Russell Kelty shares the Dolls' festival (hina matsuri) set acquired into the AGSA collection

Dolls’ festival (hina matsuri) set was traditionally passed down from mother to daughter and displayed during the annual Girls’ Day festival, still celebrated in Japan on 3 March each year. The refinement of this set is evident in the garments worn by the ten dolls and the detail of the eighteen pieces of miniature lacquerware, all of which were placed in a specified hierarchy on a series of seven risers, covered in red velvet according to each family’s traditions. Dolls’ festival was once displayed as an auspicious symbol to promote the prospects of the daughter, and sets of a similar quality to this example are included in the collections of major shrines and cultural institutions throughout Japan.

At the top, in front of two silver screens, sit the Emperor and Empress, wearing the attire and hairstyles of the Heian period aristocracy (794–1185), with the ministers, musicians and attendants placed on subsequent levels. The lavishly decorated miniature interior furnishings feature the distinctive motifs, such as ‘Chinese grasses’ (karakusa), associated with the aesthetics of late Edo period (1615–1868) and early Meiji era (1868–1912).

The Girls’ Day festival itself became popular in the seventeenth century, as depicted in woodblock prints of the period, and was once one of the five seasonal festivals in both China and Japan. The Tale of Genji (c.1000) describes the third day of the third month in the lunar calendar as associated with peach festivals and also believed to be an auspicious day for performing purification rituals. During these rituals, dolls were cast into a river or an ocean, a practice consistent with ancient rituals in China, where effigies or dolls were ritually discarded or cast into a body of water to wash away sin and misfortune.

Dolls’ festival (hina matsuri) set was created in Tokyo and displays a mastery of techniques and motifs, further perfected during the Edo period and subsequently appearing on export wares intended for the Western markets in the Meiji era.

The widespread popularity of Girls’ Day among families most likely occurred with the restoration of the emperor – the beginning of the Meiji era – when defining distinctive ‘Japanese’ traditions was considered of great importance. The excitement of the day was captured by composer Kawamura Kōgyō (1897–1946), who wrote ‘Happy Girls’ festival’ (ureshi hina matsuri) in 1936:

Let’s light the lanterns

Let’s set peach flowers

Five court musicians are playing flutes and drums
Today is a joyful Dolls’ Festival.

Dolls’ festival set is part of the ongoing generous benefaction of the Gwinnett Family.

Russell Kelty is Associate Curator of Asian Art at AGSA. This article first appeared in AGSA Magazine Issue 34.