Tsuribina Hanging Dolls
Girls’ Day comes but once a year, but in Fukuoka Prefecture’s Yanagawa, tsuribina hanging dolls called sagemon are used as household decorations year-round. Aiko Sakai has been making sagemon for over sixty years. I went to see her exhibition in Ginza. This handicraft, which has been practiced since the Edo period, is both elaborate and delicate yet droll and cute. I found them much more approachable than traditional Girls’ Day dolls.
When my daughter was born, my parents-in-law told me they would pay for some Girls’ Day dolls, so I went to buy some at the department store but none of them were very cute. Traditional Japanese dolls have stern faces. When I was a child, Girls’ Day dolls were scary, the festival songs were melancholic, and the only thing about Girls’ Day that I remember putting any effort into was eating the sakura mochi sweets. A daughter’s first Girls’ Day is a special occasion, but I was not looking forward to the dolls. In the end, I bought some dolls that were relatively un-scary, not too expensive, and didn’t take up too much space. If only I had known about tsuribina then, I would have bought them without any doubt. They are hung from the ceiling so they don’t take up much space even in a cramped apartment, and you never have to try to remember whether the prince sits on the right or the left. More than anything, they’re beautiful.
Tsuribina hanging dolls started out in the Edo period when palace ladies-in-waiting made cases for their koto plectra out of leftover kimono fabric. This spread to the common people who couldn’t afford Girls’ Day dolls, and began to made dolls out of blanket scraps. The tradition of hanging these dolls on strings to display them continues to this day. A set of tsuribina contains seven strings of seven items which each carry special wishes and meanings, like cranes (long life), mice (producing many children), Okame, the goddess of mirth (charm), and gourds (good health). Add two balls to the 49 decorations, and there are 51 items in one set. In a time when the typical lifespan was considered to be 50 years, the number 51 represented the wish to live even just one year longer.
Ms. Sakai, who was born in Fukuoka but now lives in Tokyo, has been making tsuribina for sixty years. At home and wherever she goes, she likes to keep her hands busy making cloth decorations whenever she has a free moment. In the exhibition space there were traditional items like balls as well as less traditional dolls like pandas and cows covering every available space. Visitors to the exhibit who had come from overseas were stopped in their tracks by the beauty of her work, and bought some as a souvenir of their visit to Japan.
The dolls that come from Ms. Sakai’s hands are beautiful and lovely, lively and mischievous, while preserving tradition. The blue-themed tsuribina she had made for her great-grandson seemed to have prayers for his healthy growth included in every stitch, and even in an exhibition space full of tsuribina, it stood out more than the rest.