Every year, on May 5th, Japan celebrates the holiday known as Kodomo no hi (子供の日) or, in English, Children’s Day. Originally, the holiday was called Tango no Sekku (端午の節句), which was translated to “Boy’s Day.” Though the name of the holiday was changed in the 1940s, it’s still considered by many to be a holiday to celebrate the health and happiness of boys while it’s counterpart, Hinamatsuri (ひな祭り), a holiday that falls two months earlier on March 3rd, is also known as “Girl’s Day” and celebrates the health and wellness of girls.
Boy’s Day falls on the very last day of what is known in Japan as “The Golden Week”–a period of four days of national holidays (with breaks in between)–and has been celebrated for over a millennium. When the holiday was first conceived, it was celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar, but was given the set day of May 5th when Japan began using the Gregorian calendar. It was originally observed among the samurai class to celebrate the courage and determination of the boys in these families who would become samurai themselves; as such, most of the motifs used during Boy’s Day, even to this day, are based around samurai and masculinity to celebrate having the “spirit of the warrior.” In 1948, after World War II, the holiday was toned down and the name was officially changed to Kodomo no hi; this is also when it was declared a national holiday.
One of the most common sights during Boy’s Day is the stylized carp pictured above. Windsocks, or koinobori, like the one in the picture, are especially popular and will be flown outside of households with boys, one flag for each boy in the family. A lot of people will get them in different sizes which correspond to the age of the boys in the family: largest for the oldest and smallest for the youngest. Some households even have a carp koinobori for each member of the family! Carps are considered symbols of strength and determination since they’re able to swim against the flow of water (in a Chinese legend, a carp swam upstream and, upon reaching the top, was able to transform into a dragon), so they’re perfect for a day originally used to celebrate the strength and determination of a young samurai. There’s even a Japanese proverb about these tenacious fish: “Koi no takinobori” (鯉の滝登り) which translates directly as “Carp’s waterfall climbing,” and carries the meaning of “succeeding vigorously in life.”
While these carp windsocks are the most common item of Boy’s Day, there are still more popular symbols for this holiday. On Boy’s Day and on the days leading up to it, households usually sport samurai dolls and figures as well as figures of helmets, armor, and swords. Boy’s Day even has a traditional flower: a type of iris called shoubu, whose long branches are similar in appearance to swords. People even take what’s called a shoubu-yu (穂産湯), a bath filled with floating shoubu, for health and protection.
On Boy’s Day, it’s very popular to eat kashiwa mochi (柏餅), a steamed rice cake that’s filled with sweet red bean paste and wrapped in an oak leaf; because of the strength and longevity of oak trees, eating these are supposed to help children grow up strong and live long, healthy lives. Another popular choice is chimaki, plain rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. The bamboo leaves are thought to symbolize determination and strength because of their ability to grow in so many different places. Recently popular are many different sweets, cakes, and cookies shaped or decorated to look like carps.
Walking around during Boy’s Day, it’s not uncommon to hear children and their parents singing a song called Koinobori, written about those carp-shaped windsocks that you can see flying outside of many houses in Japan.
Here are the lyrics to the song in Japanese:
Yane yori takai koinobori (屋根より高い 鯉のぼり)
Ookii magoi wa otousan (大きい真鯉は お父さん)
Chiisai higoi wa kodomotachi (小さい緋鯉は 子供達)
Omoshirosouni oyoideru (面白そうに 泳いでる)
And here it is translated into English:
Carp windsocks are above the roof.
The biggest carp is the father,
The smaller carp are children,
They’re enjoying swimming in the sky.
You can get many items for your Boy’s Day celebration at Asahi! We have koinobori and the ingredients for making many of the delicious foods eaten on this holiday; we even have pre-made kashiwa mochi! Stop by and get ready for this fun holiday!
Do you do anything mentioned above to celebrate Boy’s Day or is there any other traditions you have for this Japanese holiday? We’d love to hear how you celebrate Boy’s Day at home, leave a comment below and tell us all about it!
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