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Posted on Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 5:52 a.m.

Remembering the dolls of Girls' Day, facing forward from Japan's tsunami

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

The first time I went to visit my parents in Hawaii, I went during mid-winter break at the end of February, scheduled to return to Michigan on March 1 or 2. Strangers were indignant. “What? You’re leaving before Girls’ Day?”

March 3 is Girls’ Day or Hinamatsuri, a Japanese and Japanese American holiday to celebrate girls. Girls are given one beautiful Japanese doll a year in order to build a collection of dolls which they bring out every year on Girls’ Day to create a red-tiered display of emperor and empress, ladies, musicians, and guardians.

I am entranced by the idea of bringing the big box of treasured dolls out of the closet, quietly unwrapping them, one by one, and gently arranging them for all to see. To recall each dolls’ familiar face like an old friend, to remember beloved parents and grandparents who gave which one, to replay one’s memories of Girls’ Days of years past.

As a child, I only ever had two Chinese dolls—a tall willowy Chinese opera singer, with an intricate hairdo, painted face, delicately sewn fabric fingers, flowers flowing from her hand; and a smaller and younger Chinese girl doll that I thought of as her little sister, about half her size, playfully carrying a lantern.

In a world of blond barbies and brown-haired china dolls in hoop skirts, these were the only two dolls I ever had that had black hair, that I thought of as looking like me. These were the two dolls I carried with me when we moved from house to house as a child, when I went to college in Berkeley, and when I moved to Michigan for graduate school.

When my daughters were born, I went mad buying Asian barbies and dolls for them, with beautiful clothes both Asian and Western, forever on a search for the perfect hapa doll. For my son, Little Brother, I bought Asian and hapa boy dolls and action figures. Now that my children are older, I ought to pass these beautiful black-haired dolls on, not so rare anymore but still not common, but I cannot bring myself to do so.

These dolls represent too much, identity and longing, so I hang on to them all.

I have been captivated by Japanese footage of the tsunami, very different from what is being shown on American news. It is amazing to see cars, boats, and even houses floating up the street. Water breaking down glass doors that a store owner had locked up for the night. Boxes of merchandise floating out of an overturned delivery truck. Giant ships come to rest on top of houses. Quiet. Suddenly, everything that we grasp so close is irrelevant, suddenly everything is gone.

What strikes me about the images coming out of Japan is the utterly modern middle-classness of it all. It is not a huge stretch to imagine how the tsunami would affect me if I was there. Those houses look like my house. Those cars look like my car. Those people are dressed like I am. I can imagine the things they lost are the same sorts of precious treasures that are cluttering up my house now, suddenly nothing more than “stuff.”

I reach for my children.

Then I watch with stunned disbelief as the callous racist idiots on Twitter and Facebook go on and on (made all the more disturbing by their names and smiling faces) about how the tsunami’s 10,000+ dead is “karma” and “payback” for Japan bombing Pearl Harbor.

Why is it so hard to identify with faces and faiths slightly different than theirs?

Note: To supplement mainstream media coverage, the University of Michigan Center for Japanese Studies has put together a select list of lesser-known internet resources that their faculty and graduate students have found useful regarding the earthquake and tsunami disaster and relief efforts.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is an editor of Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for, and a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog. She is on the Advisory Board of American Citizens for Justice. She team-teaches "Asian Pacific American History and the Law" at University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at, her blog at, and she can be reached at



Sat, Mar 26, 2011 : 5:40 a.m.

I wish we had more traditions here like that. The situation is still fluid in Japan, more bad will come from the reactor before it gets better, but it will get better. It's Japan, a country full of bright, positive, and forward thinking people, recovery will be swift. Not like us, we still mourn a big hole in the ground 10 years later, and can't seem to rebuild one city after a hurricane. As far as the negativity, well sadly, that's what most of us have become. They lack inner peace and happiness. As far as Pearl Harbor, the facts show that they had little choice due to naval blockades, and embargoes put in place by this gov. How many countries have used nukes against others? One How many countries has The US attacked, gone to war with, or occupied since WWII ? Enough said? Oh yeah, Japan is the second largest holder & purchaser of US debt, which they may have to sell because of this disaster, and I hope they do. I think we could use a few million straw dolls here, carry all this bad stuff out to sea:)