Kodomo no Hi: Japan's Children’s Day
Children’s Day is a commemorative day celebrated each year in honor of children, whose date varies by country. In Japan, Children’s Day is called Kodomo no hi and is celebrated on the 5th of May. It is a traditional holiday established to honor the individuality of children and celebrate their happiness. In 1948, it was designated as a national holiday by the Japanese government.
What is Kodomo no Hi?
Kodomo no hi, Japan’s Children’s Day, is celebrated on May 5 every year to celebrate the growth and good luck of children. In fact, it might be more accurate to call it Boys’ Day. Historically, May 5 was a holiday for boys. The counterpart for girls was Hina Matsuri celebrated on March 3. In 1948, the Japanese government changed Boys' Day to a holiday celebrated by all children. Therefore, it is not surprising that many symbols of modern Japanese Children's Day are associated with the health and strength of boys.
In Japanese, the week from late April to early May is called Golden Week because of four national holidays that fall very close to each other: Showa Day (April 29), Constitution Memorial Day (May 3), Greenery Day (May 4), and Children's Day (May 5). Every year, the country is busy preparing for Golden Week, for Children's Day especially, as soon as Hina Matsuri ends. Colorful carp-shaped flags float in the sky, samurai armor is decorated in family living rooms, and foyers are adorned with irises.
History of Kodomo no Hi
Originally, May 5 had nothing to do with children. In the Nara period (710-794) and Heian period (794-1185), Kodomo no hi was called Tango no Sekku, which was one of the Gosekku (five important annual festivals in ancient Japanese). These five festivals were introduced to Japan from China, where these days were regarded as unlucky days. The Nara and Heian courts swept the misfortune away by hosting lively celebrations.
In Japan, May is the season of rice planting. In ancient Japan, a young unmarried girl would spend the night in thatched huts filled with iris and mugwort and drink medicinal sake to purify their bodies and spirits before plantation to pray for a good harvest. For this reason, Kodomo no hi is also known as Shobu no Sekku (Iris Festival).
The reason why Kodomo no hi became Children's Day goes back to the Kamakura period (1185-1333) and Edo period (1603-1867). Since the rising samurai culture, shobu (iris) was associated with a word that sounded the same "shobu" (battle or competition, or sometimes, victory). By performing horsemanship, archery, and other traditionally male-performed activities, Shobu no Sekku became a festival of boys.
How to Celebrate Kodomo no hi
Koinobori (carp streamer) is one of the most famous symbols of Kodomo no hi. It is derived from a Chinese tale that a group of fish tried to jump over a "Dragon Gate" and while all the other fish gave up, the carp persevered and became a dragon after jumping over the Dragon Gate. On the carp flag, the magoi (black carp) represents the father, higoi (red carp) represents the mother (higoi, scarlet carp), and the last carp (usually blue) represents the child. Additional carp will be added for each younger sibling.
Families with boys would also decorate their homes with gogatsu ingyo, a miniature samurai set with elaborate armor, helmets, swords, and bows with arrows, indicating their desire to raise strong and powerful boys. However, the whole set is quite expensive and takes up a lot of space, so usually, it will be simplified to yoroi (armor) and kabuto (helmet). Many children like to fold paper into kabuto that they can wear on their heads. Some families also display samurai dolls, usually Japanese folk heroes Kintaro or Momotaro, symbolizing strength and vigor.
People will also decorate their houses with iris and mugwort leaves. Iris leaves are believed to ward off evil and disease because their pointed leaves look like samurai swords. It was also customary to take baths with floating iris leaves because of their health benefits. Some public bathhouses provide shobuyu (iris baths) to children on Children's Day.
There are two special foods for Children's Day. Kashiwamochi is a rice cake with bean paste wrapped in oak leaves. The oak leaves represent lasting health because old oak leaves do not fall off until new leaves grow. Another food is chimaki, a glutinous rice dumpling wrapped in a bamboo leaf.