Hina Matsuri – Doll Day in Japan

March 3

It’s Hina Matsuri, or Doll Day in Japan.

But no, your old “Tickle Me Elmo” and Molly McIntire won’t cut it. These dolls are often handed down from generation to generation, and are displayed in a very ritualized manner once a year.

A full set of “Hina Ningyo” dolls can cost anywhere from $400 to $10,000, and consists of roughly 15 pieces—“figurines” may be a more accurate term. The main two dolls are the O-Dairi-sama and O-Hina-sama, an Emperor and an Empress/Princess, both dressed in fine silk.

Hina Matsuri
Hina Matsuri display

The other figures include

  • 3 Ladies of the Court, or kanjo, often depicted serving sake
  • 2 Ministers or Guards
  • and 5 or more Court Musicians or Servants

Tradition dictates that prior to the third day of the third month (March 3) families of young girls set up the dolls on a tiered platform covered in a bright red cloth.<

On the top step sits the Royal Couple.

On the next step are the 3 kanjo with banquet trays.

And displayed on the lower steps stand the figures of musicians, ministers, guards, and servants, as well as miniatures of household furnishings and two toy trees. (see photo)

Hina Doll Set at Kansas City Japanese Festival

The holiday is also called Momo no Sekku, meaning Festival of the Peach. In the old calendar the day coincided with the blossoming of the peace trees in Japan.

An example of Hina Matsuri is shown in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams:

Part I: The Peach Orchard

In the beautifully surreal scene, life size figures tell a little boy:

“…Doll Day is for the Peach Blossoms. It is to celebrate their arrival. We dolls personify the peach tree. We are the spirits of the trees, the life of the blossoms…”

In American culture there is no equivalent to Hina Matsuri, but it might be compared to a chess set meets a nativity scene, although the dolls do not refer to any specific personages.

Written references to the holiday date back a thousand years. It grew out of the belief that these human representations could absolve oneself from sin. Traditionally, people would make dolls of folded paper or straw, rub them against oneself, and set them in the water, to carry away their sins with the tide. Even today many towns in Japan carry on this tradition.

Hina Matsuri became a legal holiday in 1687.

Peace Memorial Day – Taiwan

February 28

228 Peace Memorial Park – Taipei

It started with a woman selling cigarettes.

February 27, 1947: Lin Jian-Mai was peddling black market cigarettes at a portable stand on Taiping Road in Taipei, Taiwan (then Formosa), when she was caught and arrested by anti-smuggling police from the “Kuomintang” (Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Chinese government). During the arrest she yelled and struggled with the agents, who had taken her wares and her cash. As a gathering crowd watched the commotion, an overzealous agent pistol-whipped the woman, hard.

The angry crowd surrounded the officers, who then fired warning shots to make an escape for themselves. One of the shots hit and killed a pedestrian.

Word of the incident spread. People were already angry at the corruption of the Chinese government, and the living conditions that had necessitated the black market.

A mob gathered outside the police station, demanding the guilty officer be brought out. When their demands were refused by the captain, the crowd grew angrier and set fire to a police vehicle.

The next day, February 28, amid anti-government demonstrations, the Governor’s security force fired upon the demonstrators with machine guns. Formosans rebelled, attacked mainlanders, and took over part of the city’s infrastructure. On March 7 Chiang Kai-Shek’s army arrived from mainland China for back-up. That’s when the slaughter really began.

The beating of the cigarette vendor may have triggered the 228 Incident, but tensions leading to something like this had been brewing for two years, ever since Chiang Kai-Shek’s government won back Taiwan in 1945 after a half-century of Japanese control.

Corruption and nepotism grew rampant. Taiwan was treated like a colony of the mainland. The Governor Chen Yi controlled the island’s economy and forced Formosans to pay unimaginable amounts for common  goods. The Taiwan Company, for example, was run by Governor Chen’s nephew. The company bought coal at 200 yen a ton and sold it to the people for 4,000.

“With his Chinese aides and ‘monopoly police’ [Chen] took over and expanded the Japanese system of government industrial and trade monopoly (sugar, camphor, tea, paper, chemicals, oil refining, cement). He confiscated some 500 Jap-owned factories and mines, tens of thousands of houses.”

Snow Red and Moon Angel, Time Magazine

Chen ran everything from “the hotel to the night-soil business.” And that included the cigarette factory.

It was in this crucible that Chen’s monopoly police beat a woman vending non-sanctioned tobacco—cigarettes that weren’t manufactured by Chen’s government-run companies. It was the spark that set the island aflame.

When Chiang Kai-Shek’s troops arrived from mainland China, they engaged in:

“‘three days of indiscriminate killing and looting. For a time everyone seen on the streets was shot at, homes were broken into and occupants killed. In the poorer sections the streets were said to have been littered with dead…There were instances of beheadings and mutilation of bodies, and women were raped,’ said one American witness.”

—   New York Times

Witnesses estimated as many as 10,000 people were killed. But there are no official tallies. The government banned Formosans from even mentioning what came to be known as the 228 Incident.

The riots and massacres would trigger the era of “White Terror” in Taiwan. The violence was further fueled by the Chinese Civil War between Mao Zedong’s Communist army and Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist forces. The Communists eventually won everything but the tiny island of Taiwan, which calls itself, the Republic of China.

Even so, martial law in Taiwan didn’t end until 1987.

…I am reminded of the brief note I put down on my diary after seeing the movie, The Last Emperor. The note simply says, “A good and interesting movie, but a wrong title.” By a wrong title I meant that Pu-yi was not the last Emperor of China; there have been many since…One would include among them, Yuan Si-kai, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Each of the them certainly behaved as emperor and wanted others to so treat him. The tradition of authoritarianism of the ruler is still deeply engrained in the minds of both the rulers and the ruled in Chinese culture. A forceful example can be found as recently as June 4, 1989 at Tienanmen Square. For the rulers, only glory and power count. Human rights, freedom of equality or respect for the lives of people have to surrender to the might of the rulers.”

—Tsung-yi Lin, from the Preface to Formosa Betrayed, by George Kerr

People Power Day – Philippines

February 22-25

“People Power” in the Philippines refers to the overthrow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

Famous in the West for his wife’s taste in shoewear, his administration was also known for embezzlement, corruption, despotism, fraud and rigging elections.

In 1972 President Marcos declared martial law in response to a bombing in Manila that killed killed nine civilians. Marcos had his political opponent Benigno Aquino arrested, and though no evidence connected him to the crime, a military tribunal found him guilty and sentenced him to death by firing squad. The sentence was later mitigated, but he remained in prison for seven years. In jail Aquino suffered a heart attack and was granted leave to receive surgery in the United States.

Aquino and his wife Corazon did not return to the Philippines for 3 years. In that time both were active speakers against the Marcos government, which had amended the Constitution in the 1970s and 80s to extend martial law, increase the scope of Marcos’s power and the length of his term.

Benigno Aquino returned to Manila on August 21, 1983. He was assassinated “by a lone gunman” according to the government, the moment he stepped off the airplane.

He was reportedly called “The Greatest President we never had,” by Liberal Party leader Jovito Salonga.

There was never proved any direct evidence linking Marcos to the assassination, but it sparked widespread discontent with the Marcos administration. In November 1985 Marcos announced Presidential elections to take place in February. Benigno Aquino’s widow Corazon ran against Marcos.

The Marcos government claimed to have won the election, but accusations of extreme voter fraud and massive public demonstrations against his rule combined with military opposition and U.S. pressure forced Marcos to resign on February 25, 1986.

Today People Power Day is not one day but four days, from February 22—marking the beginning of the demonstrations—to February 25, when Marcos stepped down.

Marcos loyalists attempted to bring down the Corazon Aquino administration, but were unsuccessful. President Aquino was the first woman and the first Asian to deliver a keynote address before the United States Congress.

Puerto Galera Accommodations

Tsagaan Sar in Mongolia

Date varies. February 21-23, 2012

Mongolian flag

Today Mongolians celebrate Tsagaan Sar, or “White Month.” It roughly mirrors the Chinese Lunar New Year (but don’t say this out loud in Mongolia) and heralds the coming of spring.

The beginning of spring is definitely something to look forward to in Mongolia where temperatures hover well below 0°F in the winter months. A couple weeks ago the temperature was under -30º F.

This year’s Tsagaan Sar is a particularly harrowing one for the residents of Mongolian’s capital Ulaanbaatar (Mongolian for “City of many A’s”)

Last month the police shut down the city’s numerous vodka distilleries after alcohol poisonings:

by Ch. Sumiyabazar

An illegal vodka distilling factory in the Songinokhairhan District of Ulaanbaatar was discovered in a police raid last Sunday. The Uurag Altai company, whose operation license was halted two years ago, was found distilling vodka with the fake label “Morit Khangal,” whose vodka has killed 14 people and hospitalized dozens of others…

‘The small room where this business was conducted was horrible, small and had a terrible stench. A container used for mixing chemicals was unclean. There were no safety or hygienic standards at all,’ said a police officer.

Last week, two additional deaths were reported due to tainted vodka produced by the Asian Wolf company in Baganuur District that killed eleven people on New Year’s Eve. The deaths followed an emergency situation banning sales, distribution and bottling of alcholic products in the metropolitan area.

The Deputy Premier M. Enkbold appealed to the public not to celebrate the upcoming holiday, Tsagaan Sar lunar new year, with vodka.

Let’s hope they heed the warning.

Ulaana,’ who is researching in Mongolia, blogs: “My Tsagaan Sar experiences have been so vodka soaked, it’s hard to imagine a celebration here without it.”

Perhaps vodka-less celebrations wouldn’t be as fun, but probably more memorable.

Saikhan Shinlarai to all!

Posted February 9, 2008

Mongolian Lunar New Year

Tsagaan Sar – an Australian in Mongolia

Tsagaan Sar – a peace corp blog

Mongolians Brave Sub-Zero Winter to Welcome New Year – Feb. 2010

Kim Jong Il’s Birthday (no longer observed)

Sadly, this holiday is no longer celebrated.

Mr. Jong Il passed away on December 17, 2011, aged 70 (or 69).


February 16 used to be celebrated by North Korea as the birthday of its Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. He was a Water Tiger Aquarius.

Kim Jong Il, official portrait
The late Kim Jong Il

According to http://www.usbridalguide.com/special/chinesehoroscopes/Tiger.htm

“Tigers are also incorrigibly competitive – they simply cannot pass up a challenge, especially when honor is at stake, or they are protecting those they love. Tigers are unpredictable and it would be unwise to underestimate their reactions…They often have a hidden agenda…Tigers do not find worth in power or money.”

In honor of the late Dear Leader, here is a clip of his former bodyguards in training.

So You Think You Can Be a Kim Jong Il Bodyguard???

“Under the wise guidance of Leader Kim Jong Il the Party, Army and People have built the utopian socialist workers’ paradise that is the envy of the whole world.”– “Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, the Great Brilliant Commander

North Korea electricity map
North and South Korea - electricity map

“North Korea may have the bomb, but it doesn’t have much electricity.” — Daily News

Oldest Country in the World

February 11


It’s hard to say what’s the oldest country in the world is, but the winner might be Japan twice over.

First, with an average lifespan of over 80 years Japan has one of, if not the, world’s oldest population. 25% of the population is over 60 (as opposed to 17% in the U.S.).  So, along with Andorra, Japan is one of the top two “oldest” countries in the world in that respect.

In terms of the oldest sovereign nation without major border changes, many people cite the tiny country of San Marino, which declared itself a constitutional republic in 301 AD. Founded by a Christian stonemason (Marinus of Rab) fleeing persecution, San Marino lies entirely within Italy.

Emperor Jimmu

But a thousand years before Marinus the Mason drew his first breath, Emperor Jinmu (also Jimmu) founded the nation of Japan, making it the oldest nation in the world by many accounts.

How much of Jinmu’s story is true and how much is legend will never be known. His name means “divine warrior” and for millennia the Japanese believe Jinmu descended from the Sun Goddess through her “Heavenly Grandchild”. The Sun Goddess dispatched her Grandson to Earth with the imperative:

“This Reed-plain-1500-autumns-fair-rice-ear Land is the region which my descendants shall be lords of. Do thou, my August Grandchild, proceed thither and govern it. Go! and may prosperity attend thy dynasty, and may it, like Heaven and Earth, endure forever.”

Japanese schoolchildren learned the above declaration by heart right up through World War II.

During Japan’s modernization in the 1870’s, the Meija government (Meija means “enlightened rule”) switched the country over to the solar calendar, and calculated the date of the founding as February 11, 660 BC. Kenkoku Kinen no hi (National Foundation Day) celebrated the country’s unification 2500 years earlier and the divinity of the Emperor.

During the American Occupation, celebration of Kenkoku Kinen no hi was banned because of its glorification of the Emperor. However the ceremonies were brought back by popular demand in 1966 and carry on strong today.

Though the Japanese may no longer believe the Emperor’s blood descends from the Sun, even to this day the red sun shines front and center as the proud symbol of the Japanese flag.

Japanese Naval Ensign
Japanese Naval Ensign

Foundations of Japanese Civilization

Japanese Historians and National Myths

Chinese Lantern Festival

15 days after Chinese New Year
February 6, 2012
February 24, 2013

Experience is a comb nature gives us when we’re bald.

— Chinese Proverb


If you thought Chinese New Year was big this year, guess what:

It ain’t over.

Chinese New Year celebrations last for 15 days, right up until the first full moon of the year. The fifteenth night of the first lunar month, and culmination of the party, is the Lantern Festival.

There are many stories about the festival’s origin. According to one legend, a coastal village came under attack by ship. The villagers ran up to the mountains to hide. When the attackers moved on, a villager remaining in town lit up a sky lantern to signal to the villagers in the mountains that it was safe to come down.

Another legend says that the Jade Emperor in Heaven planned to unleash a fire of vengeance upon a town that had killed his favorite Goose. A fairy, hearing of the plan, warned the townspeople to light a bevy of lanterns on that day. From Heaven it appeared the town had already been set ablaze, and the Jade Emperor did not destroy it.

Moral of the story: do not mess with a Jade Emperor’s Goose!

Jade Emperor
Jade Emperor

People across China and Taiwan greet the first full moon of the year by creating their own short-lived Milky Way. Thousands of Sky Lanterns are released into the sky, in one of the most spectacular sights of the new year.

Before sending one’s sky lantern up into the heavens, it’s good luck to write a wish or prayer on the lantern or on a piece of paper inside it. The higher the wish and lantern ascend the more good luck they are believed to bring.

The Taiwanese word for Sky Lantern–Tian Ding–means “having a baby boy.”

The festival is called Yuan Xiao in Chinese. Yuan Xiao is also the name of the little glutenous rice-flour dumplings consumed in mass quantities on this day.

Sapporo Snow Festival – Yuki Matsuri

Early February
(February 6-12, 2012)

Sapporo Snow Festival

When high school students in the sleepy town of Sapporo built some snow sculptures in Odori Park in the winter of 1950, little did they know the international phenomenon they would unleash.

In the coming years the festival grew in popularity among the locals. In 1955 the nearby military base got into the act, building the first super-sculture for which the festival is now famous. Japan’s Self-Defense Force found that the sculpture building was a good team exercise for the men.

But the festival got its big boost in in 1972 when Sapporo hosted the Winter Olympics, and the Snow Festival gained international recognition.

Sapporo gets an average of 5 feet of snow in January alone, making the beginning of February the perfect time to build these amazing sculptures. It begins this year on February 5 and lasts seven days.

Today the Sapporo Snow Festival is one of the biggest and most famous winter festivals. Millions of people from all over Japan and all over the world come to Sapporo to see the hundreds of snow and ice sculptures.

Sapporo Snow Festival © JTB Photo
Sapporo Snow Festival © JTB Photo