Kodomo no Hi: Children’s Day in Japan
Bhe carp streamers are flying, which means we’re ready to celebrate National Children’s Day! It also means we’re at the end of Japan’s Golden Week, one of the busiest holiday and travel seasons of the year, right up there with New Year’s.
Kodomo no Hi, or Children’s Day, stands out from all the other holidays as one of Japan’s oldest traditions. But it wasn’t always celebrated the way it is today. Let’s take a closer look at how Japan celebrates Kodomo no Hi!
What Is Children’s Day?
Children’s Day is celebrated in Japan each year on May 5 as part of Golden Week. Fun fact: Golden Week is a single week that celebrates four of Japan’s fifteen national holidays. Of those holidays, Kodomo no Hi is the oldest.
Children’s Day celebrates the health, growth, and happiness of children. It also encourages them to show their individual strengths. Japan marks the occasion with festivals, special foods, and other activities for kids to have fun.
Children’s Day uses symbolic decorations and customs to commemorate this important occasion. Families with children hang colorful carp streamers in and around their homes. People also display a gogatsu ningyo, or a warrior doll wearing armor and a helmet. This outfit is called yoroikabuto, and the helmet looks a lot like a stag beetle.
When Did It Start?
Children’s Day goes back as far as Japan’s Nara and Heian eras. It started with Chinese unlucky days that the Japanese took and gave their own positive spin.
Children’s Day began as Tango no Sekku, and some people still call it that. The old Tango no Sekku was a more serious and spiritual occasion. On this day, young women stayed in huts with roofs made of iris and mugwort, drinking medicinal liquor the night before planting rice at the beginning of May.
That rice would provide food for an entire village for the whole year. An unsuccessful harvest meant the village couldn’t survive. Tango no Sekku was meant to bring luck and health to the crops and the village until next season.
The closest thing to modern Japanese Children’s Day traditions goes back to the samurai era. That’s when the tradition flipped to honor boys instead. The switch comes from the Japanese word “shobu,” which means both victory and iris. At this point, people began to celebrate boys’ growth and the name of the day changed to Boys’ Day. This is also where the carp streamers and samurai decorations came from.
The carp has its own story, too. According to legend, the carp swam upstream, persevering even after all the other fish quit swimming. At the end of their journey, they entered Ryumon, or dragon gate, and became powerful dragons.
Carp streamers on Kodomo no Hi symbolize a wish for children to grow up healthy and strong. Today, a large black carp represents the father, and the red carp stands for the mother. The other carp colors represent the family’s children.
During the Meiji period, Japan stopped celebrating Boys’ Day altogether. It wasn’t revived until 1948, when they made it a little more inclusive. It became Children’s Day, though some people still call it Boys’ Day. After all, Girls’ Day is celebrated earlier, in March. Still, Children’s Day is a day to celebrate all children and pray for their health and success as they get older.
Children’s Day Traditions and Celebrations
We already talked about carp streamers and yoroikabuto, but Children’s Day involves even more activities centered around kids. Along with decorations and symbols, this Japanese holiday features some tasty treats.
The main staple of Kodomo no Hi is the rice cake, but it comes in a few different forms. Lots of people eat chimaki, rice cakes made with steamed sticky rice. Mochigome are a lot like chimaki, but they get wrapped in bamboo leaves, too. Kashiwamochi are soft rice cakes filled with red bean paste and wrapped in oak leaves.
Some places put on kyogen theater performances, too. Kyogen is a type of comical theater, and since this day is meant to celebrate kids, the plays are sometimes performed by kids to highlight their artistic and theatrical talents.
In other words, Children’s Day makes the perfect end to Golden Week. Happy Kodomo no Hi from Keshoume! How are you celebrating the kids in your life today?
Sarah Wood - May 5, 2021
Nishino, Jasmine. “Tango no Sekku (Children’s Day)—Japanese Encyclopedia.” Matcha. https://matcha-jp.com/en/2719. Accessed 29 April 2021.
Faithy Perez, Ai. “Kodomo no Hi: A Guide to Children’s Day in Japan.” Savvy Tokyo. https://savvytokyo.com/kodomo-no-hi-guide-childrens-day-japan/. Accessed 29 April 2021.
Wallin, Lisa. “Japanese Holidays: What is Kodomo no Hi (Children’s Day)?” Tokyo Weekender. https://www.tokyoweekender.com/2020/05/kodomo-no-hi-childrens-day/. Accessed 29 April 2021.