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One of the more popular items carried by merchants in the feudal days of Japan were the various dolls created by craftsmen up and down the island chain. Dolls were made of wood, clay, porcelain, straw, paper - just about every medium imaginable. From humble beginnings, dolls found themselves enmeshed into the very fabric of Japanese daily life.
In the early days of Japanese culture, dolls, like in many areas of the world, were tied closely to religion. Wooden dolls were thought to protect the owner from illness. Straw dolls were made of wandering husbands and poked with nails, in an attempt to encourage him to mend his ways. If a house was robbed, a paper doll was hung upside down with needles in his feet. The doll represented the god of earthly riches, and thus pinned he was forced to hunt down the thief and bring the money back before he could be freed.
Dolls of the style ´Amakatsu´ or ´Otagiboka´ were built over a wooden base. Originally designed for protection, they were given to children and eventually became simply playthings.
Dolls were not single-generation toys; they were passed down through generation to generation. When they were finally completely worn out, they were either burned, thrown in running streams, or donated to the god Kojin. Most temples have an enoki tree for this purpose.
Girl´s Day (Hina-no-sekku or Hina Matsuri) is the famous springtime doll day; it evolved from Shinto rituals welcoming spring. Originally, people rubbed small paper dolls over their bodies in hopes that any lingering evil spirits would enter the paper dolls. The dolls were tossed into a river, cleansing the person´s soul. Eventually clay dolls were used, and then became more ornate, and evolved into the elaborate display that can be seen today.
The traditional Hina Matsuri layout involves 15 dolls on a five-tiered wooden stand. The stand is draped with red cloth, and has two large screens on its top shelf. In front of these sit the Emperor and Empress, separated by a small table holding sake. The second shelf down holds three ´sannin Kanjo´, or ladies in waiting. The third, two men with bows and swords, and five court musicians "Goninbyashi" The fourt layer holds two No dancers, a girl with a flowering branch, and three white robed servants. The final shelf holds tables, cabinets, and other pieces of furniture, and is often surrounded by the girl´s own favorite dolls.
Boy´s Day, on May 5th, is most widely known by the carp banners the young boys fly outside their houses, but they also have a display of dolls. The less formal layout consists of a 3 to 4 tier stand covered in green cloth. The top step holds silk banners and ancient armor, while the second holds a large white horse. The remaining steps hold a mix of samurai figures.
Dolls also figure prominantly in Japanese theater. Bunraku is the adult entertainment which has 3/4 size dolls operated by up to three people each. This Japanese doll theater was given its distinctive form by Takemoto Gidayu (1651-1714) in Osaka about 1685. Among Japan´s greatest plays are domestic puppet dramas, such as Chikamatsu Monzaemon´s The Love Suicides of Sonezaki (1703), and historical dramas, such as Takeda Izumo´s Chushingura or The Treasury of Loyal Retainers (1748).