What is the meaning of the dolls during Hina Matsuri?

Hina Matsuri (sometimes spelled Hinamatsuri) is a festival celebrated on March 3rd to pray for the health and good future of young girlsWhen a girl is born into a family, it is customary for the relatives to offer ‘Hina Ningyo’ (Hina dolls). On the day of the festival, these dolls are displayed in the household.

In ancient Japan, dolls had a symbolic meaning and were believed to be a substitution for people. In case of a disease of a mishap. people would make dolls out of paper, soil, and straw and set them afloat down a river or out to sea, in the hope the bad luck would be carried away. Upper class girls played with beautiful dolls, and the two traditions merged. Although the dolls are dressed as a court for the Heian period of Japanese history (794-1185), their origin is more recent: the oldest record of Hina Matsuri being celebrated date back to the 17th century.

Today, the princess doll is still meant to protect the child and take her place if something bad happens.  In theory, a family with one daughter should have one  and a family with three daughters is supposed to purchase three. This can be expensive, and there aren’t many households large enough to display multiple sets, so some people resort to simply supplementing their collection with other characters such as the “three court ladies” or “five court musicians”.

Girls and their mothers display the dolls a few days before the celebrationand are supposed to remove them soon after March 3rd. There is a belief that if you display the dolls too early or remove them too late, the daughter will marry too early or too late.

The three main types of display

Hina dolls reproduces a Heian Imperial Court in their gorgeous attire. Each doll has its own occupation, and the way they line up on the stand is predetermined. There are three common sets to display the dolls.

A simple display, the shinno, with the prince doll (called obina) and the princess doll (called mebina):

A 3 stair display, with a prince and a princess, three court ladies, and five court musician dolls:


  • A 5 stair display on which other attendees of the court and helpers are added, for a total of 15 dolls. This is the most common set. However, you may see displays on public places with many more stairs than this!


The main characters and their role

The two dolls sitting at the top are the prince and princess, or emperor and empress.  They usually seat in front of gold-leaf folding screens.
Under them there are three court women holding sweet white sake. The two women on sides are in a standing position and only the lady in the middle is siting.  Sometimes she is represented without eyebrows, which was a tradition for married women.

Under them come the five court musicians playing Noh. From right to left they are as follows: the singer, the flute, the small hand drum, the large hand drum, and the small drum.

On the 4th tier, there are the attendees. On the right side is the minister of the left, who presides over intelligence. On the left side is the minister of right who is physically more powerful. Both of them carry arrows on their backs.

Finally, there are the jicho (helpers). They take care of a variety of things for the prince and princess. From right to left, one with an umbrella, one with a stand for removing shoes, and one with a daigasa (a kind of umbrella with a hat). They respectively have angry, merry, and sad faces.

A full set of Hina dolls  can be very expensive (paying 300 000 yen for a five stair set is not uncommon), but as most Japanese people live in a small places today, it is quite easy to find small versions of the dolls that you can take back home as a souvenir of Japan!

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Writer / Translator

I’m French but I’ve been living in Tokyo for many years during which I had a lot of meaningful and thrilling experiences. I’m curious and I love learning new things. My hobbies are kick boxing, scuba diving, Japanese traditional painting, etc… As a writer, I’d like to share information about less touristic, more authentic places. I will also write about all the fun and cultural activities unique to Japan.