For many people in the U.S., when we age out of childhood and eventually outgrow the dolls we’ve dragged around the house and drooled on in our sleep, there are several ways we dispose of them. Some families round up their unwanted toys and donate them to Goodwill. Others, like my family, can’t bear to get rid of the objects that comprised some of our fondest memories, so we toss them into trash bags and leave them to clutter our garage. Some people simply throw their dolls away.
In Japan, however, dolls who have served their time receive a thoughtful send-off through ningyo kuyo, an annual funeral-like ceremony held at temples around the country. Literally translated to “doll appreciation festival,” ningyo kuyo allows individuals and families to pay to add their dolls to the altar, say a prayer, and thank their old friends for giving them happy memories. Some temples then burn the dolls, while others throw them away.
As expected, many of the dolls that participate in ningyo kuyo are hina ningyo, or the sitting dolls that families put on display for Hinamatsuri, an annual celebration of girls held on March 3. The samurai dolls that are displayed on Children’s Day on May 5, which also used to be referred to as Boy’s Day, are fairly popular, too. However, not all dolls on the altar are traditional Japanese dolls — there are plenty of Hello Kitty plushes and other dolls that you’d be able to find in the U.S.
What sets dolls apart from other toys in Japan is a commonly accepted cultural belief that dolls have souls — the kanji for doll in Japanese literally translates to “human form.” As such, many believe that simply throwing their dolls away with no appreciation can bring about a curse. By giving thanks to your dolls through prayer and a blessing from the temple’s monks, you can release their souls to Heaven.
The ceremony is traced back to Shintoism, a religion started in 8th century Japan that is tied to the belief that both animate and inanimate objects hold power. Many Americans may have learned about these beliefs fairly recently, as decluttering celebrity Marie Kondo’s branded KonMari method is heavily influenced by the five years she spent working at a Shinto shrine. Through the KonMari method, individuals are instructed to thank every item they throw away, from ratty T-shirt to broken measuring cup, for serving their purpose in your home.
What sets dolls apart from other toys in Japan is a commonly accepted cultural belief that dolls have souls — the kanji for doll in Japanese literally translates to “human form."
What’s particularly special about ningyo kuyo is that it holds different meanings for families depending on their unique circumstances. Many families bring their growing children along to teach them foundational values of appreciation before they move on to buy their next toy. Others are giving away the dolls that belonged to a recently passed family member, and they use the experience to recall memories of their loved one and receive closure.
While traditional doll funerals are not practiced in the U.S., there is value in the ceremony that many Americans can benefit from. From the overwhelmingly positive response to Marie Kondo’s book and Netflix show in this country, it’s clear that Americans are ready to purge their homes of all the things late-stage capitalism has convinced us we need, but maybe there’s something deeper we’re searching for. In a forward-thinking world that constantly encourages us to innovate or think about our next purchase, there's a certain welcomed peace that comes when we take a moment to appreciate where we're at and how we got here.
What’s particularly special about ningyo kuyo is that it holds different meanings for families depending on their unique circumstances.
Like many Japanese American friends of mine, I have my own traditional Japanese porcelain doll that has stood in a glass case on my dresser ever since I can remember, a gift that my great-grandmother has given every great-grandchild on the day of their birth. I don't take her out of her case — she’s a decoration, not a play thing — but she’s been in the background of all my cherished childhood memories. When I look at her, I think about picking out all my outfits for every first day of school. I think about pacing my room while hogging the landline phone so I could chat with my best friend. I think about tearing into my college acceptance letters and the warm feeling of having all my hard work pay off.
I’ll never throw my doll away, as I consider her a family heirloom that I’ll likely pass down to my future children, if I have them, but I can still apply the lessons that ningyo kuyo teaches us. The business of everyday life can cause us to gloss over precious moments, but when we unearth our dolls for Hinamatsuri or visit our parents’ house and look at our old friends collecting dust on shelves, we can pause to think about the lessons we’ve learned and the happy times we've shared with them by our sides. And we can thank them.