Sunday, 24 July 2011

The dolls of Awashimadô

On our way to Umekôji Park today, I was intrigued to find a small temple with the sign "Ningyô kuyô" (Memorial service for dolls). Walking inside we found a peaceful, small yard in front of a prayer hall, Awashimadô. What immediately caught our eyes was a big glass cabinet filled with the most marvellous, sad-looking dolls.

Looking left was another cabinett, just as marvellous.

Brilliant like a faded, slightly spooky fairytale court.

This slightly anxious-looking lady was sitting in a cabinet next to the prayer hall.

Beneath the cabinet, Hotei and the other "lucky gods" seem to be discussing the weather.

The only living presence we noticed during our visit at the temple were two cats who manned the reception desk:

Since I'd never seen a temple like this before, I first thought the idea might be to pray for the souls of dead children (as in mizuko kuyô, the memorial service for stillborn or aborted children), but then we discovered an explanation on one of the cabinets.
To thank and pray for the souls of the dolls who have comforted our spirits and taught us to respect and take care of all things around us will also purify your own heart.
Later, I also find the following text on the temple's homepage:
Here at Awashimadô of the Sôtokuji temple, we perform memorial services for dolls. In line with the saying that a soul resides in all things, we have long felt that things too possess heart and life and should be treated with care. Here we transmit our feelings of gratitude and say "Thank you for the time that has been" and pray for the dolls.
This, then, is where people leave their old beloved dolls and say farewell to them. A land of the dead of dolls. Looking at their sad faces, I felt it was like a home for the unwanted elderly.

There are still things I don't understand and which I wish I could find an explanation for. For instance, it seems that at many other temples, the dolls are burned after a memorial service. But the dolls we saw here looked old, even bleached in the sun. Perhaps they are just left at the temple instead of being burned. But if that is so, how long will they be here? Or are the dolls in the cabinet just a select few used for exhibition?

I also wonder if the background of "ningyo kuyô" is fully explained by the texts I saw. Doing a quick search on the Internet, I quickly learned that doll offerings were often made to temples by women wishing to become pregnant. This was for instance the case with Hokyôji temple, which also performs ningyô kuyô. If that is so, the dolls might once have had a sort of magical function, perhaps similar to the wooden Akuaba dolls I saw in Ghana which depict babies and which childless parents take care of just as if they were real children, in order to become pregnant.

That this might have been the historical reason behind the "ningyô kuyô" is confirmed by a Japan Times article by Setsuko Kamiya:

Historically, for instance, Kiyomizu Kannondo has long been a temple where couples would go and pray to be blessed with a child. When a child did come along, it was then customary for them to take a doll to the temple as the child's substitute to prevent anything bad befalling it. As time went by, some people simply started bringing dolls they wanted to get rid of, and the temple began accepting them daily and eventually started the annual ritual 49 years ago.
This seems to imply that the practice of ningyô kuyô is of rather recent origin. It also appears to be becoming more popular, with more and more dolls being offered each year at big "kuyô" ceremonies at places like Meiji Shrine in Tokyo.

The article also add another interesting piece of information.   
All very touching, for sure, but why do so many Japanese feel the need to pray for the dolls before abandoning them -- to say such "Thanks and Goodbye," as signs at Meiji Shrine proclaim? According to Sumie Kobayashi, who heads the reference room of doll manufacturer Yoshitoku Co., the key actually lies in the annual Hinamatsuri Doll Festival. The dolls for this occasion, traditionally representing the wedding of the Imperial couple, are displayed on a platform. They are admired and handled with care and respect. Kobayashi explained that festivals such as this are rooted in ancient purification rites performed as the seasons change, and that long ago the dolls were votive symbols in human form.
Still, this doesn't seem to be the entire explanation either. To be sure, many temples seem to be specializing in hina ningyô memorial services, but that doesn't seem to be the case at Awashimadô where they appear to accept dolls of every conceivable kind, including French dolls, ceramic figures, teddy bears and Hello Kitty. 

So what we seem left with is simply the fact that for some reason many people find it hard to part with their old dolls. Or as the article says, referring to two interviewed people:
Both Okamoto and Yamada believed it just wasn't right to simply toss their dolls into a rubbish bin, not least because of the memories that they embody. Each felt that doing so would in some way bring a curse down on them.
This is a feeling which is easy to understand. "The end is important in all things", to quote a famous old book from the 18th century. Rites have always been useful to say goodbye in a proper way. But I still don't have any explanation to why this practice emerged when it did. What did people do with their dolls before the ningyô kuyô began? How do people part with other things they have loved?


  1. I've enjoyed very much reading this blog post of yours. Responding to your question at the end of the post, I think of the following kinds of kuyô (you may learn details of these from the Web sites linked):

  2. My wife told me another important kuyô, hash kuyô (箸供養): , , etc. Hashi-kuyô ceremonies are held on August 4 from the pun that 84 is pronounced as hash. (Tatsu)

  3. In my comment of 2 August, "hash" should read "hashi". Automatic correction of my Mac seems to have worked to change the latter into the former.

  4. Thanks, Ted! I was surprised to find all these different examples of "kuyô". I still have much to learn. I am still wondering much about this phenomenon and when it started and to what kinds of things it applies. That it applies to pets was no so surprising to me, but it is interesting to see that it is also used for all kinds of things used in everyday life.

  5. You're welcome. "Kuyô" itself seems to be as old as Buddhism (供養 ). However, "kuyô" for things might have started somewhat later, and the one for pets is very new. The above Wikipedia page lists some other examples of "kuyô" for scissors, mirrors, photographs, nameplates, etc.

    1. Does anyone do this still for stuffed animals

  6. Does anyone still do Ningyo Kuyo I have three bears that really have to be burned and blessed in the


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