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Jogan-ji Temple Doll Funeral

A Buddhist service for unwanted dolls before they go on their funeral pyre.

Jogan-ji Temple Doll Funeral

Dolls are big in Japan. There are dolls for playing with and dolls for decoration. They’re given to small boys and girls as protectors and inspirers. Single people buy them for company. There are numerous genres and styles. All of this interest and tradition in dolls supports a thriving industry. And since any graven image, including a doll, is considered to have its own spirit, the industry feels obliged to provide cradle-to-grave services for its clients.

Jogan-ji Temple in Matsuyama has taken the spiritual welfare of dolls very much to heart, to the extent that it provides exorcism services for the nation’s dolls, often in cooperation with the nation’s ‘doll professionals’ who bring many ‘pre-loved’ dolls for disposal. Every June 10, the temple holds a service to release the spirits of dolls, from Matsuyama and indeed all over Japan. Since the dolls have been good, their spirits go to heaven.

When you arrive at the temple on the day, the grounds are heaped with dolls of all types and sizes, some piles arranged carefully to give the dolls a last showing. Other piles are haphazard with heads and feet sticking out of paper bags and plastic baling. After the Heart Sutra is chanted with a driving drum backing performed by the monks, they process in saffron robes to the main hall where a long Buddhist mass is held. Believers pack themselves into the space left by throngs of dolls.


After the mass, the head priest emerges onto the temple steps. He looks a bit doll-like himself in his colourful robes. The priest addresses the assembled parishioners, doll professionals, and photographers. He notes that the dolls have been the best of friends to their owners, supporting and comforting them through their personal trials, offering joy and solace. He assures us that the spirits of the dolls have been released and sent to heaven. The figures that we see before us are now just empty husks that can be disposed of without qualm. The priest tells us that the dolls were sent from all over Japan, and they often come with heartrending letters. He produces one and reads it out. The owner’s parents had both cherished the doll until they suddenly died of cancer, one after the other. The doll had initially provided comfort, but now it was a reminder of the terrible loss. The owner hopes that the spirit of the doll will go to heaven and there inform her parents that she’s doing OK. She hopes the doll will make many friends in heaven and prepare a place for her. This information is accepted in solemn silence, without surprise.


Now comes the burning of the dispirited dolls. The participants are invited to bring one or two dolls to the temple carpark where a sacred pyre has been built of logs covered in cypress fronds. Accompanied by more Buddhist chanting, the pyre is lit using bamboo torches. Immense plumes of oily cypress smoke pour forth, soon followed by intense flames. The word is given and the immolation of the dolls begins. Everyone flings their doll into the middle of the flames where they melt and quickly vanish. The air is thick with flying dolls and smoke.


When the pace and the flames die down a little, one by one the band of photographers take their prized doll and braving the intense heat, place it upright on the edge of the pyre where it will burn slowly and hopefully photogenically. Most succeed in a good placement, and many chubby samurai and slender dancers catch alight and burn impassively like candles as the cameramen and women snap away.


Finally, all the dolls are gone, and the crowd vanishes like smoke. As they’re leaving, an elderly temple official calls to their receding backs, “Did you enjoy that?”. Turning around briefly, they beam at him. “Oh yes. See you next year!”.

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