Koinobori (carp) streamers flutter over a river. Photo: iStock/MichikoDesign
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Uncovering the origin of the May 5 holiday - Boys’ Festival or Children’s Day

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By Mai Shoji

Girls’ Festival, or Hinamatsuri, is celebrated at the beginning of spring on March 3. So you’d expect Boys’ Festival to also be in store. Not quite. It turns out the Tango-no Sekku, or Boys’ Festival, falls on the same day that we call Children’s Day, which are both celebrated on May 5.

As confusing as it may be, even most Japanese don’t make a clear distinction between the two. In a nutshell, Tango-no Sekku is a traditional event (tango is the first day of the fifth month on the lunar calendar) and Children’s Day is a national holiday.

Initially, Tango-no Sekku was a court ceremony to ward off illness and misfortune. It has continued since the Nara period (710-794), as one of the Gosekku, or Five Seasonal Festivals, and was an official holiday of the shogunate and remained a national holiday until 1872. But it gradually became a boys' event because the iris used in the ceremony was pronounced shobu (respecting the warrior spirit), and the long, thin pointed leaves of the iris resemble swords. So especially the samurai families designated this day to pray for the safe growth of the boy who would be their heir.

Children’s Day was adopted after World War II. Its roots can be traced back to 1925 when June 1 was established as International Children's Day at the World Conference on Child Welfare in Geneva. After its institution in Japan in 1948, The National Holidays Law stated the day would celebrate the growth of all children, not just boys. Then this evolved to a modern day promotion of their happiness as well as thanking the mothers.

The two ideas merged, with May 5 being the designated day for celebration. Perhaps because of the popularity of Tango-no Sekku and its long-held traditions, many people still think that Children's Day is a day for boys.

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Kabuto helmet Photo: Kimtoru/photoAC

Leading up to May 5, families with boys display a gogatsu-ningyo (May doll), or yoroikabuto; yoroi (armor) and kabuto (helmet). They are believed to guard against disasters and wish for the strong, brave and vigorous growth of boys. Just like the dolls of the Girls’ Festival, these displays can be simple or quite elaborate. “Star Wars” fans know that they are the inspiration for the Darth Vader mask.

Koinobori, or carp streamers, are the most conspicuous symbols of Tango no Sekku. They are hung outside houses to wish for the healthy growth of children. This custom started in the Edo period (1603-1867) when samurai warriors decorated the entrance to their residences with banners. Carp are symbols of courage and success, and are associated with a Chinese legend - carp that successfully swam upstream in the Yellow River and reached the Dragon’s Gate became reincarnated as dragons.

Traditionally, the largest black koinobori is magoi, symbolizing the father. Next, higoi, smaller in red or pink signifies the mother; kogoi, even smaller in blue, green, orange or purple represent children in consecutive birth order. These five colors are auspicious at various festivals. Although the tradition is dying in urban areas, you can still see these streamers fluttering in rural areas, even across rivers. Ways of hoisting carp streamers vary by prefecture.

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Kashiwa mochi Photo: Choco Latte/photoAC

Kashiwa mochi is the most popular food for Children's Day. Kashiwa (oak) leaves add crunchiness and scent to the soft chewy rice cake with bean paste inside. Kashiwa is linked to offspring prosperity because its old leaves do not fall off during the winter until new shoots come out.

Chimaki is also a sweet treat for Children’s Day. It is a sweet rice cake wrapped in bamboo leaves and steamed. It was a popular on-the-go meal for warriors during the Warring States period. Some families cook bamboo shoots mixed in rice. Bamboo shoots grow rampantly and are full of vitality, making them a perfect food for the occasion, with the hope that boys will grow tall and healthy.

Some people take shobu-yu (iris bath), in which irises, also used as medicinal herbs, are put in the water to enjoy their fragrance on the night of Tango no Sekku. This is meant to ward off evil spirits and help get children through the hot summer in good health.

In conclusion, May 5 isn’t a day only to celebrate boys. It may not be fair, but while the so-called Girls’ Festival on March 3 is not an official national holiday, Children’s Day is a holiday on the calendar.

Now that you know the origin behind this day, it’s a good reason to take your kids on a vacation during Golden Week, and pamper the mother who gave birth to them.

© Japan Today

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2 Comments
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"Now that you know the origin behind this day, it’s a good reason to take your kids on a vacation during Golden Week, and pamper the mother who gave birth to them."

Why not "pamper the parents who raise them", you know, since it's not just a day for boys (I mean, if you consider both days as one) but for ALL children regardless of gender, in the spirit of inclusiveness.

That aside, it is a very informative piece for those not in the know, and even more detailed for those who may not have known enough. :) Thank you.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Another interesting read. Please keep these coming. Thank you.

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