more are placed sixth and seventh tiers. On the second through fifth tier sit the three ladies-in-waiting, five musician boys, two warriors, and the three aristocrats alongside dinner trays for the emperor and empress and citrus and cherry blossom trees. The top tier hosts the emperor and empress. Together, this elaborate collection recreates a miniature Heian-period upper-class wedding. Many larger sets can be found around Japan, such as in Katsura, Chiba. No matter what the setup, hina dolls are often hand-crafted, and artisans pay much attention to every detail of each hina doll. For instance, the fan that the mebina dolls hold is made of about ten bamboo strips and is painted with celebratory images such as bright green pine trees.
During Hinamatsuri, we snack on hina-arare (small round pastel-colored confections) and decorate hishimochi (three-layered pink, white and green diamond-shaped rice cakes). These food colors complement the soft pink, yellow and white plum flowers just outside the door. Hishimochi are frequently placed on the lower levels of seven- or five- layered hina doll decorations.
After Hinamatsuri has passed, families hasten to put the dolls and decorations away. Leaving the hina dolls out after March 3rd is believed to inhibit a girl’s potential to marry. While this may seem an outdated mindset, such sayings encourage families to clean up the set on time and keep the house in tune with the time of year. Hinamatsuri, also called momo no sekku, literally the “plum season divider,” denotes an integral part of Japanese culture: attention and adherence to the changing seasons.