Children's Day Overview

Children's Day Overview

Children’s Day—Kodomo no hi (子供の日)—May 5th

Iris Festival (菖蒲の節供), Tango no sekku (端午の節句)

By Tara McGowan

Children’s Day is the third of the five seasonal festivals (gosekku) that originally came to Japan in the 6th century along with the Chinese calendar. In China, the fifth day of the fifth month was thought to be heavily yang (as opposed to even numbers, which are yin), a coincidence that was considered auspicious but also potentially dangerous. According to the Chinese lunar calendar, this day would have fallen closer to the middle of June around the beginning of the rainy season, and this seasonal shift could cause instability and make people more vulnerable to illness and misfortune. The Chinese name for the festival, pronounced Tango no sekku (端午の節句) in Japanese, is still commonly used today.

Also from China, came the tradition of eating chimaki, or rice cakes wrapped in bamboo leaves. Typically, these cakes would be tied with strings in the five auspicious colors, corresponding to the five elements—red (fire), blue/green (wood), black (water), yellow (earth) and white (metal)—which were believed to protect people from harm. A Japanese-style rice cake wrapped in oak leaves (kashiwa mochi) is also a popular treat on this day. Oak leaves were thought to symbolize the Confucian ideal of the older generation protecting the new because oak leaves do not fall from the tree until new shoots form underneath.

This ideal is also expressed in what is perhaps the most prominent symbol of Children’s Day, the koinobori, carp windsocks, that can be seen flying over many houses in Japan in May. One of the most memorable sights when visiting Japan and traveling by train through the countryside in this season is the large colorful carps that appear to swim through the breeze above the rooftops and shimmering rice fields. Usually, there is a large black father carp with several smaller carp of different colors, diminishing in size and each representing a child in the household. Above them all, flies a striped fukidashi windsock, which again represents the five auspicious colors.

Carp are symbols of strength, resilience, and perseverance because they can swim upstream against the current and, by some accounts, even jump up waterfalls! There is a Chinese legend that claims the carp was so powerful, it even swam up to the heavens and was transformed into the first dragon. The song most closely associated with Children’s Day today is about the colorful carp streamers:

Yane yori takai, koinobori

Above the rooftops, the carp streamers fly

Ookii magoi wa otōsan

The big carp is the father

Chiisai higoi wa kodomo tachi

The little carp are the children

Omoshiro sōni oyoideiru

How fun to watch them swim!

When this festival first came to Japan, it coincided with an indigenous rice planting ritual centered on young girls, but later, when the Samurai caste came into power from the 16th century onward, it became almost exclusively associated with boys. The word for iris—shōbu (菖蒲)—is a homophone for shōbu (尚武), meaning military spirit, and the pointy leaves of the iris were associated with the sharp swords of the samurai. Iris plants were also believed to have protective, medicinal properties. On this day, people would drink iris sake and, in some places, they still bath in water infused with iris leaves or sprinkled with iris powder. In the Edo period (1603-1868), when the Shogun designated this day as one of the five seasonal festivals, each of the five became associated with a specific plant, and this festival became known as Shōbu no sekku (菖蒲の節供), or the Iris Festival. In some parts of Japan, the herb yomogi (mugwort) is also used in special rice cakes called yomogi mochi because it’s strong smell and medicinal properties were believed to keep evil spirits away.

Given the important role of dolls in all aspects of Japanese culture, it would be a mistake to assume that dolls are only reserved for the Doll’s Festival. In fact, there are special dolls for Children’s Day called gogatsu ningyō (May dolls). These typically represent warriors or legendary child heroes with superpowers, such as Kintarō (Golden Boy) or Momotarō (Peach Boy). The folktales of Kintarō and Momotarō are often interchangeable in the different regional versions told throughout Japan. What they share is the birth of a baby boy with superhuman powers, who grows up to fight evil oni demons, usually with the assistance of various animal companions he finds along his journey. May dolls were believed to serve a protective, as well as inspirational, role and were given to boys in a specific order as they were born into a family. It is also common to decorate the house with miniature models of samurai armor, helmets, and swords.