Hina Dolls Crafted by WWII Survivor Spread Wish for Peace

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Elementary school children arrange hina dolls made by Katsuhiro Hibino on a stand in Nanjo, Okinawa Prefecture, on June 6.

NANJO, Okinawa — A set of hina dolls was on display out of season this year at a local elementary school in the run up to Okinawa Memorial Day, which mourns those who died in the Battle of Okinawa and fell on Friday. The figures were made by a doll craftsman and former soldier who survived the battle, as a way to pray for the sound growth of children and convey the value of peace.

Hina dolls are traditionally displayed for the Doll Festival on March 3.

On June 6, sixth-grade students at the municipal Hyakuna Elementary School placed the hina dolls on a seven-tiered display stand. They carefully took the dolls out of their cases and arranged them one by one on the stand.

“I learned the feelings behind the dolls, and it made me think about the importance of peace,” said student Mikuru Yoshida, 11.

The dolls were made by Katsuhiro Hibino, who died in 2009 at age 85. He was a former soldier who survived the Battle of Okinawa.

The battle was fought in 1945 during the Pacific War. On March 26, U.S. forces began their invasion of Okinawa Prefecture. A ground war involving local residents raged until June 23, when organized fighting by Imperial Japanese forces ended. A total of 200,000 Japanese and Americans were reported killed, including 120,000 residents of the prefecture.

According to Hibino’s books and what has been related by his daughters, he was born the second son of a farmer in Aichi Prefecture. He started working for a doll store at 14, before volunteering for the Imperial Japanese Army at 18.

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Hibino in September 1997. After the end of the Pacific War, he worked as a doll craftsman and paid numerous visits to Okinawa Prefecture to pray for those who died in the Battle of Okinawa.

After fighting on successive fronts, including in Henan Province, China, he was assigned to an infantry unit in Okinawa Prefecture in August 1944. As a squad leader, he was on the front line, such as on Kakazu Ridge in Ginowan.

The U.S. Army launched a fierce attack with flamethrowers, and the burnt bodies of the dead were left on the roadside. Some of Hibino’s men were blown apart by artillery fire, with fragments of their clothing caught on the leaves of cycads.

Hibino himself was wounded in his right arm, and the wound became infested with maggots. He contracted tetanus, but managed to reach Itokazu Abuchiragama, a natural cave in Nanjo that was used as a field hospital at the time.

In the dark space of the cave, stalactites hung overhead, water dripped from the ceiling and bats could be heard flapping their wings. Nevertheless, he was relieved to have escaped to a place safe from shelling.

But with the battle going poorly for the Imperial forces, the hospital was closed four days later. More than one hundred wounded were left unattended and died one after another.

Hibino was himself debilitated, and was prepared to die. Fortunately, he was saved by locals who took refuge in the cave. They even gave him onigiri rice balls, part of their precious food stock.

“My father gained the will to live due to the kindness of the people of Itokazu,” said Hibino’s youngest daughter, Tazue Yanagawa, 68.

After the war, Hibino returned to his work as a doll maker. When he got married in 1948, he opened his own doll shop near his parents’ home.

While he had five daughters and lived a happy life, he never forgot the horrific battle he had lived through. In 1961, he began making regular trips to Okinawa Prefecture.

His fourth daughter Keiko Nakamura, 70, who accompanied Hibino in his later years on his trips to mourn those who had died, says that she will never forget the moment he entered the cave and shouted, “I was the only one who went home alive. I’m sorry.”

In 1980, a year that saw him gain three grandchildren, Hibino gifted hina dolls he had painstakingly crafted to residents near the Itokazu cave.

“I think he wanted to express his gratitude for having survived and had children and even grandchildren, and his wish for the sound growth of children in Okinawa Prefecture and for world peace,” said his eldest daughter, Hiroko, 74.

Hibino lived for 64 years after the war, during which time he made some 110 trips to Okinawa Prefecture.

The hina dolls were later held by local kindergartens and then by local elementary schools.

In June 2021, Hyakuna Elementary School first displayed its hina dolls to mark Okinawa Memorial Day after the school’s principal at the time learned of their background.

Keiko and Tazue visited the school in June last year and related Hibino’s experiences in front of the school’s entire student body. Sixth-grade students created a play based on the story. In January, they performed the play in front of local residents.

“I felt that my father’s feelings had gotten across. I hope displaying the dolls out of season will provide a chance to think about peace,” Keiko said.