J-TOWN BEAT: Let’s Hear It for the Girls!

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new gwenBy GWEN MURANAKA

If you have a special girl in your life — a daughter, granddaughter, wife, mom or auntie — this would be a great time to do something fun for them. Tuesday, March 3, is Girls’ Day or Hinamatsuri, a Japanese holiday that offers wishes of health and happiness to girls.

I always dreaded getting asked to recite Nihongo during my years at Long Beach Japanese School, but I loved Girls’ Day. A display of hina ningyo would be set on the stage of the school’s auditorium and we’d all be brought in for an assembly and treats.

The school’s hina ningyo were magnificent. My mom had a much smaller set, encased in glass, that we would sometimes put out in the foyer. At Long Beach, the emperor and empress were seated regally at the top, framed by a golden screen, followed by descending tiers of richly costumed musicians, attendants, courtiers, guards, and trays of food and orange and sakura trees. To a JA kid, who probably topped out somewhere south of four feet tall at the time, the whole display was splendidly gargantuan.

I’m not sure if there is any meaning to the dolls, other than their beauty. Although Hinamatsuri started in the 17th century or Edo era, its aesthetic is Heian (794-1185 A.D.), and embodies the era’s culture, beauty and refinement. Heian court life is depicted as a time of art for art’s sake: a fold of cloth, a line of poetry, the draping of a sleeve — small, precise points of beauty. During the Heian era, Murasaki Shikibu wrote what is widely considered the world’s first novel, “The Tale of Genji,” while she was a lady-in-waiting to the empress.

I mostly studied English literature in college, yet I was always amazed that the first novelist was a Japanese woman, writing some 500 years before Shakespeare was even born.

Murasaki, a woman gifted with creativity and a mastery of words, is still admired hundreds of years later. Now that’s something to celebrate on Girls’ Day.

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I’m keeping with a Hinamatsuri theme today and this tidbit is tasty.

After lunch at Suehiro on Thursday, we stopped by Fugetsu-Do on First Street to pick up one of my favorite Hinamatsuri traditions, sakura mochi. It’s only available for a short time every year, so I always make sure to pick some up.

Brian kito: Brian Kito holds a selection of Hinamatsuri manju and yokan, including sakura mochi. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Brian kito: Brian Kito holds a selection of Hinamatsuri manju and yokan, including sakura mochi. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

The chewy sweet pink rice wrapped up with a salty cherry leaf is a perfect complement to a hot cup of tea. Proprietor Brian Kito said the leaves come directly from Japan and are applied by hand.

At Fugetsu-Do, the display cases right now are filled with pink and pastel manju. Kito explained that they’ll be bringing out more varieties of manju and yokan made especially for the season.

Besides the sakura mochi, also called domyo ji, they have a beautiful strawberry-flavored yokan decorated with delicate sakura petals. He also sells hishimochi, the diamond-shaped mochi depicted in the hina doll displays, as well as a yokan variety.

If cultural awareness among younger Japanese Americans is waning, one way to get them back is through these food traditions.

Here in J-Town, the JACCC is holding a Hinamatsuri event on Sunday where visitors can see their display of hina ningyo and enjoy tea and some snacks. Hopefully there will be some sakura mochi as well.

Over at Fugetsu-Do, the Girls’ Day mochi will be available through March. After that, they gear up for the next holiday: Boys’ Day or Children’s Day.

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U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy with the hina dolls that her family received at the White House in 1962. (U.S. Embassy/Tokyo)

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy with the hina dolls that her family received at the White House in 1962. (U.S. Embassy/Tokyo)

Caroline Kennedy, for all her accomplishments in philanthropy and now as U.S. ambassador to Japan, will always remain a girl playing in the Oval Office in the minds of many.

As a young girl in the White House in 1962, Kennedy played with hina dolls, a gift received by her father, President John F. Kennedy. She never knew the identity of the gift-giver to thank them and recently appealed to the Japanese media for help.

Happily, the generous donor has been found: Tsuyako Matsumoto, now 92 and living in a nursing home in Kitami, Hokkaido. According to The Washington Post, Matsumoto was a grocer in Kitami in 1962 when she wrote a letter to President Kennedy, never expecting to receive a reply.

To her surprise she received a thank you letter back from the presidential secretary.

In return, Matsumoto went to a local department store and purchased the beautiful dolls, which are now on display in the ambassador’s residence in Tokyo.

What struck me about the story was that Matsumoto wasn’t wealthy. She used money she earned from knitting and doing odd jobs to purchase and ship the 15 dolls. No doubt they were very expensive, even back in 1962.

It is touching that now at the twilight of her life, Matsumoto is being recognized for this rare gift given so long ago.

When Matsumoto heard the news, her response was amazement. “My mind went blank. I’m simply happy,” she said.

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Gwen Muranaka, English editor-in-chief of The Rafu Shimpo, can be contacted at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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