Museum Dictionary

All about Japanese Hina Dolls

Every year on March 3rd, Japan celebrates the Doll Festival (Japanese, Hina Matsuri). Until recently, Girls' Day was also celebrated on March 3rd. On this day every year, families set up a special step-altar on which to arrange their Emperor and Empress dolls, called "hina" in Japanese. They decorate this altar with boughs of peach blossoms and make offerings to the hina dolls of freshly made rice cakes (mochi), either flavored with a wild herb or colored and cut into festive diamond shapes. Here at the Kyoto National Museum, we hold an exhibition of dolls every year sometime between February and April in celebration of the Doll Festival.

Look at the photos of these three altars below.

  • Doll Altar
    (Private Collection)
  • Meiji Doll Altar
    (Kyoto National Museum)
  • Doll Altar
    (Kyoto National Museum)
  • This altar has a gorgeous pavilion on the top step. The set of dolls was made in the city of Kyoto in the 19th century, during the Edo period.
  • This enormous altar has seven steps. These dolls were made in Tokyo in the 1920s (late Taisho to early Showa period).
  • The dolls on this step-altar were made in Kyoto in 1935 (Showa 10).

In addition to dolls, these altars display many beautiful and luxurious decorative accessories. Look again carefully at the three altars. Can you see any things displayed on the two altars made in Kyoto that are not on the altar made in Tokyo? The Kyoto-made altars have miniature kitchens and hearths for cooking. You will never see such objects on altars made in Tokyo because kitchen implements are a specialty of doll sets made in Kyoto. Tokyo dolls have their own specialties too; doll sets from Tokyo are tall with many steps. They also have many chests, shelves and other furnishings to display with the dolls. This kind of lavish exhibit is a Tokyo tradition that has been handed down since the Edo period. In fact, Edo is the old name for Tokyo. In the old days, you could quickly see the difference in style between doll sets made in Tokyo and those made in Kyoto. Today, however, these differences have almost disappeared.

Do you know when the tradition of displaying hina dolls on March 3rd began? Because the dolls are dressed like court nobles from the Heian period (A.D. 794-1185), so you might think that the Doll Festival is a very old holiday. In actuality, however, the festival did not begin till the Edo period, in the 17th Century. The third day of the third month of the year was a holiday in Japan before that time, but there are no earlier records of doll displays on this day.

The Edo period began in about A.D. 1615 and continued for about 270 years until 1868. Many different kinds of dolls were made over this long period of time. Dolls that are standing up are called tachi bina, or "standing dolls."

  • Tachi bina Dolls (Kyoto National Museum)

Standing dolls are a very old type of Japanese doll that continued to be made during the Edo period.

Dolls that are sitting down are called suwari bina, or "sitting dolls." Sitting dolls evolved during the Edo period. There are many different categories of sitting dolls based differences in form, face shape and clothing.

The oldest type of sitting doll is called "Kanei bina." Look at the picture of two Kanei bina below.


The Kanei bina are little dolls. The Empress doll has her arms spread apart, but her hands are hidden inside her sleeves. She wears a very old style of Japanese outfit, with a pair of wide culotte-like trousers called a hakama over her layers of kimono.

The second-oldest sitting doll category is the "Genroku bina." Look at the picture of a set of Genroku bina below.


They look somewhat like the Kanei-bina, but they are a little bigger. Can you see the difference between the Empress Genroku bina above and the Empress Kanei bina? Do you see how the Genroku bina is holding her hands out in front of her? Her clothing is different too. She is wearing an outfit similar to the twelve-layered court costume of the Heian period, called a juni hito'e.

In the years to come, the size of the dolls grew as a new kind of hina doll, known as the "Kyoho bina," became popular.

These Kanei bina and Genroku bina were made in the 17th century, during the first half of the Edo period. At this time, the dolls came in sets of one or two and were displayed simply on a low, one or two-stepped platform with a "hina screen" behind them.

  • Kyoho bina Dolls (Kyoto National Museum)

Other popular dolls were the round-faced "Jirozaemon" and the "Yusoku bina," whose costumes perfectly reflect the special clothing worn by courtiers.

  • Jirozaemon bina Dolls
    (Private Collection)
  • Yusoku bina Dolls
    (Private Collection)

By the late Edo period, it became popular to decorate the top steps of the altars with lavish pavilions. In Edo (Tokyo), the doll altars were often built seven or eight steps high! By the time the "Kokin bina," shown below, became popular, it had become the tradition to display other dolls below the imperial pair. Among these were the Three Court Ladies (Sannin Kanjo) dolls and Five Musicians (Gonin bayashi). Their additions made the Doll Festival displays more lavish than ever, creating a style that is still seen today.

  • Kokin-bina Dolls (Kyoto National Museum)

Text by Shigeki Kawakami, Department of Applied Arts
English translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives

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