Children’s Day (or Kodomo no hi), is the final day of Japan’s Golden Week celebration and 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, but 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.
Japan’s courageous and noble samurai warriors play a significant part in Children’s Day. Samurai dolls, their armour (gogatsu-ningyo) and military helmets (kabuto) are often displayed within the home, as a symbolic gesture to bring bravery and strength to children.
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 making their own paper kabuto helmets.
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, alongside a koi carp, Kintarō appeals to children’s sense of adventure. Honoured in doll form, it’s hoped that he will inspire children with his kindness and bravery.
Colourful carp shaped streamers (koinobori) are flown all over Japan during spring. Koi carp are believed to be strong fish who battle upstream, and symbolise the wish for children to grow up with strength of character.
Families display a streamer with their family crest at the top, followed by a series of brightly coloured fish in descending size to represent each member of the family. 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”.
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.
A holiday wouldn’t be a holiday in Japan without some special food 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 popular 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 snacks try some of Japan Centre’s fun recipes. We have step-by-step, easy to follow guides which will help you prepare your own kashiwa mochi, koi shaped biscuits, kabuto spring rolls and beko mochi rice cakes – a delicacy in Hokkaido.
Time to Party!
Children’s day festivities take place all over Japan during Golden Week. If you get the chance to visit Tokyo in the future, you’ll find a wealth of family-friendly fun! 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 (omikoshi).
If you’d like to celebrate Kodomo no Hi with your own family then why not whip up some tasty treats using our recipe guides, or pick up some delicious Japanese sweets and snacks either in-store or online.
Samurai dolls: Toshiyuki IMAI
Kintaro riding koi carp: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Carp streamers: lasta29
Iris by Takashi .M
Children’s Day mikoshi: Patrick Vierthaler