What Is Japanese Girls' Day or Hinamatsuri?

The Annual Doll's Festival Celebration

Layered Chirashi Sushi for Hinamatsuri (Girl's Day)
Koki Iino/Getty Images

Japanese Girls' Day—also known as the Doll's Festival—is celebrated on March 3 to pray for the health and happiness of young girls in Japan. Hinamatsuri, the name of the celebration in Japan, is marked by families displaying a set of hina dolls in the house and serving special food delicacies that are ceremonially beautiful and delicious.

Hina Dolls

Traditionally, parents or grandparents of a newborn girl buy a set of hina dolls for the baby, unless they have special dolls that are inherited from generation to generation.

Usually, from the end of February to March 3, hina dolls dressed in Japanese ancient costumes are displayed on tiered platforms that are covered with a red carpet. The costumed dolls represent the imperial court of the Heian period (A.D. 794 to 1185) and feature the emperor, empress, attendants, and musicians dressed in traditional garb.

The dolls are displayed hierarchically with the emperor and empress at the top, which are set in front of a gilded screen representing the thrown. The number of dolls and their size vary from home to home, but five to seven platforms are common. 

It is customary to put the dolls away as soon as the festival is over—there is a superstition that if the dolls are left out, a family will have trouble marrying off their daughters. After the festival, some people release paper dolls into the rivers praying that this will send away sickness and bad fortune. 

Traditional Food

As with almost all holidays, food and drink play a role on Girls' Day, with rice wine and rice cakes taking center stage, along with flower blossoms.

Hinamatsuri is also called Momo no Sekku, which means a festival of peach blossoms. Peach blossoms, shiro-zake (white fermented rice wine) and hishi-mochi (diamond-shaped rice cakes) are placed on the stand with the hina dolls. Hishi-mochi are colored pink representing peach flowers, white representing snow, and green representing new growth.

Traditionally, girls in Japan invited their friends to a home party to celebrate this festival. Many people prepare a special meal for girls on this day, including savory dishes such as chirashi, which is a sugar-flavored, vinegared sushi rice with raw fish on top; clam soup served in the shell; and edamame maze-gohan, a mixed rice usually consisting of brown rice and soybeans. 

Other popular dishes to serve at a Girl's Day celebration are inari sushi—rice-stuffed tofu pockets—with miso grilled salmon and cabbage ramen salad. Sweets are on the menu as well, incorporating a feminine shade of pink, like chi chi dango, which are pink pillows of mochi (glutinous rice flour and coconut milk), a favorite among children, and sakura-mochi, a pink, sweet rice cake. Some families include an impressive edible centerpiece, such as the layered chirashi sushi cake. 

History of the Event

The displaying of Hina dolls began in the early 1600s as a way to ward off evil spirits. It was thought that the dolls would act as good luck charms. 

The origin of Hinamatsuri most likely dates back to an ancient Chinese practice in which the sin of the body and misfortune are transferred to a doll, and then removed by abandoning the doll on a river and have it float away.

This custom, called hina-okuri or nagashi-bina, in which people float paper dolls down rivers late in the afternoon of March 3, still exists in various areas.