By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
An invitation to a festival celebrating Japanese dolls for March 10 emerged in my email. Is this a girl thing? Do I get to cuddle the dolls?
There was a hint of urgency for attending, “… this might be the last time for us.” I soon found out why.
What was also compelling was the part about “good food and wine,” towards the end of the invitation. Well, I rarely miss a good meal. I might not drink alcohol, but I love to smell sake. It warms my heart. So, I replied, “Yes.”
Arriving at Naomi and Yoshi Minegishi’s home, Japanese dolls were displayed on an elaborate, red 7-step staircase at the entrance. The empress and emperor were at the top of the display, followed by the ladies-in-waiting, court musicians, and samurais. There were other miniatures like musical instruments such as drums, peach and cherry blossom trees, and chests and drawers. Each object was artfully made with perfection in every detail, from the hair, to the eyes, to the clothes. It was a representation of a formal royal setting in Japan.
This was the celebration of O-Hina-Matsuri, Doll Festival, or Girls’ Day, just like Western custom of Mother’s and Father’s Day. It’s an opportunity for the whole family to put aside grief, misfortunes or misgivings, and open their heart to joy and fun by celebrating girlhood and wishing their daughters good luck. Traditionally, the dolls were thrown into rivers or seas after the event, so that bad luck would be discarded too. Over the years, people realized that it would be a pity to throw the dolls away. After all, the craftsmanship was superb. Hence, they decided to store them after the festival.
In Japan, it used to be on the Lunar New Year calendar, March 3. But in the 19th century, Emperor Meiji, who was credited with Westernizing Japan, changed it to Western calendar, March 3. Since then, Japan has followed the Western calendar.
What about Boys’ Day? Well, Japan does have a Boys’ celebration Day on May 5. The Minegishis collect samurais and showcase them as well. I had the impression that the Japanese enjoy creating festivals. When I was in Yokohama, I attended a Fireworks Festival, and years ago, a Cherry Blossom Festival in Kyoto. Those festivals are a big deal in Japan, perhaps, a chance for people to drink and dress up in kimonos.
The history of Japanese dolls dates back to the 14th century. It is a traditional craft that is still popular in Japan. They are good-luck charms and symbols of perseverance and resilience. I was amazed by how expensive these dolls were when I traveled to Japan 5 years ago. It varied from a few hundred to thousands of dollars.
There were more dolls in other rooms. The Minegishis must have more than 80 dolls and mini objects. Their collection is part of both of their families’ history, spanning three generations and more than a century. The dolls once belonged to their grandmothers.
Naomi said the dolls are old and fragile. To me, they still look new and well-preserved.
Why collect dolls?
It’s not true that only women like dolls, men like them, too.
“It’s a fantasy,” said Yoshi. “The dolls are nobilities. They are someone we look up to.”
“I like traditions, and I like to celebrate,” he said. “I have two daughters. Someday, one of them is going to inherit the dolls. But you need to have space (to store them).”
Naomi and Yoshi are great appreciators of art and culture. It is no surprise that the couple are also founders of Celebrate Asia, an annual concert of Asian music, part of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s successful program.
Minegishis were gracious hosts. The dining table set with several dolls, was aesthetically appealing. The colors of the dolls, food, and the hand-painted lacquer plates (family heirlooms) were so gorgeously matched that guests understood the amount of thought and heart that went into the setting. Guests like me enjoyed lingering around the table. I probably ate more than I should have. Catered by Chef Hiro Tawara, the salads, salmon, beef, and other courses were delicious. Each mini mochi, wrapped in a small gift box, consisted of just the right amount of sweetness. A small glass of green tea should be accompanied with the dessert. It was perfection, though, in every sense of the word.
Men were invited, too, and many guests were among the Who’s Who in our community, including the Consul General of Japan, Yoichiro Yamada. To make the occasion special, Professor Paul Atkins, of the University of Washington, gave a history of the Doll Festival.
The Minegishis don’t host every year. And Naomi said this might be their last time. I understand, it takes a lot of work to dig them up and store them afterwards. Yoshi said it can take as many as three to four hours to disassemble the stairway and store the dolls in boxes and padding.
I had never attended a Japanese doll festival before. Dolls! You probably think that older folks don’t care about dolls. Hey, I am a girl, too. These days, I enjoy things that spark childlike fun and a sense of play.
I had only one doll in my childhood. My mom often told friends that I never liked dolls. Not true. She worried that I might not be able to bear children one day because of my inclination not to play with dolls. That’s silly. She bought me a big ugly Western doll and just dumped it next to me. The doll was heavy for me, for a 5-year-old.
Also, I didn’t have anyone to play with. Had I been given the chance to choose one at a toy store, it could be a different tale. Just that one time, she assumed I wanted no dolls. Since then, she never bought me any toys again.
Few people know that one of my favorite pastimes is to buy dolls and toy princesses, including Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, for my friends’ daughters during Christmas. It’s a manifestation of my desire to make up for my childhood. Giving to other kids fills up my past void and makes me happy.
I have been to countless dinners since January. My life has been blessed with variety through my work as a journalist. For two consecutive days, I got to appreciate heritage preservation and friendship — first at the Minegishis’ home facing Puget Sound and the Olympic mountains; the following day, I was at a dinner in a fancy downtown hotel, with six executives, focusing on how robotics can drive up business in retail. The Minegishis’ gathering has enhanced not only my humanity, but my energy and vision to engage in meaningful conversations in cultural diversity.
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.