Society

Do Dolls Have Souls? A Funeral Rite In Japan Is The Essence Of Animism

Buddhist and Shinto temples in Japan hold "ningyo kuyo" (人形供養) funeral rites for unwanted dolls, a spiritual send off to thank dolls for their service and properly put them to rest.

Photo of a Japanese "unwanted doll"

Do discarded dolls have souls?

Heather Greene

KYOTO — Toys don't last forever, and kids grow up. Interests come and go, and a once-beloved plaything winds up in storage, at a yard sale or in the trash. This is the fate of many toys in the U.S. — particularly after the winter holidays — but in Japan, that is not the necessarily the case, at least for dolls.

Throughout the year, temples across Japan hold a "ningyo kuyo" (人形供養), a funeral ritual for unwanted dolls — especially traditional dolls. Held in both Buddhist and Shinto temples alike, the ceremony is a spiritual send off to thank dolls for their service and properly put them to rest.

Shinto and Buddhism are the two dominant religious influences on Japanese culture. Even with a population that is largely religiously unaffiliated today according to the JGSS Research Center at Osaka University of Commerce, these two religions continue to have a powerful spiritual influence on secular culture.


The Shinto belief of animism, as an example, teaches that everything can have a spirit or soul. The doll funeral speaks to this idea. After prayers and goodbyes are said, the ritual ends with a burning of the dolls, or sometimes, they are simply discarded.

"It is common, with limited space in Japan, that many families are now throwing away their traditional dolls," wrote Kieren, the social media manager of Camellia Tea Ceremony, in an email interview. The funeral is a welcome solution.

Japanese tea ceremony setting

Camellia Tea Ceremony, located in Kyoto, is a traditional tea house that welcomes guests to participate in a sacred Japanese tea ceremony, or "sadō" (茶道), that has existed for centuries. While modern tea houses serve as gathering spots and cafes, traditional tea houses still punctuate the landscape as a tribute to Japanese culture, hospitality and experience.

Because of the tea house's connection to Japanese tradition, it is not unusual for Camellia to receive donations of traditional items — such as folding screens or harps — that are no longer wanted, Kieren said. Recently, one family gifted the tea house with a "huge" donation of traditional dolls.

"We first asked if anyone would like them," Kieren wrote. "There were no takers, so we decided to dispose of them through a temple."

Kyoto is also home to one of the most well-known Buddhist temples that perform the ningyo kuyo ceremony, Hōrin-ji. It is famous because of what Kieren calls its "pedigree."

There is something comforting about giving a loved toy or doll a proper send off.

"It was once an imperial nunnery and many precious dolls gifted by past emperors to their daughters are preserved here still. Thanks to these old imperial connections, the temple remains fairly prominent in people's minds," he wrote, adding that doll memorials also provide revenue for the temples.

Families pay a fee to have their unwanted doll included in the ningyo kuyo. In return, the family gets to formally say goodbye, which can be cathartic, acting as a spiritual closing of doors and a moving on, Kieren said.

"There is something comforting about giving a loved toy or doll a proper send off," he added.

Photo of \u200ban unwanted doll that was donated for a proper disposal and send-off.

An unwanted doll that was donated for a proper disposal and send-off.

Camellia Tea Ceremony

When a doll gets old

Alongside respectful disposal, there is another cultural legacy driving the doll funeral tradition. In Japan, there is a long-held cultural belief — or perhaps simply superstition — that dolls can become ensouled, particularly once they are more than 100 years old. This belief, though not necessarily one that is widely held in modern day, finds its roots in Japanese folklore.

In essays first published in 1894, Greek journalist Lafacdio Hearn captured the essence of this belief, saying, "(A) new doll is only a doll. But a doll which is preserved for a great many years in one family and is loved and played with by generations of children, gradually acquires a soul."

According to the essay, Lafacdio asked a young girl how this was possible, and she responded, "If you love it enough, it will live."

While the possibility of ensoulment does extend to other inanimate objects, it is most attributed to dolls, simply because of their human appearance. In fact, the kanji for doll (人形) literally translates to "human form doll," or ningyō.

Seeing spirits in man-made objects.

According to cultural anthropologist Komatsu Kazuhiko, the origins of this belief can be traced back to the latter part of the "muromachi," or medieval, period from 1336 to 1573, when "yokai" (妖怪) stories were first recorded and no longer strictly oral.

Yōkai is the term for spirit or apparition, although it has evolved to mean traditional folklore, according to Kazuhiko.

Due to this new written storytelling form, tales of spirits and demons were able to quickly spread from the elite to the common people, gaining popularity.

"It was during this medieval period the Japanese began expanding their concept of animism to see spirits even in man-made objects," Kazuhiko wrote in his book "An Introduction to Yōkai Culture." The ensoulment can occur with any inanimate object, not just dolls.

Camellia Tea Ceremony sits close to a road called "Ichijo-dori," Kieren said, where medieval folklore tells the story of ensouled objects, or "tsukumogami" (付喪神), "marching on summer nights, terrorising the local people."

The term tsukumogami, a form of Yōkai, is used for inanimate objects that have gained a spirit, but it was originally reserved for tools that reached 99 years old. This folk legacy persists into modern day with objects other than dolls, including needles and other toys. However, it remains most powerfully ascribed to dolls.

Video of a ningyo kuyo ceremony in Kyoto — Source: Ronin Dave

Doll mythology in the East and West

A fascination with living dolls or the possibility of ensoulment is not unique to Japan. Folk stories the world over tell of animated dolls, such as the popular Italian story "Pinocchio," originally written by Carlo Collodi and most famously adapted by Walt Disney. Pinocchio is a mischievous living puppet who dies in the original story but in Disney's version is granted redemption and awarded with a real boy's life.

In the United States, animated dolls are more typically associated with horror, such as the famed doll Annabelle who was investigated and held by Ed and Lorraine Warren or the notorious Robert who was the model for the murderous Chucky in the Child Play film franchise.

The Advanced Training Institute, a homeschooling program made famous by TV reality stars Jim Bob and Michelle Duggars, supported the idea that Cabbage Patch Kids, the popular Coleco doll of the 1980s, could become possessed. Burning was the solution. Founder Bill Gothard, who developed the program as part of his ultraconservative Christian organization Institute of Basic Life Principles, first shared these beliefs when a satanic panic was sweeping the nation in the 1990s.

The key difference between the typical modern American belief and that of Japan is found in the spiritual fabric of its culture.

"Animistic ideas remain fundamental to Japanese culture to this day," Kazuhiko wrote. Even if it's not adhered to overtly as part of religion, the concept is woven into the nation's culture. Everything has or can have a spirit.

While a traditional Japanese doll can be troublesome and even possessed by an "oni" (鬼), or demon spirit, it also can also become ensouled with something beautiful and helpful.

In his 1894 accounts, Hearn told the story of the one beloved doll that had acquired a soul and was revered as much as a "kami," or deity. A childless women would borrow the doll, take good care of it and give it new clothes — all in hopes that the doll would bring her a child.

Bill Ellis, a professor emeritus at Penn State University who specializes in folklore, explained that Japan has a "broader definition of self-awareness, which is shared by humans, animals, and plants, and natural objects generally," than most Western cultures.

By contrast, most American doll-based traditions have Christian origins. Annabelle or Robert is taken over specifically by Satan or a satanic demon. The Cabbage Patch Kids warning is similar.

Folk beliefs have a way of sticking around, both scaring and fascinating people.

Christian theology generally does not accept the "expanded sense of spirit" found in Japanese culture, Ellis said.

"Shinto … is founded on this notion of universal consciousness: everything is alive, everything has a consciousness (or soul, if you're religious)," he said. "And it follows that the closer relationship one has with an object, the more that object's personality will be influenced by yours."

Such an attachment can exist in Western culture, but it is not dominant. Animistic belief "has been made more fully part of the institutional life of Japanese religions and public life," Ellis said.

While burning the living doll appears to be the solution in both cultures, the Cabbage Patch Kids were simply thrown in a fire without ritual. The Japanese answer is more refined.

"Just like a funeral, a priest gives the memorial, and the items are ceremonially burnt," Kieren said.

Photo of rows of Hina Ningyo dolls at a sanctuary in Mito, Japan

Hina Ningyo dolls from a sanctuary in Mito, Japan

commons.wikimedia.org

The place of dolls in Japanese culture

Outside of medieval stories, superstitions, and Yōkai, dolls play a prominent role in Japanese culture generally. They are "bought to celebrate the birth of girls" and for the March 3 "Hina Matsuri" ( 雛祭り), a doll festival, he said. These traditional dolls are called "hina ningyo" (雛人形).

Families display traditional dolls and others like them during different holidays throughout the year. Dolls are enjoyed, revered and, in some cases, still feared.

When the Camellia Tea Ceremony house tried to give away the donated collection of dolls, the offers were rejected by some due to pure superstition. What if the doll does become ensouled? This still remains one of the reasons people bring dolls to the temples for a proper funeral. Nobody wants their beloved family heirloom to become a troublesome tsukumogami.

People are afraid of human-like things looking too human.

Elizabeth Tucker, a distinguished service professor of English at SUNY-Binghamton and a folklorist, said people are afraid of human-like things looking too human. She used the term "uncanny," first coined by Sigmund Freud.

It is hard to accept things that are not alive looking like things that are, she said. Tucker owns her own "haunted doll" named Tina, who allegedly loves to break electronic equipment.

Folk beliefs, even in modern times, have a way of sticking around, both scaring and fascinating people. In Japan, Yōkai culture generally has grown in popularity over the last few years, according to Kazuhiko, including a fascination with living dolls.

Japanese visitors often visit temples with dolls and attend ningyo kuyo just to observe the funerals. Haunted dolls can be easily purchased on eBay. Popular manga comics like "Rozen Maiden" incorporate living dolls into their narrative.

In 2016, Osaka-based Universal Studios Japan created a haunted doll attraction called Tatari: Curse of the Living Dolls. The attraction's traditional dolls were supplied by Awashima Shrine, known for its expansive doll collection. Like Kyoto's Hōrin-ji, Awashima offers a ningyo kuyo ceremony. Located near the coastal town of Wakayama, Awashima priests send donated dolls off to sea — rather than burning them — as part of its annual Hina Matsuri celebration.

When the haunted doll attraction opened with the dolls from Awashima, the theme park received backlash from both doll makers and doll owners alike, which demonstrates the complex and dynamic role that dolls play in Japanese culture.

Whether you are superstitious or not, Kieren said, at the heart of the tradition "is a message about … taking nothing for granted … showing that we should always give thanks for the most mundane items."

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Pro-life and Pro-abortion Rights Protests in Washington

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Håfa adai!*

Welcome to Thursday, where new Omicron findings arrive from South Africa, abortion rights are at risk at the U.S. Supreme Court and Tyrannosaurus rex has got some new competition. From Germany, we share the story of a landmark pharmacy turned sex toy museum.

[*Chamorro - Guam]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Iran's hard line on nuclear talks keeps getting harder

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear power watchdog, reported yesterday that Iran has started producing enriched uranium with more efficient advanced centrifuges at its Fordow plant. It’s just the latest sign, write Kayhan London’s Ahmad Ra'fat and Hamed Mohammadi, that the talks that reopened this week on Iran’s nuclear program have slim chances of forging a deal:

After a four-month hiatus, Iran has resumed talks on its nuclear program with other signatory countries of the suspended, multilateral pact of 2015. These are Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, and the European Union (EU). The talks that began this week in Vienna exclude the United States, an original signatory that withdrew from the pact in 2018 — and while the U.S. administration under President Joe Biden says it favors a deal, it is only indirectly involved, through the EU.

Prospects for this round remain dim, given Iran's preconditions and the stated objectives of Western states. The Iranian deputy-foreign minister, Ali Baqeri-Kani, said on a recent trip to several EU states that Iran would only resume talks to discuss ending sanctions on it, and there would be no discussions for a nuclear agreement. He was suggesting that an end to all sanctions — whether for Tehran's nuclear program, rights violations or terrorism abroad — was the central condition for more talks.

It was also reported Wednesday by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear power watchdog, that Iran has started producing enriched uranium with more efficient advanced centrifuges at its Fordow plant.

Likewise, a recent and fruitless trip to Tehran by IAEA head Rafael Grossi will not help. Grossi could not persuade Iran to allow renewed IAEA inspections of its atomic sites, which will impede an agreement in Vienna. The three European signatory powers have already criticized Iran's refusal to open up its sites, though Iranian officials dispute that interpretation, saying an agreement was reached "in principle" to resolve "technical" issues.

The latest report by the IAEA chief to its governing board, currently meeting in Vienna, says Iran has augmented its enriched uranium reserves (of potential use in weapon-making) to 2,489 kilograms. The European countries say there is no reason for Iran enriching uranium to 20% and 60% levels, without military objectives. They are also concerned with Iran's continued renovation and updating of centrifuges.

U.S. military and diplomatic officials have warned that the United States is ready to give Iran a firm response if it pursues its furtive activities and refuses to negotiate in Vienna. In the Middle East, Israeli officials alternately say they could accept a pact that blocks Iran's nuclear weaponization and warn Israel will strike Iran, if this turns out to not be possible.

Iran promised Grossi last September that it would repair IAEA cameras at its nuclear installations, thus evading a rebuke by the IAEA governing board. This time, it seems to be playing hardball. It has not only banned access to the Tesa complex outside Tehran, of interest to the IAEA, but insisted the international agency must condemn Israel's suspected sabotage of Iranian installations, and desist any investigation into the sources of uranium traces found at undeclared installations in Iran.

Iran also wants the Biden administration not just to lift all sanctions, but bind future administrations to a new pact. Does it really imagine that a U.S. president is willing or empowered to commit his successors to a pact?

Iran has also complained about the damages it suffered for the non-implementation of the 2015 pact. All these suggest it doesn't really want a practical agreement with the West.

As Western powers intermittently threaten it with an "alternative" response, at least part of Iran's top leadership is already envisaging turning the country into a militarized bunker to safeguard the regime. This means spending more on missiles and arms for proxy militias in the region — which are precisely the other issues the West is keen to discuss, to Iran's utter dismay.

Amid reports of the "strategic" hoarding of basic goods and multiple military maneuvers, are Iran's rulers preparing themselves for a state of crisis or utter calamity? In case of any attack, could they count on the backing of a nation they have mistreated and impoverished over decades?

Ahmad Ra'fat and Hamed Mohammadi / Kayhan-London

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• COVID update: South Africa reports a higher rate of reinfections from the Omicron variant than has been registered with the Beta and Delta variants, though researchers await further findings on the effects of the new strain. Meanwhile, the UK approves the use of a monoclonal therapy, known as sotrovimab, to treat those at high risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.The approval comes as the British pharmaceutical company, GSK, separately announced the treatment has shown to “retain activity” against the Omicron variant. Down under, New Zealand’s reopening, slated for tomorrow is being criticized as posing risks to its under-vaccinated indigenous Maori.

• Supreme Court poised to gut abortion rights: The U.S. Supreme Court signaled a willingness to accept a Republican-backed Mississippi law that would bar abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, even in cases of rape or incest. A ruling, expected in June, may see millions of women lose abortion access, 50 years after it was recognized as a constitutional right in the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

• Macri charged in Argentine spying case: Argentina’s former president Mauricio Macri has been charged with ordering the secret services to spy on the family members of 44 sailors who died in a navy submarine sinking in 2017. The charge carries a sentence of three to ten years in prison. Macri, now an opposition leader, says the charges are politically motivated.

• WTA suspends China tournaments over Peng Shuai: The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) announced the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China due to concerns about the well-being of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, and the safety of other players. Peng disappeared from public view after accusing a top Chinese official of sexual assault.

• Michigan school shooting suspect to be charged as an adult: The 15-year-old student accused of killing four of his classmates and wounding seven other people in a Michigan High School will face charges of terrorism and first-degree murder. Authorities say the suspect had described wanting to attack the school in cellphone videos and a journal.

• Turkey replaces finance minister amid economic turmoil: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan appointed a strong supporter of his low-interest rate drive, Nureddin Nebati, as Turkey’s new finance minister.

• A battle axe for a tail: Chilean researchers announced the discovery of a newly identified dinosaur species with a completely unique feature from any other creatures that lived at that time: a flat, weaponized tail resembling a battle axe.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

South Korean daily Joong-ang Ilbo reports on the discovery of five Omicron cases in South Korea. The Asian nation has broken its daily record for overall coronavirus infections for a second day in a row with more than 5,200 new cases. The variant cases were linked to arrivals from Nigeria and prompted the government to tighten border controls.


#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

¥10,000

In the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, a reward of 10,000 yuan ($1,570) will be given to anyone who volunteers to take a COVID-19 test and get a positive result, local authorities announced on Thursday on the social network app WeChat.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Why an iconic pharmacy is turning into a sex toy museum

The "New Pharmacy" was famous throughout the St. Pauli district of Hamburg for its history and its long-serving owner. Now the owner’s daughter is transforming it into a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys, linking it with the past "curing" purpose of the shop, reports Eva Eusterhus in German daily Die Welt.

💊 The story begins in autumn 2018, when 83-year-old Regis Genger stood at the counter of her pharmacy and realized that the time had come for her to retire. At least that is the first thing her daughter Anna Genger tells us when we meet, describing the turning point that has also shaped her life and that of her business partner Bianca Müllner. The two women want to create something new here, something that reflects the pharmacy's history and Hamburg's eclectic St. Pauli quarter (it houses both a red light district and the iconic Reeperbahn entertainment area) as well as their own interests.

🚨 Over the last few months, the pharmacy has been transformed into L'Apotheque, a venture that brings together art and business in St. Pauli's red light district. The back rooms will be used for art exhibitions, while the old pharmacy space will house a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys. Genger and Müllner want to show that desire has always existed and that people have always found inventive ways of maximizing pleasure, even in times when self-gratification was seen as unnatural and immoral, as a cause of deformities.

🏩 Genger and Müllner want the museum to show how the history of desire has changed over time. The art exhibitions, which will also center on the themes of physicality and sexuality, are intended to complement the exhibits. They are planning to put on window displays to give passers-by a taste of what is to come, for example, British artist Bronwen Parker-Rhodes's film Lovers, which offers a portrait of sex workers during lockdown.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I would never point a gun at anyone and pull a trigger at them. Never."

— U.S. actor Alec Baldwin spoke to ABC News, his first interview since the accident that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie Rust last October. The actor said that although he was holding the gun he didn’t pull the trigger, adding that the bullet “wasn't even supposed to be on the property.”

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

A “pro-life” activist in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington D.C, as the abortion battle heats up in the United-States — Photo: Stefani Reynolds/CNP/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet and Jane Herbelin

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