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Saturday, May 4, 2002


'Nagashibina': a tradition just for girls

Tomorrow is Children's Day, the politically correct way to say "Boys' Day." This is not to say that girls don't have a special day. The Doll Festival was March 3, but is not a national holiday like Boys' Day is.

On Boys' Day, I mean Children's Day, families with boys hang giant carp windsocks on flag poles in front of their houses. The number of carp hanging shows how many boys are in that household. Why carp? Because carp are known for their strength swimming upstream.

Although I think the flying carp are beautiful, it strikes me as odd to subject a fish to such an adverse environment. Fish live in water. So, admit it -- those carp are dead. And probably very smelly. So the real meaning of these kites is that boys are like dead, smelly fish, closer to the English nursery rhyme that says boys are made of "snakes and snails and puppy dog tails." If boys are truly strong like carp, let's see those boys swim upstream in May!

While the men hang up dead fish in the wind for Boy's Day, I mean Children's Day, the women on Kitagi Island are sending their women off to sea, a tradition they have followed for over 300 years -- proof that women were sea explorers long ago.

Kitagi is the island next to mine in the Seto Inland Sea in Okayama. Kitagi is one of only three places in Japan where they celebrate "nagashibina," or sending dolls out to sea. The dolls are put into straw boats headed for Awashima Shrine in Kata no Ura, Wakayama. The dolls take gifts to the god there in exchange for protection from women's diseases. Call it Eastern medicine if you want, but I'm all for disease prevention that doesn't involve regular doctor's checkups, urine samples and bounced checks.

On March 3, all the women put down their hoes for the day and take up making paper dolls and boats. I was excited to be invited, as it was a great opportunity to participate in local Japanese culture and get in touch with my maritime past.

Each girl made a boat and 13 paper dolls: 12 women and one man, the "sendo-san," to row the boat. The women were wearing kimonos made from origami paper. The man was also dressed in traditional attire cut from origami paper. While traditionally the boats were made from straw, we were given used tissue boxes with the tops cut out. By cutting off one end and folding in the sides to make a bow, we had our own recycled "gomi" boat. Inside the boat we put "omiage" of "hishimochi" (diamond-shaped rice cakes), and sake. See? Proof that girls are made of "sugar and spice and everything nice."

On Girls' Day, most Japanese households with girls display a tiered stand with dolls. The figures include the Emperor and Empress and members from the Imperial court. There are also peach tree branches and sweet sake set on the stand.

When we had finished making our paper dolls and had dressed them in their kimonos and set them in their boats, we went down to the sea to send them off. Standing on the beach, we sung the "Happy Doll Festival" song, a song about the figures sitting on the tiered stand.

After this song, we all launched our boats. As usual, there had to be a "gaijin" moment: some mistake the gaijin makes that adds a departure from tradition to the ceremony. While cutting my paper dolls, I had cut out 11 women and two men rather than 12 women and one man. In an effort to cover up my mistake, I then dressed one of the men in a kimono.

But everyone noticed my mistake as I set my boat out. Oh well, can't hurt to have a transvestite on board!

Contact Amy at amychavez2000@yahoo.com or visit the "Japan Lite" home page at www.amychavez.com

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