Children’s Day (こどもの日): All About this “Double Fifth” Holiday

With a history of almost 1300 years in Japan, we explore the origins of Children’s Day, its connections to China, and some of its most revered traditions.

Posted by on May 5, 2018 – Life in Japan
Children’s Day

Since 1948, the fifth day of the fifth month has been distinguished as Children’s Day (Kodomo no Hi, こどもの日) in Japan – a day to commemorate and commend the nation’s youngest. But despite this seemingly new inception, there is a more deep-seated history strongly connected to China…

When Did Children’s Day Start?

Kodomo no Hi can be traced back to before the Nara era, when Empress Suiko reigned over Japan during 593AD and 628AD. Although, at that point, the day was known as Tango no Sekku (端午の節句) and it was dedicated only to boys and fathers. It was only through the post-war constitution that the government expanded the meaning of the day to include girls and mothers, becoming Children’s Day. Due to its long running history, and the fact that there is also a Girls’ Day, elements of the original holiday are still relevant today.

What Does “Tango no Sekku” Mean?

The literal meaning of Tango no Sekku becomes obvious with a little insight into Chinese zodiacs and the Lunar Calendar. Firstly, “tan” (端) means beginning, “go” (午) means horse and “sekku” (節句) means seasonal festival. Putting these together, roughly translates to “the start of the horse seasonal festival”, which looks quite like gibberish at first glance. However, once we know that the horse corresponds to the Chinese zodiac name of the fifth Lunar Calendar month, the meaning becomes clear – the start of the fifth month’s festival. That being said, the rituals linked to Tango no Sekku could not be glimpsed from its
literal definition, because the day was commonly regarded as the “Boys’ Day Festival”.

The Significance of the Number 5

So far, we have been looking at Kodomo no Hi slightly out of context, making the number five appear symbolic. In reality, Tango no Sekku formed part of the Gosekku (五節句) – five annual ceremonies that were traditionally held at the Japanese imperial court.

These were:

  • Double First (1st January): O-shogatsu (お正月), Japanese New Year
  • Double Third (3rd March): Hanamatsuri (花祭り), Girls’ Day
  • Double Fifth (5th May): Tango no Sekku (端午の節句), Boys’ Day
  • Double Seventh (7th July): Tanabata (七夕), Star Festival
  • Double Ninth (9th September): Kiku Matsuri (菊祭り), Chrysanthemum Festival

Household Kodomo no Hi Traditions

Perhaps the most visible proclamations of Children’s Day are the elegant flying koinobori (carp-shaped wind socks) that adorn household roofs throughout Japan. These streamers originate from the Chinese legend which claimed that the perseverance and strength of an upstream swimming carp will transform it into a dragon.

Unlike the fire-breathing, power-hungry, destructive dragons of the West though, most Japanese dragons are believed to be benevolent water deities. Each koinobori flying represents a different member of the family, with black signifying the father, red the mother and various colours for the children (traditionally boys). Children’s Day may only be once per year, but you will usually see these beautiful koinobori swimming in the wind for several weeks. Inside the house, families celebrating Children’s Day also make kashiwa mochi rice cakes and display samurai armour – expressing a wish for strong and healthy boys.

Activities for Celebrating Children’s Day

  1. Create your own Koinobori.
  2. Head out of the city and fly a kite at one of family-friendly parks
  3. Create origami helmets.
  4. Make your own kashiwa-mochi.
  5. Sing the Koinobori song!:

やねより たかい こいのぼり
おおきい まごいは おとうさん
ちいさい ひごいは こどもたち
おもしろそうに およいでる

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

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