May 5th: Children's Day
Japan, a country of tradition and famous for its colourful festivals and ceremonies, celebrates lots of different events to commemorate the transition from childhood to adulthood. Known as a hard-working society, Japan is perhaps less famous for its holidays. However, there are a few times during the year when most Japanese people enjoy a few days off work or school, relaxing with family and friends or going on a trip. One of these longer holiday periods is “Golden Week.” During this period, several national holidays connect, giving almost a full week off, depending on the calendar. That is where the name comes from. This Golden Week includes May 3rd, Constitution Memorial Day (Kenpo Kinenbi, 憲法記念日), May 4th, Greenery Day (Midori no Hi, みどりの日) and May 5th, Children's Day (Kodomo no Hi, こどもの日).
Children's Day is the last day of the Golden Week holidays, and on this day people celebrate the existence and life of children. It has officially been a national holiday since 1948, and it is part of the celebration for the youngest in every Japanese house. In Japan, it was traditional since the 8th century to have special days for children twice a year. March 3rd is for girls and May 5th for the boys. It is a day respecting the personality of the children and to celebrate their happiness. The fifth day of the fifth month of the Lunar Year, originally known as the Boy's Day or Feast of Banners (tango no sekku, 端午の節句) was believed to be a moment designated to purify and dispel evil spirits. Therefore, after the Nara Period (710-784), the date of May 5th was established.
According to the tradition, carp-shaped streamers (koinobori, 鯉幟 or satsuki-nobori, 皐幟) are lifted up and wave in the wind outside the Japanese houses. There has to be at least one for every child in the house. Sometimes there can also be koi carp streamers representing the parents, counting all the members of the family. The koi carp symbolizes strength, success and health of the children. There is an old story of a carp that swam up a river and became a strong dragon. The different koi carp have different meanings. The black koi carp (magoi, 真鯉), at the top of the traditional structure, symbolizes the father of the family. The red koi carp (higoi, 緋鯉) symbolizes the mother of the family. The last koi carp represents the son of the family, with an additional carp under it for each child in the family, changing its colours and position depending on its age.
The carp are an important symbol for the strength that they represent when swimming against the current in the rivers. There is even a traditional song praising it:
“Higher than the roof of the houses, there wave the carp-shaped streamers. The black one is the father and the smaller are the children. They seem to have fun while swimming.”
Additionally, on Children’s Day Japanese warrior and samurai dolls, armour and other traditional accessories are displayed indoors. The elements are symbols associated with masculinity and traditionally desired qualities for male children. Sometimes iris flowers can also be found on display. These iris flowers (shoubu, 菖蒲) give the festival one of its old names: “shoubu no sekku” (菖蒲の節句). Traditionally they were used in purifying rituals. Also, because of the phonetic similarity with the word for warlike spirit or militarism (shoubu, 尚武), it eventually became associated with warriors and most traditional male virtues.
Sweets and other candies for children are commonly seen everywhere until the date arrives. Following the custom, it is traditional to eat rice cakes stuffed with sweet red bean paste and wrapped in oak leaves (kashiwa mochi, 柏餅).
As with Girl's Day (Hinamatsuri, 雛祭り), the Children’s Day celebration reminds everyone how important the strength, happiness and health of children are for the future of a society.