History of Yusoku Gogatsu Ningyo Dolls

Chapter 1

Origin of the Boy's Festival

Origin of the Boy's Festival

Tango-no-Sekku (the present day Boy's Festival or Child's Festival) is an event which is held on the fifth day of May. The term "tango" originally meant the beginning or the first and "go" meant horse, one of the twelve animals of the oriental signs of the zodiac. In Japan these signs are usually applied to the year, but in China they are applied to the month and day. Therefore "tango (the first day of the horse)" exists in every month, but as May is the month of the horse in terms of the monthly calendar in China, the Festival gradually began to be held on the fifth of May only.

Although the first known description of the term Tango-no-Sekku in Japan is found in literature of the year 839 during the era of Emperor Ninmyo, it is known that various events had already been held on the fifth of May before this time. For example, in the "Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan)" there appears an event called Kusuri-gari, which meant to gather herbs in the mountains and fields and to collect deer horns. It is said that this event was established by combining Chinese herb gathering, Korean hunting rituals and Japanese agricultural rituals.

Thereafter, with the addition of a number of events, the Festival developed into a complex occasion. In 701 when "Taiho-Ritsuryo (an ancient code of laws)" was enacted, a horse race was held as an event to demonstrate the power of the Emperor among the people. At Court, people had to wear the sweet calamus ornament on their heads during the Festival. As sweet calami were believed to have the power to remove negative spirits, the Festival was also called the Sweet Calamus Festival.

Go-Sekku and Tango-no-Sekku

In Chinese literature documenting the annual events of the sixth century, there is a description of Go-Sekku (five seasonal festivals) held on the first of January, third of March, fifth of May, seventh of July and ninth of September of the lunar calendar. According to Chinese ideology based on the Yin and Yang theory of dualism, the day matching the number of the month was originally not welcomed. Dualism holds that all things in the universe are created through a combination of the two major elements of Yin and Yang, and May is regarded as the month when the Yang reaches its fullness and generates Yin. The day of the horse in May is particularly important, as it is the very day on which such change occurs. This is why the fifth of May, which later became a day of celebration, has been especially made valued among the five festivals.

In the above-mentioned literature, it is stated that people used to display a doll made with mugwort grass at the gate of their home, drank sweet calamus tea and picked herbs in order to purge bad spirits. With respect to agriculture also, the fifth of May according to the lunar calendar occurred during the vital period for rice planting before the summer solstice. This is probably why various rituals were carried out as a way of purging while praying for a good harvest in the fall.

The Go-Sekku rituals based on such Chinese ideas combined with their wishes for fertility evolved into the special feasts focused on the fifth of May, which were brought to Japan where they took root as the Tango-no-Sekku.

Chapter 2

Development of the Boy's Festival

Tango-no-Sekku in the Heian Period

On the day of Tango-no-Sekku during the Heian period, as mentioned before, all courtiers wore shobu-kazura (head ornament with sweet calamus), while displaying sweet calamus and mugworts on the eaves of the Court buildings, and hanging ornamental scent bags from the pillars, which were decorated with sweet calamus leaves. Especially since the Emperor Shomu (70-756) had declared that no courtier should enter the Court without wearing sweet calamus on their heads, this hair ornament spread widely.

Other heroic events such as Uma-yumi (horseback archery) and Kurabe-uma (horse racing) were also held on this day, for example the one held at the Kamigamo Shrine in northern Kyoto city, began in 1092 as a Shinto ritual, in which two horses race on a track of 400 meters. Another horse racing ritual held at the Fujinomori Shrine in the southern part of the city is also well known. Both of these heroic Shinto rituals evolved from the fact that the spoken word shobu (sweet calamus) is the same as the word meaning "militarism". It is said that the ritual at the Fujinomori Shrine derived also from the historical fact that Prince Sawara prayed at this Shrine for victory in a battle and defeated his enemy in 781. This is reflected in the fact that boys play with swords while wearing the sweet calamus helmet on the fifth of May. These rituals have been handed down to the present, and we can enjoy imagining them transcending a period of one thousand two hundred years.

In the Heian period, some of the rituals were practiced among the common people also. They displayed sweet calamus on the eaves of their houses as a form of purification, while the children played a game of throwing stones at each other called inji on that day. This game, which apparently originated in a kind of divination, grew to be rather violent at the end of the Heian period and thereafter, resulting in many casualties. This is rendered in the "Nenju-Gyoji-Emaki (picture scroll of annual events; 12th century)" which shows children and even adults together throwing stones at each other while wearing sweet calamus on their waists.

This shobu-gatana (sweet calamus sword), which originally meant sweet calamus worn on the waist, was later replaced by a set of long and short swords made of willow, and then later of wood. Towards the end of the Edo period (1603-1867), people began to display the wooden sword in their houses. This stone throwing battle event continued until the beginning of the Edo period, but due to its dangerous nature, it was changed to a contest in which people competed by trying to produce the loudest sound by beating the ground with a bundle of sweet calamus.

Tango-no-Sekku in the Edo Period

Tango-no-Sekku became an important festivity for the Tokugawa shogunate at the turn of the Edo period. Feudal lords and retainers of the shogun attended the Edo Castle in ceremonial costumes of dyed katabira (unlined kimono) and offered greetings to the shogun. In particular, when an heir was born to the shogunate the ceremony became even more elaborate. A grand ceremony was held with a large number of spears, halberds, and helmets displayed in the castle. Influenced by this grand ceremony and ritual the Tango-no-Sekku became an important event also among the common people. Thus this festival, also known as Shobu-no-Sekku, was established for boys as opposed to the Hina Doll Festival (Girl's Festival) or Momo-no-Sekku for girls.

People made helmets with paper or wood and decorated the gates of houses with handmade halberds and banners for the Tango-no-Sekku Festival. The helmet was actually a small doll called kabuto-doll. In addition, a kezurikake (helmet-like ornament made of Japanese cypress) was displayed. These are the origin of the present Gogatsu-ningyo (doll warrior for Boy's Day). The size of the dolls gradually became larger, and those made by professional craftsmen began to be displayed at local stores and in the alcoves of homes. The craftsmanship of these helmets and armor became more elaborate and they began to be displayed indoors.

At Court, various rituals and customs were practiced and inherited, such as shobu-koshi (miniature palanquin made of sweet calamus), shobu-fuki (sweet calamus on the eaves), shobu-makura (pillows made with sweet calamus) and shobu-yu (sweet calamus bath).

Chapter 3

Development of the Tango Display

Development of the Tango Display

Tracing the development of Gogatsu-ningyo (doll warrior for Boy's Day), one arrives at the shobu-kabuto (sweet calamus helmet) and the kezurikake, also called hinoki-kabuto (Japanese cypress helmet) after its material. These are the original source of the present day display ornaments for the Boy's Day Festival.

The shobu-kabuto described in the literature of the Kamakura period (1180-1333) is made of sweet calamus or oak leaves, having red and white flowers on the top with sweet calamus being displayed upright at the front, while the sternum and neck plates are made of sweet calamus leaves. It represents an impressively symbolic design.

The hinoki-kabuto was said to be created based on the shobu-kabuto. When tracing these two helmets back even further, one realizes that they derived from the shobu-kazura head ornament which were worn by the military officers at the Tango-no-Sekku Festival in the Heian period. This means that one can assume that the shobu-kazura is probably the oldest model of the Gogatsu-ningyo doll.

Tango Display in the Early Edo Period

In the Edo period (1603-1867), people displayed a set of helmet and armor, weapons and banners outdoors on the Tango-no-Sekku Festival. In contrast to the Hina Festival on the third of March which was and remains an occasion to wish for a girl's safe passage into adulthood, this festival has been developed into an event to wish for a boy's strong growth and bravery.

The rituals, which once meant to simply pray for a perfect state of health using the sweet calamus for purification in the Heian period, evolved into a new festival mainly decorated with armor in the Edo period during which feudalism took root, following the Kamakura and Muromachi transitional periods.

Tango Display in the Mid-Edo Period

Ornaments for the Tango-no-Sekku were in principle displayed outdoors also in the mid-Edo period. However, part of the display was moved indoors to rooms facing the street. According to the literature of those days, only the banners were displayed outdoors and tied to a fence, while the helmet, doll warrior and armor were displayed in rooms facing the street. This indicates the transition during this period from outdoor to indoor display, even though the style of display varied.

In addition, the armor including spears and halberds gradually became miniaturized, while fewer of the doll warriors had doll decoration on the their helmets. On the contrary, large-sized doll warriors became more popular, and some of them were as tall as a child.

Tango Display in the Late Edo Period

In the late Edo period, koi-nobori (carp-shaped streamers) were observed outdoors. The carp is a symbol of success because it swims up waterfalls, which reflects the wishes of parents who hope for the healthy development and success of their children. The literature of those days shows carp streamers among many other banners displayed in lines on the streets.

Ornaments other than banners were moved into rooms facing the streets in the mid-Edo period, but in late Edo these were displayed in living rooms. This represented a drastic transition from outdoor to indoor display. Many of the ornaments were miniaturized to be more suited to display in living rooms.

The doll warrior of the late Edo period had a manly expression, with its eyes wide open and a mouth firmly set. Robustness was more emphasized, while the doll of the mid-Edo period had a gentle facial expression. Illustrations of town scenes of this period depict vendors carrying little carp streamers stuck in straw bundles. People bought these for the Tango-no-Sekku Festival and used them as decoration on the eaves and inside of the house.

Chapter 4

Style of the Tango Display

Development of the Tango Display by the Kyoto Yusoku Method

The Tango-no-Sekku, which began in the Heian period was established also in Kyoto as a flourishing festival during the Edo period following those of the Kamakura and Muromachi periods. A book of annual events of the Edo period called "Hinami-kiji" relates that some ornaments of the festival such as a helmet, spear, long sword and banner were displayed outside the entrances of houses. "Haikai Go-Sekku", a book of haiku poetry also introduces the Tango-no-Sekku as celebrated in Kyoto during the Edo period. Its method of display has changed over time, for example, in the early Edo period the helmet, which had been displayed on a supporting post, was later placed on an armor chest without using such a post. As seen in other regions of Japan, the display was moved from outside to the inside of houses in Kyoto.

With respect to the size of the doll, those nearly as tall as an actual child disappeared and gradually became smaller and more sophisticated. In "Morisada Manko (records of manners and fashion of the late Edo period, published in 1908)", the author Morisada, writing about the Gogatsu-ningyo produced in Kyoto, observed that, compared with those of Tokyo, it was distinctly more exquisite in its craftsmanship and had a more gentle facial expression.

Displays of the herbal plant sweet calamus, used for purification on the eaves and on head wear in the Heian period, have since evolved into the present ornamental helmet following introduction of the shobu-kabuto, while the purification ritual has changed to a feast to pray for excellence in health and the arts of pen and swordsmanship for boys, as the sound of the word shobu (sweet calamus) is the same as the word meaning "militarism". By the Edo period, it had been established as a solemn and prosperous ceremonial event. It is the purveyors of yusoku to the Imperial Court who have inherited the elaborate skill, while observing the changes and development of the Tango-no-Sekku for over a thousand years. The Gogatsu-ningyo produced in Kyoto retains the orthodox esthetics and prayers for boys' happiness since the Heian period to the present date.

Style of the Tango Display

The Gogatsu-ningyo display consisting of a three-tier stand is regarded as a traditional style today. On the top tier, a helmet and armor set is displayed at the center, with a bow and sword on its left and right respectively, and a folding screen behind them. On the middle tier, a military hat, fan and other military accessories are displayed. On the bottom tier, shobu-zake (sweet calamus sake) is displayed in the center on a wooden offering table, while two kinds of sweet cakes wrapped in leaves and a set of torches are displayed on both sides.

There are even more opulent five-tier or more reasonable two-tier displays available. Either type is fine as long as it is the most appropriated for the space in which it is displayed. For the same reason, it is also not necessary to adhere to old custom by thinking that the display should only be seen in a Japanese style room.

As the Gogatsu-ningyo display serves as a protective symbol for a boy's health, it is ideal to provide every son you have with an individual display including carp streamers.

In every respect concerning craftsmanship, such as metalwork, lacquer-work, dyeing and weaving and leatherwork, the ornaments are produced by the traditional Kyoto yusoku method, which is accurately based on historical facts. For example, the special technique called odoshi is applied to most parts of the helmet, in which small iron plates are all hand braided together, with threads. Those made by the odoshi technique of the Kyoto yusoku method feature braided threads that are more prominent with an elaborate finish and almost hide the metal plates.

The ornamental metal fittings together with the hoe-shaped helmet crest decorated with precise hand engravings which correctly observe the historical facts, splendid tanned and dyed deerskin, and hand woven Nishijin gold-brocaded fabrics ----- in all of these, the quintessence of the master craftsmen is found in the meticulous accuracy applied to every detail.