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Letters Home: Children's Day celebration in Japan

Every year on May 5 in Japan, Japanese children are feted to their very own holiday called “kodomo no hi.”

On March 3 every year, girls celebrate “hina no matsuri,” that features exquisite dolls on huge graduated platforms and is a celebration of everything girl-related. The good health and development of girls are the focus of this holiday.

Traditionally, May 5 was “Boy’s Day” since ancient times, but was made a national holiday in 1948 and changed to “Children’s Day” in 1954 to better represent all children and not just boys. It is a day to celebrate children in order to reflect upon their healthy physical development and to encourage them to study hard in school. It is also a day to wish for children’s overall happiness and healthy growth.

 

 

The holiday has its roots in an ancient Chinese custom where it was believed that flying kites would fend off evil spirits around children.  The custom is also directly connected to Shintoism, the indigenous religion of Japan, which emphasizes the driving back of evil spirits, as well.

The celebration of Children’s Day features huge carp streamers called “koinobori” which are flown high on this day at homes who have children. This custom originated during the Edo Period (1603-1867) when samurai homes began displaying large, colorful flags in their yards called “nobori” or “fukinuke.” These featured colorful “mon” or family crests which were related to military units.

 

 

Gradually, as is true with many Japanese traditions and customs, what initially started out as something only the noble or aristocratic class did, eventually trickled down to the masses and became widespread. (photo)

But why does the carp represent Children’s Day in Japan? I have been told that the carp was chosen to symbolize this holiday because it represents courage, power, toughness, and strength because the carp must swim upstream which takes perseverance.

Today, families display carp-shaped windsocks in different sizes with the largest one representing the father, the next one the mother, then one for each child in the family. Traditionally, they only represented the males in the family, but in modern times have come to depict both parents and all the children, both boys and girls.

Children’s Day is a reminder to families to appreciate their children, celebrating children by encouraging physical fitness and healthy eating. 

Many families will go on picnics on this day, eating traditional foods like “Kashiwa-mochi” which is a rice cake filled with a sweet red-bean mixture, wrapped in an oak leaf. Another common food on this day is “chimaki” which is a steamed, sticky rice cake that is sweet and glutinous due to the short-grain japonica rice that is most common in Japan. These are wrapped in bamboo leaves.

All of these traditions and customs related to children are done to wish the children good luck, good fortune, and good health as they continue to grow.

 

 

In addition to the carps being displayed and flown outside on flagpoles, boys are often times given samurai-related objects like a samurai warrior doll (gogatsu-ningyo) or helmet (kabuto) to display on this day. These dolls often feature samurai armor and Japanese swords (photo) In many instances the samurai dolls represent popular folktales in Japan, especially Kintaro and Momotaro, who both represent courage and strength.

Kintaro, or Nature Boy, is depicted as a sweet, strong, and very kind boy. This legendary story is about a boy who was raised by a witch on a mountain and who possessed super-human strength that allowed him to fight off monsters and demons from the time he was very young. His strength was extraordinary and he could throw boulders the size of houses and he could uproot a full-grown tree with only his hands.

Momotaro, or “Peach Boy,” is a story about a boy that was born from a big peach floating down a river, where it was found by an old man and an old woman who ate part of the peach and were made young again. Momotaro has a menagerie of companions in the form of a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant that assist him in fighting off ogres. The moral of the Momotaro story is to emphasize how when you work together in harmony, people can achieve the impossible.  

Every year, when I accompany my university students on a sightseeing and home stay trip to La Crosse, Wisconsin, we visit a number of American elementary and junior high schools in the area.  My students teach the American children origami and we always make a samurai helmet out of newspaper for the kids to wear. It is always a big hit with the children and they often wear them the entire day.

Many of the customs observed today have their origins in Tango no Sekku, which was a day for boys during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) dating back to the 12th century. Before the Kamakura period, the day was observed by Japanese women as a day to purify the family home by placing irises in the thatched roofs, which was done to repel evil spirits that might be lurking about, as well as a day for the women to rest their bodies. It was then changed to a celebration of boys after the samurai class took power and controlled the government.

Why were irises used in the celebration by women to purify the home? The iris flowers’ leaves resembled the sharp, metal blades of the fabled Japanese sword, and another word “shoubu” (a military related word) had the same pronunciation as the word for “iris,” so since the Japanese enjoy a good play on words, they felt it to be a lucky sign and it should be connected with the samurai class. Also, yabusame, Japanese archery done on horseback, was traditionally held on May 5 and it was regarded as a way to stave off evil spirits, too.

Fast forward to modern times, the customs today of representing Children’s Day with mini suits of samurai armor, samurai helmets and swords, and archery arrows date back to ancient times. These are all displayed as a way to drive off evil spirits and to protect the children in the home. Unlike Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Children’s Day is an observed national holiday in Japan, showing the importance Japanese culture places upon recognizing children and in hoping for their good health and happiness.

Todd Jay Leonard was born and raised in Shelbyville, but has called Japan home for over 34 years. He is currently a full-professor at the University of Teacher Education Fukuoka in Kyushu where he lives, writes, and teaches. He is the author of 26 books and can be reached at toddjayleonard@yahoo.com

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