Traditional and Modern: Dolls and What They Mean to Japan

Jan 10, 2018

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Japan has always been a place of beauty and nothing shows the tradition and culture of it as much as their dolls. From traditional dolls like Kokeshi and Daruma to Figurines and Super Dollfie®, Japan is always showing us its attention to detail in this widespread art form.

Traditional Japanese Dolls

There are various types of traditional dolls in Japan, but collectively they are called ‘ningyo’, meaning ‘human shaped’. They are designed for various purposes, such as a child’s toy or figures for house shrines. Early Japanese dolls were used for rituals or grave offerings, but the use of them has evolved over the years and now they are often displayed around the house as either a piece of art or as a ward against evil. Some examples of traditional Japanese dolls are the Kokeshi dolls which are wooden dolls that have a round head, cylindrical body, and no arms or legs, or Daruma dolls which are spherical dolls painted red and white and bring good fortune.

Hinamatsuri: The Japanese Doll Festival (ひな祭り)

One of the most well-known of the traditional dolls are the Hina dolls, which are beautiful dolls dressed in costumes of the Heian era. These dolls, however, are only displayed on what is called ‘Hinamatsuri’. Hinamatsuri is the Japanese Doll Festival that takes place on Girls’ Day every year on March 3rd. It is a special day where a Hina-dan, a special tiered platform, is set up and Hina dolls are set on display for everyone to see. Each tier of the Hina-dan is reserved for certain dolls; the top tier for the emperor and empress, the second for three ladies in waiting, third for five male court musicians, and so on. These displays are usually about 5 to 7 tiers tall. The dolls are put on display to pray for the growth and happiness of the daughters in their families. Usually they are displayed before Hinamatsuri and taken down soon after the festival is complete because superstition states that if they are slow to put the dolls back in, their daughters will also be slow to marry.

However, there are many other customs for Hinamatsuri that are not doll related, like drinking Shirozake, a sake made from fermented rice. Delicacies include Hina-arare, a sugar or soy sauce flavored rice cracker, and Hishimochi, a colored rice cake shaped like a diamond. Clams are also served on this day because of their two halves being compatible only with one another.

Modern Japanese Dolls: Figurine Heaven

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「創作造形©ボークス・造形村」©1998-2017 VOLKS INC.


Though traditional dolls still remain a staple of life in Japan, the more modern figurines have all but taken the doll market by storm. Although Japan is not the only country to make figurines, it is definitely one of the more dedicated in making the most beautiful of them. You can find figurines of any type in Japan, though the most recent and popular type of figurine is what is called a ‘Super Dollfie®’. Although ball-jointed dolls have been used across the world in various eras, a company by the name of VOLKS Inc. made them customizable and hyper-realistic, coining the name ‘Dollfie®’ for its Barbie sized lifelike dolls and‘Super Dollfie®’for its larger dolls.

Ningyo Kuyo: The Japanese Doll Funeral (人形供養)

Because Japanese people believe that dolls can hold souls and memories, throwing away a doll is considered bad luck and so they hold what is called a ‘Ningyo Kuyo’, or a Doll Funeral. Some shrines will hold a day in which you can bring old dolls to them to be purified and then disposed of properly, allowing you the closure of getting rid of that one precious doll that you couldn’t bear to put in the trash nor could possibly keep.


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