The Hagoita: A Traditional Gift for Japanese Baby Girls
As the first heavy snowfall came to a city outside Tokyo, I was born in front of a bemused crowd of nurses and doctors, who were apparently impressed with the vocal delivery methods employed by my dear and very not-Japanese mother.
A couple of days after I returned from the hospital with my parents, a local restaurant owner and friend of my parents visited our apartment to deliver a gift. It was a beautiful display case, with a music box at the base and handmade ornaments. Framed in the center of it all was the image of a beautiful woman, made of silk fabric, who was attached to a simple and crisp wooden paddle.
The paddle is known as a hagoita, and it is a gift traditionally given to Japanese baby girls. Though the hagoita given to me managed to survive the trip home from Japan to California, plus 23 more years in the basement of our flood-prone house. Now it sits in the living room in my apartment. It may have taken me quite some time, but I've finally pulled together the gumption to figure out what it means and why it was given to me. Read on to discover the background, history, and tradition behind this beautiful gift!
Hanetsuki in Action!
What Are Hagoita?
Hagoita are wooden paddles used to play a Japanese game called hanetsuki, which is similar to shuttlecock or badminton (but is apparently known in English as Battledore). Hagoita are used to hit small feathered shuttles known as hane. Hanetsuki, unlike badminton, is played without a net, and is also primarily played by girls and women.
The game traditionally proceeded as follows: two players would bat the hane back and forth as in an informal, netless game of badminton. If one player misses the hane and it falls to the ground, some ink is smeared onto that player's face. The game would proceed until one player's face was entirely smeared with ink. Sounds like a good time to me!
In addition to serving as a gaming implement, hagoita have several symbolic meanings. Varying sizes of hagoita represent girls' growth, and the paddles also symbolize safety and health.
One explanation of the connection between hagoita and safety is the role they play in the game of hanetsuki. The traditional hane (shuttlecock equivalent) is made from soapberry seeds and feathers. Mukuroji, the Japanese word for soapberry, is written with characters that mean "a child not suffering from illness," hence an association between hagoita and good health may easily be drawn. What's more, the hane is said to resemble a dragonfly, an insect known for eating mosquitoes, and therefore mosquitoes are thought to be afraid of hanetsuki gaming implements. Extra bonus!
The positive associations with hagoita, combined with the ornate decorations they began to sport, eventually made them natural gifts to give to baby girls on their first New Year after they are born (known as hatsu-shogatsu) to bestow them with good luck and protection. The general mythology is that the baby girl may swot away bad luck with the beautiful paddle given to her.
An equivalent gift to give to baby boys is a hamayumi—an exorcism bow and arrow associated with the Shinto religion—which the boy may use to shoot away the very same bad luck (by shooting at a target).
Hanetsuki as a game has origins in China, and originally acted as a rite during exorcisms. It developed into a game for girls amidst the Muromachi period (spanning from 1333-1568).
While the original paddles were no doubt plain, the Japanese have an amazing talent for making nearly everything visually stunning, so it comes as no surprise that hagoita soon began to sport decorations, and that these decorations soon became elaborate. By the Edo Period, which lasted from 1615-1867, beautifully adorned hagoita were regularly sold at traditional fairs called hagoita ichi.
The actual decorations on these paddles are fascinating. Super fancy hagoita act as canvases for three-dimensional reliefs that are painted and embellished with beautiful printed fabrics, ribbons, cords, paper decorations, and artificial flowers.
In the early days, hagoita were adorned with images of popular kabuki actors or gorgeous Edo ladies (sort of the contemporary equivalent of putting that gorgeous specimen of a human being Joseph Gordon-Levitt on your baseball bat or tennis racket, I suppose. Please excuse me while I swoon).
Today, hagoita displaying famous politicians, celebrities, anime characters, musicians, actors (my god... do you think an actual Joseph Gordon-Levitt hagoita exists???), and sports stars (including David Beckham) can be found right along those embellished with more traditional designs. They may cost anything from around $50 to $5,000 or more depending on the size, materials used, and artist.
Hanetsuki is traditionally played around New Year's, and in preparation for game play, a hagoita market (known as Hagoita-ichi) is held each December at Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo. Hagoita are typically displayed in people's homes from mid-December through mid-January.
Because hagoita have a traditional reputation for warding off evil, they sometimes adorn doors as a symbolic form of protection.
The tradition surrounding the actual game of hanetsuki is that the longer the hane is kept in play, the more protection the players might expect from mosquitoes in the coming year. Sadly, the game is not so frequently anymore- I mean, let's be honest... it is hard for a wooden paddle to compete with a Wii remote. Most hagoita today are used for display only, and many of the traditions and symbolic aspects of these interesting objects is fading into obscurity.
Now that you have learned about hagoita, I hope that you will share their meaning and history with your friends so that the legacy of this beautiful object might be kept alive!