Japanese love for festivals, holidays and colourful traditions is also reflected in the celebrations of Children’s Day – a holiday so inconspicuous in Europe. Though officially two separate days – Girls’ Day and Boys’ Day – are no longer celebrated, the festivities are still unique, full of symbols and unique customs.

How is Children’s Day celebrated in Japan?

Kodomo no Hi (こどもの日), that is Japanese Children’s Day, has been celebrated on 5 May as a public holiday since 1948. It is a day of special prayers for the health and well-being of children, as well as an opportunity to emphasise their unique role in the society. Flying on the rooftops are colourful carp-shaped banners, which symbolise strength and valour, and the served treats resemble the helmets of brave samurai. All this to bring the little Japanese good luck and protect them from evil forces.

Japanese Children’s Day

The majority of the traditions revolving around the May holiday involve the world of boys, at least stereotypically. The symbolism of decorations and traditional meals alludes to valour, power and courage, associated with gallant warriors and legendary heroes. This is not intended to undermine the roles of girls or to discriminate them, it is rooted in the history of the holiday. Originally, before the Gregorian calendar was introduced in Japan, the Japanese boys’ day was celebrated on 5th day of the 5th month of the year Tango-no Sekku (端午の節句), also known as the Iris Festival, was the male equivalent of the March Doll’s Day – Hina-matsuri (雛祭). The 3rd day of the 3rd month, also known as the Peach Festival – as peaches blossom intensely in that period, was the day of praying for the well-being and healthy development of Japanese girls. The traditional festivals were officially combined into one in 1948, and Kodomo no Hi became a national holiday, with banks closed for business.

Symbols of the Japanese Children’s Day

Even though the changes were made to the Japanese calendar over half a century ago, the majority of the Japanese still cultivate the past traditions characteristic of Tango-no Sekku. On 5 May, colourful carps fly on the rooftops of Japanese houses. They are made of paper or a light fabric – one for every boy living in the household. The size of the banners depends on the age of the child, where the biggest one is for the oldest son and the smaller ones are for his brothers.

In Poland associated mostly with Christmas Eve dishes, carp is a symbol of strength and valour in Japan. This symbolism is rooted in the observations of the freshwater fish, which can travel long distances upstream in rapid rivers. A Chinese legend has it that gods amazed by the strength and determination of one carp decided to turn it into a powerful dragon. And it is such favour of gods and the dragon-like courage and power that Japanese parents wish for their offspring by hanging fish decorations on the rooftops, in balconies or in their windows.

Another characteristic element that decorates Japanese homes during the celebration of Children’s Day is Gogatsu-ningyou, that is mini exhibitions presenting the traditional elements of samurai equipment – helmets, weapon, bows or arrows. They also include dolls representing legendary Japanese heroes. Kintarō is a Far East equivalent of the mythical Hercules, Shoki is a general protecting people against evil forces, and Momotarō is the equivalent of the biblical David, who won the uneven fight with the Japanese Goliath. The miniature heroes are to inspire young Japanese and give them strength and safety.

Sweet treats for the little ones

Even in Japan Children’s Day could not do without sweets, which children enjoy so much. Also in this area, Japanese tradition offers a whole range of symbols that are to bring good luck to the little gourmands. Typical desserts prepared for Kodomo no Hi are kashiwa mochi かしわ餅 – rice balls filled with the anko paste of red beans. What makes them different from regular mochi is the oak leaves in which the cookies are served. They are the symbol of strength – a virtue that parents wish for their children. Another treat is chimaki ちまき – rice balls without sweet filling, wrapped in bamboo leaves. The shape of the long leaves resembles samurai swords, and the rice patterns bring to mind iris blossoms, historically used to decorate houses during the May celebrations. In addition, Japanese children enjoy cookies, and nowadays also chocolates, shaped after samurai helmets.

Japan officially celebrates one Children’s Day, for both boys and girls, but past traditions still live in many Japanese houses. On 5 May girls are hosted by young samurai, who celebrate their day, while on 3 March boys are hosted by little Japanese beauties. One may wonder if it was indeed necessary to combine the two festivals… But what does it matter if this has allowed the Japanese to enjoy an extra holiday during the year?

Other articles