Unearth the deeper historical meaning behind Children’s Day, one of the handful of Japanese national holidays that fall in early May.
As Golden Week approaches, more and more carp are taking to the skies. To anyone not used to this yearly event, it must be a rather puzzling experience.
Well, the explanation is simple: こどものひ (kodomo no hi), or Children’s Day. Historically, in Japan, families celebrated their sons on the fifth day of the fifth month in a tradition that originated with samurai families, who would honour their sons and pray for their good health on this day, as well as performing rituals intended to prepare boys for their future lives as samurai.
In more recent times, May 5th has become a day for families to celebrate all their children. They often mark it by hanging carp streamers known as koinobori outside their houses. These koinobori represent the family: the large black carp at the top is the father, the red one below it the mother, and then the smaller carp underneath represent the children of the household. Throughout Japan, each family has a unique way of representing their household, and often different colours, sizes and orders will be assigned to the streamers representing the children if there is more than one child.
The symbol of the carp comes from an old Chinese legend whereby carp that swim upstream become dragons. With the desire for strong sons and successors uppermost in the minds of the samurai, praying for their sons to become dragons was a perfect fit in the symbol-heavy society of Japan.
Now, many years after the end of the samurai period, the carp flutter in the wind, giving the illusion of swimming upstream. This vigorous movement of the carp fighting to move forwards is also tied to the idea of a strong and healthy childhood.
Other traditions for Children’s Day include the boys of the family displaying a small ornamental samurai helmet, or kabuto, in the house. Sometimes, depending on the wealth of the family, a mini set of samurai armour or mini sword would accompany the kabuto. This tradition is very similar to the dolls displayed for Hinamatsuri, or Girl’s Day, held on March 3rd, which is dedicated to the health and happiness of the daughters in the family. Like the dolls, kabuto can be very expensive and are often the most valuable item a boy can own within the family. Boys will usually set them up in their household during the weeks leading up to Children’s Day in celebration. They are often taken down on Children’s Day, although some families leave these decorations out for a little longer to have more time to enjoy them.
By Meghan Bridges