All dolled up

By on March 6, 2008

Photo © Elena Derevstova

Our first child was born during an overseas assignment in the United States. My in-laws back in Japan promptly dispatched an elaborate model of a samurai helmet for the young prince.

Fast forward two years, we were still in America when a little princess joined the family. I was expecting something special from the in-laws, and was sorely disappointed when all that arrived was a little jacket in a stunning shade of beige. When a daughter is born, it is up to the mother’s family to provide a set of hina dolls. Then another little princess arrived soon after we were sent back to Japan. I decided to take matters into my own hands—my girls would have hina dolls, one way or another!

If you’ve walked through a Japanese department store in the spring, you’ve probably lingered over the stunning displays of hina dolls. And like me, you’ve probably cringed over the prices—¥100,000 and up. One day in February, browsing through a neighborhood recycle shop, I stumbled upon a full set of exquisite dolls for the prince(ss)ly sum of ¥5000. In a matter of seconds, they were mine!

The next day, when both my girls were in daycare, I enthusiastically went to work setting up the display. One hour, two bruised toes and several “naughty” words later, I had finally managed to set up the seven-tiered stand. But I still had to arrange all the dolls on it! Knowing when to admit defeat, I went over to my neighbor Midori’s house. The mother of a teenage girl, she would surely know what to do.
Midori thought I had snagged a real bargain. My recycled dolls, although over forty years old, had been meticulously preserved.

“Well, of course, some Japanese people think it would be bad luck to have secondhand dolls,” she mused. Seeing my shocked expression, she quickly added, “But nobody really believes that kind of thing now! And you’re not Japanese anyway!”
We spent a happy afternoon oohing and aahing over the tiny dolls and their myriad accessories. When my three-year-old saw the dolls in her room, she made a delighted lunge towards the display. “Don’t touch!” I shrieked. Now I understood what Midori meant when she told me that hina dolls aren’t for the kids as much as for the mothers!

Our dolls have never looked quite as good as that first year when Midori helped me, but I drag out the boxes every year. They’ve survived a kitten who beheaded one of the court ladies, and a newly walking baby who wiped out a row of musicians in one fell swoop. Secondhand or not, these dolls have helped to connect me and my daughters to their Japanese heritage.

I must admit to breaking one big Girl’s Day taboo: It is said that dolls must be packed away by March 3rd, or else the daughters might not get married. Since it takes so long to set them up and tidy them away, I often leave our dolls up well into the middle of March. Check back with me in about 40 years and I’ll tell you if my girls are still single!

About Louise George Kittaka