Traditionally, March 3rd also is celebrated in Japan as Girls’ Day. In ye olden times, the day’s activities were along the lines of visiting the temple, daintily playing a badminton-like game while clad in kimono, and eating various foods such as a clam soup and manju, sweet decorated mochi in pink and other pastels (really, you just aren’t going to get away from sticky rice). But perhaps the most important Girls’ Day custom is a “passive” one: to display sets of dolls known as ohina-sama (hina means small) which depict the members of the Imperial Household.
This tradition is said to date back to the Heian period (794 -1185), when parents came to believe that the dolls would absorb any illness or injury which came to their daughters and thereby would protect them from harm. As even the most basic doll sets are an expensive luxury, not much seems to be made of this holiday in Japan today, and they have been low priority among the Japanese American immigrant families.
I’m sure my male-dominated family would not have paid any attention to Girls’ Day but for a package that arrived from Japan not long after I was born. The package was from Utae Ono, a first cousin of my maternal grandmother, Shizu Kurose. What my mother has told me about Utae is that in her youth, she became a lady-in-waiting to the Empress of Japan. To become a handmaiden in the Imperial Household is as if a young girl joins a convent. She lived her entire life in the Kashiko-dokoro (“Place of Awe”), one of the buildings in the Imperial Palace considered sacred.
Utae and my grandmother stayed in touch after my grandmother came to the U.S., and my grandmother wrote to her saying that her first grandchild, a girl, had been born. The parcel which Utae sent was impressive. The rice paper which enclosed the gifts inside had calligraphy by the Imperial Household to say that it was sent from my relative to my family. My dad saved this calligraphy and I have it framed. My mother said there was a very fancy box of sugar candies, a beautifully decorated set of this badminton game, Japanese-style baby clothes hand-made from silk remnants belonging to the Empress, and an elaborate ohina-sama set of dolls for me.
Each Girls’ Day, my mother would bring out my doll set and tell me this story. I always was fascinated by the little figures and each year would stare and stare at them to take in their detail. Along the way, my mother gave me the game set and baby clothes to keep in my grandfather’s trunk I claimed in high school, and when I got married, she gave me the doll set to keep. The custom is to put the dolls away and only bring them out for the festival, with the accompanying superstition that leaving the dolls out past March 4th will result in late marriage for the daughter. Since I was already married, I was undaunted by the superstition and have chosen to display them in my living room bookcase year-round. Besides, I really don’t have a place to store them, and they are among the most interesting things I own.
If you could look at them closely, you’ll see the Emperor and Empress holding court from the top row. The Emperor holds a baton signifying his status and the Empress holds a fan. Behind them is a gold folding silk screen. One way you can tell my set is “deluxe” is because it has so many accessories considered option, such as the lampstands decorated with cherry blossoms and the two vases with peach branches in between the Imperial couple.
In the second row are three ladies-in-waiting who bear different sake containers. The two round tables between them are supposed to be for holding confections.
Five male court musicians occupy the third middle row. Left to right, they are holding a small taiko drum, a larger otsuzumi drum, a hand kotsuzumi drum, and a flute. The musician on the far right holding a fan is a singer. I’ve always liked this row because my maternal grandparents were accomplished musicians on Japanese instruments.
The fourth row has two ministers, both bearing bows and arrows. In between them are two diamond-shaped stands displaying red, white, and green diamond-shaped ricecakes.
The fifth bottom row has a mandarin orange tree on the left and a cherry tree on the right. In between the trees are three samurai, protectors of the Emperor and Empress. In some sets, they are depicted as drunken, but mine look pretty sober, appropriately enough.
I wish I knew more about Utae – one of those family history projects to tackle one of these days. As someone who is reminded every day while reading the International Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulemia Foundation talklist that I have an incurable fatal disease, I suppose I ought to ratchet the priority on such projects. In any event, I’m glad to know what little I do know about her, and to have what I have from her. Happy Girls’ Day, and happy anniversary, Mom and Dad.
(And yes, there is equal time for boys: May 5th.)