japan is celebrating こどもの日 the most popular day Children’s Day こどもの日 on 5 may 2017 with joy to make happy children’s and make them remember about their rights.
Children’s Day is May 5th every year here in Japan. While the holiday says it’s for children, its name can be a bit misleading when it comes to the traditional customs of the holiday. The original name is Tango no Sekku (端午の節句), or ‘First Day of the Horse.’ This is another Sekku, or first day of the new season on the old lunar calendar and Chinese tradition brought to Japan. This Sekku marks the start of the rainy season. I briefly discussed more about Sekku in my Hina Matsuri post, which is another of the 5 Sekku throughout the year. After World War II, Tango no Sekku was renamed to Children’s Day and made a national holiday in order to recognize all children without gender discrimination, but the traditional practices of the holiday are from Tango no Sekku. These practices are all for boys just like Momo no Sekku was for girls, hence the confusion.
Originally being the ‘First Day of the Horse,’ Tango no Sekku had equine practices that involved symbolism for boys to grow up to the highest ideals of manhood and for them to grow healthy and strong. Most of the symbolism used for this day focus on making boys strong or protecting their health, both very important in the age when these traditions were created. The first of these is a bath with the leaves of an iris called Shōbu-yu (菖蒲湯). The leaves are thought to drive away evil spirits and promote good health. The reason for this, is the word Shōbu is a homonym. Shōbu (菖蒲) is a Japanese Iris, but Shōbu (勝負) means a match or bout. The symbolism through its homonym is the iris flowers when used, will fight against evil. Homonyms in Japanese usually occur by the kanji, or Chinese characters being different but two words having the same reading. Sometimes they are important parts of a traditional custom through their symbolism, but other times can be used in a variety of word games or puns for fun.
The traditional sweet for Children’s Day is Kashiwa Mochi (かしわ餅). Mochi is the popular and common rice cake, this sweet having mochi filled with red bean paste. Kashiwa is an oak leaf that is wrapped around the mochi. The oak leaf is used because oak trees normally don’t lose their old leaves before new buds appear, symbolizing a continuous family line. This is given to boys on Children’s Day in hopes of continuing the family line into the future.
The most famous parts of this holiday are the two traditional decorations set up for the holiday. The first is Go Gatsu Ningyo (五月人形), Fifth Month Dolls or May Dolls. These are small samurai armor sets, helmets or Kintarō dolls that are displayed inside the house of families that have boys and in public as well. These are much like the court doll display on Hina Matsuri where the traditional gender ideals are out on display in hope of their children fulfilling those ideals. Actually, these decorations were started in the Edo period in order to complement the decorations of Hina Matsuri. Kintarō (金太郎) is a Japanese legend of a boy named Kintarō, or Golden Boy, that has super-human strength. These are displayed for boys to become strong and brave.
The other famous and most popular decoration are the carp streamers, or Koinobori (鯉幟). These are hung outside the houses of those that have sons, as well as in public places. The carp symbolize strength through a Chinese folktale that many fish tried to swim up a waterfall, but only the carp made it all the way to the top, turning into a dragon. Their swim upstream every year also represents perseverance, another desired trait in boys. These decorations are hung outside the house in hopes that their boys will grow to be strong, have perseverance and achieve success. These streamers usually include at least 3 carp. The first, Magoi (真鯉), a black carp represents the father. The second, Higoi (緋鯉), a red carp represents the mother. The carp below these two represent the boys in the house. Each younger son being a smaller carp and lower on the pole than the older. The red one used to represent the first born son in the past and the ones below it younger sons being at least 2 carp instead of 3, but today it more often represents the mother and thus 3 carp are needed.
While the ones in front of houses are generally similar sizes, the ones in public places can get quite large. The most famous of these is Kazo’s gigantic Koinobori. Kazo, Saitama makes about half of the Koinobori used during this holiday and on May 3rd for the city’s Citizen’s Peace Festival, their 100 meter 350 kilogram one is flown for a short time.
Other areas in Japan are famous for having the most Koinobori in one place. Sagamihara City, Kanagawa is famous for its over 1200 Koinobori that are hung on wires over the Sagamigawa River. Tatebayashi, Gunma also holds a Koinobori Festival hung on ropes above the Tsurūdagawa River. In 2004, they even broke the world record for number of Koinobori hung in one place for the city’s 50th anniversary with 5,283 Koinobori.
In lots of other places they can be quite large and a fair amount of them too. I took some pictures of the ones I’ve seen in public places during this spring and the ones at Ueno Zoo were the largest I saw this year.
Even without the symbolism, the carp streamers are a nice sight at this time and add lots of color and nice decoration to the neighborhood. They’re one of the things that most remind me it’s spring in Japan. I hope I have the chance to go and see the larger Koinobori displays throughout Japan in the future.