Kodomo No Hi - Japanese Children's Day

Kodomo no hi or Japanese Children's Day is a festival originally for boys but which has been renamed for both sexes.

The fifth day of the fifth month each year is a public holiday and a day when the sky is crowded with carp kites strung from bamboo flagpoles or from the rooftops. The colours line the sky and everyone knows that the Children's Day Festival is here. Some towns line the riverbanks with carp kites in celebration.

Otherwise known as 'Sobu no Sekku' (Iris Festival) or 'Tango no Sekku' (May 5th Festival), Children's Day is in fact actually a festival which celebrates the future success and health of sons although it has allegedly been adapted in more recent years to incorporate girls as well since the Girls' Festival in March is not a public holiday. Despite its modern, non-sexist name, it is still regarded as a festival for boys and the events and traditions of the day reflect this.

One of the alternative names, the Iris Festival was taken from the 12th century belief that the long, sharp leaves of the iris are swordlike so, placing iris leaves in a boy's bath is supposed to make him more martial. This meant that he would grow and develop with courage and strength. This is only one of the many symbols surrounding this day, most of which have to do with strength and health and success.

The other alternative name for this festival, Tango no Sekku, is based on the old lunar calendar and represents the actual date on which the festival occurs, 5th May.

Symbols on Children's Day

The carp kites which are flown for this festival are called 'koinobori' and are colourful - usually decorated with red or blue - and made of white cloth. They symbolise success due to the carp's long life and golden colour and are also supposed to drive away evil spirits. They are believed to represent strength and determination of spirit in the same way the carp travels against the current. In some houses, a carp is flown for each family member with the father's being the largest at the top down to the youngest child's at the bottom.

As well as kites, warrior dolls are also displayed inside the house and special food is eaten: 'kashiwamochi' which is sticky rice cakes filled with red bean paste and wrapped in oak leaves, and 'chimaki', sticky rice cakes wrapped in bamboo leaves. The oak and bamboo symbolise strength and a successful life and the oak is also connected with the Shinto religion as both this and Hina Matsuri (Girl's Festival) are Shinto festivals.

The 'gogatsu ningyo' (May Dolls), Masculine samurai dolls of famous historical and literary fame, samurai helmets and armour are seen not just in homes, but also in the shops. The perfect gift from Japan, tourists buy them in droves so they are available all year round instead of just at festival time but the most comprehensive display of masculine dolls in stores is right before the Children's Day Festival. In all shapes and sizes and costs, there is something for everyone.

In Samurai times, helmets and armour were decorated on this day as they were considered the most important of the fighting tools and boys as young as fifteen went to war. The items were intended to strengthen the spirit of the young boy and, in remembrance of these days, small versions of these items are still popular.

With the increasing lack of space as people move to small inner city apartments, it is becoming more common to display small dolls and carps inside the house or on a balcony if there is one, so miniaturised versions of the traditional displays are now common.

The History of Children's Day

While originally imported from China, the Boy's Festival has changed dramatically over the years. May 5th was originally adopted as a festival for boys corresponding to the Doll Festival for girls. However, gradually, the day became a joint day for all children and was renamed Children's Day in 1948 and made a national holiday. Despite this renaming, the symbols of courage and strength really honour only boys and girls are still celebrated in March.

At the end of April and the beginning of May, along with the Children's Day Festival, there are a number of other public holidays; the 29th April is Midori no Hi (Greenery Day), the 1st May is May Day, the 3rd May is Kenpoo Kinenbi (Constitution Day) and the May 5th is Kodomo no Hi (Children's Day). As such, it is common to get holidays for the entire week to 10 days depending on where the weekends fall. This succession of holidays is known as Golden Week.

While this profusion of festivals means there is a lot to see and do throughout Japan at this time, it is really a time to avoid travelling as many Japanese use the break to travel both within Japan and overseas and trains and other transport are packed past capacity.

© High Speed Ventures 2011