Image ©Keith Ng
Celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month, Children’s Day, or Kodomo no Hi. marks the final celebration of Japan’s long annual national holiday Golden Week.
Traditionally called Tango no Sekku, which actually means Boy’s Day, it began as a counterpart to Hinamatsuri, or Girl’s Day on March 3. Today, though, it celebrates the personal growth and happiness of all children, while honouring parents, relatives and teachers for their work.
Originally inherited as a cultural practice from ancient China, it was not until 1948 that the Japanese government officially recognised the event as a national holiday. With this declaration also came a change of name to Kodomo no Hi, Children’s Day.
Despite many still referring to the holiday as Boy’s Day, it is a festive occasion that not only celebrates sons and fathers, but also mothers and daughters — the entire family.
An Edo Period Utagawa Yoshifuji woodblock print of boys playing samurai games on May 5th, then known as Tango no Sekku. Public domain image.
On this special day, families often display miniature samurai dolls, helmets or armour — a throwback to Boy’s Day — and hang up colourful carp-shaped "koinobori" windsocks.
Vigorous and vibrant fish, carp are seen as symbols of strength, power and success.
The colours and sizes of koinobori carps once represented of each member of the family — large and black for the father, middle-sized red for the mother and smaller ones in different colours for children. The eldest son in the family was usually given a blue carp, with siblings given a choice of green, orange and purple.
Also emblematic of courage and determination, the carp has earned its place in East Asian culture. Its significance dates back to an old Chinese myth depicting a carp that fought against the current of a mighty river and, in his battle to swim upstream, turned into a fierce dragon.
Now this myth is represented by the flutter of the koinobori in the wind as they are flown between the rooftops of neighboring buildings. At the top of the family of carp is a five colour streamer representing the five elements and a symbol of protection.
These days, not everyone has gardens or space to display a full koinobori set, resulting in the creation of plenty of smaller versions, even miniatures that families can display as interior decorations in the home.
But to still see koinobori in their full glory, many public buildings in Japan often hold impressive displays to be enjoyed by everyone. At Tokyo Tower, exactly 333 carp are flown off its structure as a nod to the tower’s height of 333 meters.
Other activities of the day include eating "kawashi mochi," sticky rice cake treats filled with sweet red bean paste and wrapped in oak leaves, and "chimaki," sticky rice balls wrapped in iris or bamboo leaves. It is also customary to end the day with a dip in a hot shobu-yu bath with iris leaves and roots floating in the water — herbs believed to welcome good fortune and ward off evil.
Why not make this an extra special day for your kids, too, and take a look at our collection of Children's items from Japan.
Image ©Keith Ng