Celebrating Children’s Day in Japan

With four national holidays crammed into 7 days, Golden Week is a time of great celebration in Japan. Children’s Day (or Kodomo no hi), the final day of the Golden Week celebration, is a time for families all over the country to join together and wish health, happiness and prosperity upon their children. 

A Quick History Lesson

Children’s Day, held annually on the 5th day of the 5th month, was originally known as Feast of Banners (Tango no Sekku) or Boy’s Day. Historically it was a day set aside to honour male children and their fathers, however, in 1948 the Japanese government decided to make the day more inclusive and changed the name to Children’s Day. Girl’s Day (Hinamatsuri) is on March 3 and although May 5 now celebrates both boys, girls and both sets of parents, some of the more masculine traditions still remain.

Samurai Strength

Japan’s courageous and noble samurai warriors play a significant part in Children’s Day and it’s customary for families to display samurai dolls, their armour (gogatsu-ningyo) and military helmets (kabuto) within the home, as a symbolic gesture to bring bravery and strength to children.

Some of the public samurai displays can be large and ornate, whilst those inside the home are generally more modest. At school children enjoy listening to intriguing tales of samurai legends and rustling up their own paper kabuto helmets.

Samurai dollsSamurai dolls: Toshiyuki IMAI

Kintarō, the Legend

Perhaps the most well-known legend connected to Children’s Day is Kintarō the Nature Boy, an enchanting tale of a child raised in the mountains who befriended animals, rode a bear instead of a horse and grew up to become a monster fighting warrior.

Depicted as a chubby-cheeked child wearing the traditional samurai kabuto, and often alongside a koi carp, Kintarō looks cute rather than fearsome and his story appeals to children’s sense of adventure. Honoured in doll form, it’s hoped that he’ll inspire children with his kindness and bravery.

Kintaro-riding-carpKintaro riding koi carp:  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Colourful Carp

The colourful carp shaped streamers that you see all over Japan during springtime are known as koinobori and are flown outside homes and public buildings. Koi carp are believed to be strong fish who battle upstream through strong currents and waterfalls and have come to symbolise the wish for children to grow up with strength of character.

In ancient times samurai warriors flew banners on the battlefield, and these eventually morphed into the koinobori that you see today. Families display a streamer with their family crest at the top, followed by a series of brightly coloured fish in descending size. The large black fish at the top represents the father of the household and red the mother. More carp are added for each child, with the smallest at the bottom for the youngest member of the family.

In fact carp are so revered that they even get their own special Children’s Day song!

“Higher than the roof-tops are the koinobori, 

The large carp is the father, 

The smaller carp are the children, 

They seem to be having fun swimming”.

Carp streamers blue sky mountainsCarp streamers with mountains in background: yeowatzup

Flower Power

By early May the cherry blossom in Japan has faded and the iris flowers (shobu) are beginning to bloom. In Japanese culture these purple blooms are believed to be lucky talismans with the power to calm raging fires and ward off evil spirits. As a way of ushering good fortune for their children into the home, families display iris flowers and sprinkle the leaves and roots into baths, known as syobuyu.

IrisIris by Takashi .M

Food for Thought

A holiday wouldn’t be a holiday in Japan without some special cuisine to mark the occasion, and this is a time for feasting on delicious treats!

Mochi is a rice sweet, chewy in texture with a red bean paste centre. It’s a popular type of Japanese sweet (wagashi) all year round but for Children’s Day it’s traditional for families to prepare kashiwa mochi wrapped in an oak leaf.  Leaves fall from the mighty oak tree as new buds emerge during the springtime and are said to symbolise strength, good luck and prosperity for the family.

If you fancy having a go at making your own children’s day sweets, Japan Centre have all sorts of recipes for you to try including kashiwa mochi, koi shaped biscuits, kabuto spring rolls and Hokkaido delicacy beko mochi rice cakes.


Time to Party!

If you’re lucky enough to be visiting Tokyo during Golden Week there’s a wealth of family-friendly fun available.

Why not visit the famous red and white Tokyo Tower, decorated in 333 colourful koinobori streamers to represent its 333 metres in height. Or head to the suburbs of Fuchu, where Okunitama shrine hosts its annual Golden Week festival (matsuri). Enjoy horseback archers dressed as samurai, traditional Japanese taiko drumming and parades of huge ornate floats known as omikoshi.  Wherever you are in Japan there’s bound to be some great entertainment to get involved in.

MikoshiChildren’s Day mikoshi: Patrick Vierthaler

If you’d like to celebrate Kodomo no hi with your own family then why not check out our Children’s Day fair at Japan Centre on Panton Street and whip up some tasty treats of your own or sample some delicious limited edition sweets and snacks!