Japan: Empress (Kimekomi ningyou doll)

Front view

General description: Empress in full regalia, wearing a phoenix crown (Fengguan) and standing on a dark wooden dais. Most probably part of a Japanese Doll Festival set representing the female part (mebina, hime or O-hina-sama) of the royal pair (the dairi-bina), which form the middle point of this group of dolls.

Dimensions Doll: 8.5 x 6.5 x 4 cm / Dias: 10 x 6.9 x 2 cm

Date when acquired 2017

Original Date Unknown

Source Erbsen flea market; present from Fritz W.


Back view


From the head and feet, the body seems to be made of plaster. The doll’s hair and facial features are painted on, as is a brown band extending from the temples backwards to form a bow at the back, whose ends are almost as long as the empress’ hair. The brown band is decorated with a geometric pattern of gold lines. Her hair is straight with a central parting and is tied in a form of ponytail that reaches below her waist. The hairstyle seems to be that typical of the late Edo Period of the 1850s known as Osuberakashi (Simple Tied-back Hair).


Bronze phoenix on top of crown


As with all Kimekomi ningyou dolls, the clothing is fitted to the form and inserted into cuts into the surface before being glued. She is wearing a kimono made of orange brocade with a golden floral design covered by a very heavily padded coat-like piece of clothing, an uchikake. This is made of a beige brocade decorated with a golden scroll design.

Her overall shape is rather strange to my eyes as she seems to have a hump on her back. I have not been able to find anything like this in the dolls or pictures of Japanese dolls on the internet.

Her left hand can be seen poking out of the large sleeves of the uchikake, while the traditional large open folding fan (Sensu or O-gi) is held in her right hand. The fan is edged in red and has a meadow of flowers painted on it.

On her feet are white split-toed socks (tabi). Behind these is an area of mint green brocade.

On the empress’ head is an imposing bronze crown with a bird — a phoenix — on top. On each side are two metal chains with white beads and small squares of bronze as decoration. A metal plate like straight wings is attached to the back of the crown. A red cord is looped around the top left of the crown, one part of the loop goes to the right of the crown and then through a hole in the side of the crown and out through a hole on the left side. Both this and the other end of the loop go down to the front of the uchikake where they are tied in a bow with the cords coming from embroidered circles on each side of the chest.


Base of doll showing split-toed socks and the lower dress


Dais made of black lacquered wood.


Background information

The two essential and most distinctive dolls of the Doll’s or Girl’s (Hina) Day (March 3) are a hieratic male and female figure. The word hina or hiina is similar to the word for “chick, baby bird” and is thought to have meant something like “little pretty thing” when it came into use both for chicks and for girls’ dolls.

The main dolls of such a set may be two-dimensional (folded paper tachibina or a picture of the dolls) or they may be a beautiful “Emperor and Empress” (the dairi-bina) attended by a varying number of other dolls: wise warriors, musicians, ladies serving sake, and other figures of aristocratic private life of the past, all arranged according to set patterns on the red steps of the tiered display (hina-dan). The Emperor (obina, tono or O-dairi-sama) and Empress (mebina, hime or O-hina-sama) sit at the top. Although these dolls represent the Emperor and Empress, they do not refer to the persons currently in those roles (with the exceptions of a very few pairs made in the Meiji era as portraits; see Alan Pate, “Japanese dolls and the Imperial image,” Doll News 2011, pp. 80–99), but rather to the idea of their roles in Japanese religion and culture.

Such royal dolls need gold screens (byobu) behind them, a pair of lanterns flanking them, and a vase or two of flowers. This is also where the talismans owned by the girl and connected to her fertility, would be displayed. Normally the male doll sits on the right, the seat of honour in the Kyoto palace; to seat him to the left is a reference to the more Westernised seating pattern of the Tokyo Imperial protocols (post-1870; see Shigeki Kawakami, “Ningyo: An Historical Approach,” in Avitabile, ed., Ningyo, p. 13).

Side view

The empress wears an elaborate phoenix crown (Fengguan) as in this doll or else a smaller tiara that came into use in the Meiji period, and carries an open fan. The fan itself is the symbol of prosperity as it spreads out when it is opened. As the fan starts from a single point and the wooden strips go out to various directions, they are considered to resemble the various paths leading us through life after the single point of birth. The colours and designs are also symbolic, with the red on this fan meaning luck. The emperor, in contrast, wears a hat (kanmuri) with a tall piece of stiffened fabric on the back, and a sword, sticking out behind. He holds a simple wooden paddle which serves as sceptre.

The empress’ phoenix crown is very symbolic. In Japan, the phoenix is identified as the Ho-ho (or ho-o) bird. As is common in East Asia, the phoenix is a sunbird and is associated with Amaterasu, the Japanese sun goddess. An image of a phoenix often accompanies representations of the goddess on top of the wooden cart or palanquin that carries the deity on processions about town from a shrine during a festival. The emperor of Japan is considered to be the descendent of Amaterasu, so it is only fitting that his consort wears a phoenix crown. One of the earliest phoenix crowns that has been excavated belonged to Empress Xiao of the Sui dynasty (6th—7th CE).

See also Japanese kimekomi ningyou dolls


Source(s) of information








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