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Sunday February 28, 2010

Hello dolly, you’ve changed

TOKYO: In times of crisis, it is said, companies become more creative and are willing to try new things.

With the current worldwide recession and a low birth rate here at home, the doll industry – whose wares are costly and whose hina dolls often target families with young children – is trying new and varied approaches to attract buyers celebrating the annual Doll Festival, known in Japanese as Hina Matsuri.

Domestic doll makers are trying to take advantage of a trend that sees women using them as interior decor; foreign doll makers are getting in on the hina act and expanding their target group to include collectors in general.

According to a 2009 Japan Dolls Association survey, 90.4% of people say they have celebrated or intend to celebrate the March 3 girl’s day festival, displays for which are put up as early as January. The association, meanwhile, estimates that its members will sell about 55 billion yen (RM2.1bil) in dolls this season.

All dolled up: A hina doll of Japan’s Olympic figure skater Mao Asada at Kyugetsu’s showroom in Tokyo. Asaka is Japan’s medal hopeful in the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games figure-skating competition.

Hina dolls are a way for parents to show their love and as a wish for their daughters’ health and happiness. So, it’s a different mindset from, say, celebrating with a birthday cake,” said Shigemitsu Sakajiri, director of Kyugetsu, one of Japan’s largest doll makers.

“The recession may have affected consumption in the long term, but our market is outside of general consumption. In the same way that people don’t choose dolls because they are on sale, they don’t choose not to buy a set of dolls because of the economy.”

According to the association, the displaying of the dolls is believed to date as far back as the Heian period (794-1192), when people began combining two traditions: hina asobi (literally playing with dolls) and nagashi-bina, the practice of sending a doll down a river or into the ocean to wash away evil spirits.

Hina asobi is believed to have involved a pair of dolls – a couple: one male, one female – and was typically played in court. The dolls were believed to help ward off bad luck or to prevent newborn girls from being exposed to danger or disease.

Doll association spokesman Shinobu Watanabe, president of doll maker Kogetsu, says the ideal time to display hina dolls is from early or mid-February to mid-March, despite an old wives’ tale that says a lengthy showing can affect a girl’s future prospects.

“There’s no truth in the idea that displaying hina dolls for a long time will delay a girl’s marriage. This tale seems to have been created out of the desire to get kids to put their toys away,” he said.

The tradition of parents or grandparents buying hina dolls to celebrate Girl’s Day has taken root, but changes in lifestyle and society over the years have influenced what sort of hina dolls they purchase.

Though what consumers look for in a doll varies, a recent survey by the association shows buyers are most concerned with how distinct the dolls’ features are, followed by overall balance of the set and their sizes.

For the past two years, the association has sent 450 certified hina doll advisers to retailers and department stores to help customers choosing dolls.

According to Watanabe, a small urban living space and lifestyle has led people to be more size-conscious, with items such as only the Imperial couple or a three-tier set, which includes three court attendants. This trend towards downsizing has made its way outside of the crowded metropolises, too.

As for adult collectors, dolls marketed as “my own hina” have become popular, Watanabe says, with many buyers choosing muted colours and designs for use as decorations and seasonal gifts. He also says some customers buy the dolls for their pet dogs.

“The type of people buying dolls and the lifestyles they lead have changed, so what is considered authentic also has changed. So, the dolls’ faces, too, have changed along with the times,” Kyugetsu’s Sakajiri says.

Kyugetsu – which has been known as an innovator (it was the first to develop an eight-tier hina doll set) over its 170-year history – has collaborated with top designers, such as fashion designer Hanae Mori, and costume designer Emi Wada, who created the costumes for Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.

“The word ‘shinise’ (time-honoured) tends to give the impression that we must preserve tradition. But something new always appears to meet the demands of the era, while at the same time preserving its long history,” Sakajiri says.

After centuries of making hina dolls, Japan’s doll makers are facing competition from abroad. Earlier this year, Spanish porcelain figurine maker Lladro released a new line of hina dolls limited to 3,500 sets worldwide. German porcelain maker Meissen last year also released a limited number of hina dolls in hopes of entering the market in the future.

“When we discovered the Japanese tradition of displaying dolls, we immediately got thinking,” said Lladro Japan President Jerome Chouchan, adding that the tradition also was in line with the company’s philosophy of celebrating happy moments with dolls.

The company says it is targeting young mothers familiar with Lladro and who are not hesitant about celebrating the festival with a foreign brand.

“The consumers are becoming more sophis­ticated. So, if the product is a really good product, if it’s made in a different country, they like it. Even with art: A good painter doesn’t just make a painting of his city, it could be somewhere else in the world,” he said.

Lladro, which first released hina dolls in 2006, is the first foreign doll maker to join the Japan Dolls Association.

The association’s Watanabe says Lladro’s customers include the collectors and fans who would choose to buy the company’s dolls anyway.

“Personally speaking,” he said, “I think Lladro’s entry into the marketplace has brought with it a new perspective into the conservative world of the festive doll industry.”