What is Hinamatsuri? The history of celebrating Girls' Day in Japan

In Japan, we have a few events and activities associated with the new lunar calendar. It is when the snow thaws and Spring is greeted. Each year, the 3rd March (well, according to the Western calendar) is the day of “Hinamatsuri”.

Eagle eyes will recognise that “maturi” is a term for “festival” in modern Japanese. Examples include “Gion matsuri” (Gion festival – a famous Kyoto mature) and “natsumatsuri (summer festival)”. Usually, these involve many mobile shrines, streets full of people, and fireworks. However, Hinamaturi is a very sedated and private affair as this takes place in our private homes.


What is Hinamatsuri?

Hinamatsuri is about celebrating your daughters’ growth (Hina means little hatchlings of birds). We put out a decoration – a model of an 11th-century palace, with a king and a queen and ladies in waiting and musicians…celebrate and appreciate the life and health of our daughters.

How can you call a celebration you do in private a festival? It is because “matsuri” also means religious offerings and representations. In fact, lively street festivals used to be religious expressions.

History of Hinamatsuri

The origin is obscure, but there is a record that this was already a ceremony in the 17th century. In the 17th century, Japan was under the Tokugawa shogunate’s dictatorship. Interestingly, the samurais, who are very spartan in everything and famous for Zen Buddhism, looked to the past for finery. Also, they carry over mystic numbers: 3, 5 and 7. For example, 5th May is for celebrating the growth of your male children, and 7th July is when two lover gods who are separated by the milky way can meet.

Maybe Samurai mothers wanted to cherish the time they could have with their children. In the samurai period, if you were a child of Samurai, then unless you were the shogun’s kid, you were likely to be taken hostage by another samurai household. This was a custom so that your father would not fight the one keeping you. We no longer have to do that but we still dress girls when they are 3 and 7 and boys when they are 5. The famous first shogun of Tokugawa shogunate was already a hostage at the age of 9, and that was the norm.


How is Hinamatsuri celebrated?

On this day, families unbox the dolls dressed in Heian period clothes and decorate them in a step with a red cover on it. We have a pair on the top step, a king and a queen, then under them, we have three ladies in waiting, then five musicians below and so forth. We admire our work and then have “amazake”, a yeast-based non-alcoholic rice drink, and kids play outside. Girls love to invite each other over. Some play traditional games like Japanese cards or a badminton-like sport with wooden rackets.

Where is Hinamatsuri celebrated?

Well, as mentioned earlier, in our private homes all over Japan. So if you want to experience this festive event, you really need to polish your Japanese and make good Japanese friends who will invite you. Some family get carried away decorating, though!

About the author

SOAS Language Centre offers quality teaching in a wide range of languages including Japanese to SOAS students and the general public. They also provide bespoke language training for diverse organisations. They have proven expertise in making the learning of languages practically useful, highly enjoyable and accessibly to people from all walks of life. SOAS staff and students get a 25% discount and alumni get a 10% discount on all short language courses.