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For a Nation's Daughters, Little Figures With Big Meaning and Cost

Japan: Artisans and Traditions. first in an occassional series


TOKYO — Japan's economy is hobbling as residents rein in spending, but there's one high-end item on which few Japanese families seem to be scrimping: dolls. Dolls that can cost several thousand dollars, that is.

The traditional Hina emperor and empress replicas and their entourages are on display in homes throughout the nation until Saturday's Girls' Day, an annual celebration that began hundreds of years ago to honor girls. The dolls are de rigueur for families with young daughters. (They also can be seen at this time of year in L.A.'s Little Tokyo district.)

After homes and cars, the dolls often are the most expensive item a Japanese family will purchase. The most popular set at the three-floor Tokyo doll emporium Yoshitoku Taiko Co., for example, costs $2,500.

And that's a lot less than some families shell out. Yoshitoku, which is one of Japan's largest doll makers, has sold 2,000 to 3,000 sets this year for $10,000 and even a few for $50,000. Store officials are still hoping that someone will snap up the $100,000 special commemorative pair with 12-fold kimonos made of special Kyoto silk, which were made to commemorate the store's 290th anniversary.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 2, 2001 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Dolls--A story in Thursday's Southern California Living on dolls for Japan's Girls' Day incorrectly stated the number of doll sets sold for $10,000 each. Twenty to 30 sets were sold, not 2,000 to 3,000.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday March 5, 2001 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong name--A photo caption accompanying a story Thursday about dolls and Girls' Day in Japan gave the wrong name of the president of Yoshitoku Taiko Co., one of that country's largest doll makers. The correct name is Tokubei Yamada.

Even at Yoshitoku's newest outlet for its wares--Toys R Us' 110 stores throughout Japan, where dolls sell under another brand name--the dolls command about $500 to $1,000 per set.

"A very low price," says Tokubei Yamada, the 11th generation president of the family business. When a visitor noted that such a purchase would still be considered extravagant by American standards, he nodded his head knowingly. "The American staff at the Toys R Us don't understand the March doll section [of the Japanese stores]--that it's a sacred place to the Japanese."

Dolls do hold a revered place in Japan and are considered to embody the spirit of a child. The Hina dolls are so revered they are usually called "Ohina-sama," using the honorific "o" before the word, and the "sama" antecedent which essentially means "most honored guests."

Even when the dolls break or children grow up and leave them behind, no one can seem to discard them. Hiroshi Inoue, whose two grown daughters work outside the home, says of their dolls, "I don't like them, but somehow I have this kind of feeling that I cannot just toss them out like pens or paper."

About a dozen years ago, Yamada started holding an annual fall doll funeral at the famous Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. Last year, about 30,000 dolls were brought to the shrine, given funeral rites and then cremated.

The Hina doll tradition is said to date back a few hundred years. Displays can consist solely of an emperor and empress sitting atop small platforms, but they more often include folding or paneled screens behind the couple, lamps, flowers and an entourage of several musicians, ministers, servants, lacquer boxes and chariots. The largest sets are seven-tiered, but three-step models are quite popular nowadays.

Yoshitoku employs about 150 doll makers, all with different specialties. Some make the faces, others the silk hair or the small accessories such as swords and sake pitchers. The silk floor lamps are made in Gifu prefecture, the lacquer items in Shizuoka prefecture, the screens in Tokyo. Most notable are the designers of the fabrics used in the kimonos: the more expensive models use specially designed Kyoto silk that is also used for obi, the sashes tied under the bust.

But not so much of the work is handmade these days. "People dream and admire dolls and think they're mysterious, but if they were really made all by hand, we couldn't meet the demand," Yamada said. "This is the reality. If you go to Kyoto, handmade textiles should be made by hand but real silk is woven by machine."

In the month before Girls' Day, families take their dolls out of storage and arrange them in their living rooms, often adding dried rice puffs and sweet, brightly colored sticky rice cakes and flowers. Some towns gather thousands of dolls together to display. In Katsuura City outside Tokyo, 650 dolls were placed on the steps of a shrine and another 9,000 were displayed in City Hall and other public areas.

On Girls' Day itself, it is traditional to drink white sake and eat vinegared rice topped with fish, vegetables and eggs. Legend has it that the doll sets must be taken down soon after the end of Girls' Day or the young girl will be doomed never to marry.

A gaggle of high school girls hanging out in their plaid skirts and blue wool coats giggled when a reporter asked whether they have dolls displayed at home. Each of the six 16-year-old girls said she did. "Everybody has them, but the problem is that not many people actually have a celebration on the day itself," said Kumi Takayabashi.

"I think the dolls are good--it's girlish," said Sayaka Neda.

As to what they think of the old wives' tale that they won't marry if the dolls aren't put away in time, Ayumi Mogi said she didn't know about that superstition. Sayaka explained to her.

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