人形 ningyou—dolls

Last week I learned about the Japanese tradition of holding a 供養 kuyou memorial service for dolls.

Even when a doll gets old or broken, it can be hard to just toss it in the bin with the rest of the household rubbish. Instead, the doll can be brought to the temple, where the monk reads a 経 kyou—sutra, and the doll is cremated. Alternatively, you can bring the doll to the shrine, the priest recites お祓い o-harai—a purification blessing, and the doll is cremated.

This ties in with the idea that there is some divinity or spirit even in a doll; the ceremony allows people to express their gratitude and appreciation to the doll and to console the doll’s spirit while sending it on up to heaven.

As well as dolls, tools used in crafts such as needlework (shoemakers, tailors) and the tea ceremony were also considered too precious to be casually disposed of. Iron needles or 茶筅 chasen—bamboo tea whisks were buried with proper ceremony in mounds within the precincts of the temple or shrine.

The needle ceremony, called 針供養 harikuyou, seems to involve placing the old and broken needles in a dish of tofu (click on the link for pictures). These are then buried in the 針塚 harizuka—needle mound.

In Awashima shrine in Kada, Wakayama, this needle memorial ceremony takes place annually in February. We visited Awashima today and saw the harizuka.

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But that wasn’t all. The place was a sanctuary for every kind of doll, figurine and statue, no longer wanted by its owners.

There were ceramic elephants and bears.

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A cohort of superannuated tanuki statues.

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Dragons, rabbits, and roof tiles with images of creatures.

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A sea of worn-out maneki-neko.

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Gods, koma-inu and shiisa lion dogs.

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Kintarou astride various beasts.

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Frogs.

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Daikoku and his mouse friends.

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Carved wooden Noh theatre masks

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And a whole army of ichimatsu dolls.

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At Awashima, I am not sure whether some dolls are cremated and others kept on display. There is a hearth near the entrance of the shrine. The sign says that old dolls, charms and so on should be presented at the proper place (and that boxes and rubbish should not be thrown into the hearth).

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The poster says that on Girls’ Day, they pile up hina dolls in small boats and float them out to sea in a ceremony called hina nagashi.

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hina nagashi

(Image from Wakayama Kanko)

Note on the word of the day

人形 ningyou, a doll, is written with the characters for “human” and “shape”. Literally, it means “human form”.

供養 kuyou, a memorial service, like many religious terms, has its ultimate origin in India. The Sanskrit terms were brought to Japan with the arrival of Buddhism. Kuyou is ultimately the same word as the Hindu puja, although the pronunciation has changed beyond recognition in the intervening centuries.

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2 thoughts on “人形 ningyou—dolls

  1. Looks fascinating. I’d like to see it for myself. I’m a big fan of tanukis. I hope you take yours home with you as we did with ours. We went to the Magoichi Matsuri in Wakayama at the end of March with our friends from Ireland. This festival celebrates the historic hero Magoichi Saika (16th century) who led matchlock gun troops in defence of Wakayama. There was a noisy demonstration of these matchlock rifles and our friend Nick dressed up in the samurai body armour of the time. A once-in-a-lifetime experience!
    Dale

  2. Pingback: Ningyou—Dolls

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