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Children’s Day in Japan


5th of May in Children’s Day and it is a public holiday in Japan.  It is traditionally called “Tango no Sekku” it was, and still is Boys’ Festival.

Spread and Changed in History over 2000 years

This festival is based on the long historical customs, going back to ancient China, about 300 BC.  A politician, scholar, and poet, Qu Yuan, lost the confidence of the Emperor at the time and expelled.  As he sees the empire crumbled against the enemy, despite his warnings and advice, he despaired and threw himself into a river.  The legend says that heart-broken people threw food into the river, rushed boats with drums to distract the fish from making sure his body will not be eaten.  It happened on 5th of May.  It has become annual mourning day for the legendary man.  (It is also said to be the origin of Chinese Dragon Boat Race.)

The nature of the annual mourning changed over the years to be the day to wish for the nation’s peace and stability, and then to a general festival to wish health and fortune.  Early May is usually the start of rainy season, which also made this festival an important date for the calendar.  It gradually spread to neighbouring countries, including Japan.

Legend Combined with Local Festivities

In Japan, early May was already an important time of the year, which was rice planting.  Rice in Japan is the staple and sacred food for the gods and goddesses.  The rice planting in early May itself is a ritual still performed these days, often by shrine maidens.  So the rice growers and the maidens purified themselves, using the seasonal flower of Japanese Iris (Shoubu) and mugwort (Yomogi), which are both used as part of natural remedies.

Chinese legend and Japanese festival merged over the time.  It was initially very limited to royals and high ranking officials, who had access to cultural exchange with China and ritual performance.

This ritual festivity sees a slight change when Samurai warlord became the dominant force.   It has become a celebration for the boys to be a skilful warrior.  It has come to this because the flower’s name “Shoubu” is homophone to “battle” and “martial spirit” in Japanese.  It is also helped by the fact that Iris leaf shape is similar to the tip of the sword.  Parents used it to decorate Samurai helmet.  What began as a day of mourning, and then secret ritual has become Samurai’s superstitious festival, with a bit of seasonal fun, through a simple rhyming game and visual trick.

Ritual to Seasonal Fun (And It’s Official)

This tradition was officially recognised by Edo Shogunate, when 5th May became one of five official annual festivals.  Then it has become a popular event for ordinary civilians, who under peaceful regime had some disposable income.  A little rivalry to Samurais, whom they no longer respect as serious ruling ranks, also played a bit in the public psychology that it was acceptable to copy publicly what was seen to belong to Samurai.

Merchandises including streamers which looked similar to war flags, with good-luck charms painted on, seasonal food using Yomogi plant to celebrate, dressing up for infant boys.  The list of products continued to grow, and they changed their forms and materials, even after the abolishing of Samurai rank.  The serious ritual and warlord superstitions have now been planted as the national event.

With Samurai ranks abolished at the end of Shogunate, it changed with the trend to the current form of mock-carp shape streamers, spreading to every household.  There were a lot of marketing efforts to merchandise the streamers and helmets around and after this. (It is a little like Christmas, which originates in old pagan tradition and religious beliefs, but it is more the happy event and for some great marketing opportunity.)

In 1948, under the post-war democratic government, 5th May became Children’s Day, defined to celebrate the individual right and personal development, wish for their happiness and thank the parents.  Officially, this day is for both girls and boys, but with 2000 years of history, it is still seen as boy’s celebration.

Koi Carp Streamers

The iconic images of this day are those of Koi-Nobori, Carp shape streamers, as well as the display of ornamental Samurai helmets.  When non-samurai civilians started joining the celebration of Boys’ Day, their favourite motif was that of Koi Carp.  It is often depicted climbing up the stream.  It was used to wish children to grow strong and be ambitious.  Nowadays, it comes with large black (father), red (mother), smaller blue (young son), and other coloured smaller ones for all children.  There are no longer any specific rules, although colours do signify some rituals from the past.

Most people see these streamers as just as the seasonal poetic charm by now, but this tradition with long historical backdrop stays fondly in Japanese people’s mind.  Maybe it is because it reminds people of the childhood and bond of family.  These basic instinct rooted in the culture stays in people’s mind, and keep living though they change the shapes, just like Koi Carps in the wind.

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