May 5th is Children’s Day in Japan. Also known as Boy’s Day, families eat special rice cakes and fly “koi nobori” but few people know the origins of these traditions. In this article, we will explain the origins of Children’s Day and how to celebrate the holiday.
Currently May 5th is known as “Children’s Day” but historically the holiday was called “Boy’s Day”. The holiday was brought to Japan from China as a holiday to drive away evil spirits. According to the old calendar, the middle of May is the middle of June when referring to today’s calendar. Historically, at this time of year, the weather was getting warmer and many people got sick. As a result, families put up flags to scare the bad spirits away and drank sake. These traditions were brought to Japan and from the Heian period and people displayed Kabuto and dolls and the holiday became an Imperial event.
From the Kamakura Period, Japan entered the age of the Samurai with militarism and flags and as a result they began using the holiday to celebrate boy’s growth and success. This is why many families with boys put out the dolls in May.
In China, there is the saying, “The carp that climbed the Ryumon Waterfall turned into a dragon” and this became the origin of the gate that appears on Boy’s Day. In the Samurai period, when a boy was born they celebrated by raising a flag but from the middle of the Edo period taking into consideration the story about the carp families began raising a carp flag in honor of their sons. In Japan the flying carp (koi nobori) is the main image for Boy’s Day but in China the image is still protecting boys from evil spirits.
Although “Boy’s Day” is still celebrated by praying for boy’s health and growth, on the Japanese calendar the holiday is currently written as “Children’s Day” instead of “Boy’s Day”. After the war, the Japanese government thought about adding “Children’s Day” as a new holiday to the calendar. At that time, the options of March 3rd and April 1st were brought up, however, since the most popular opinion in government was May 5th, in 1948 the May 5th was declared as “Children’s Day” across the country.
Since Children’s Day is held on the same day as Boy’s Day many families celebrate their sons on this day. Families who have a son raise a carp flag (koi nobori) and set up their May dolls. Also to celebrate children’s health and growth they eat special rice cakes (chimaya kashiwamochi) and special fish like “suzuki” or “buri”.
Eating chimaki is believed to chase away the evil spirts and kashiwamochi is believed to lead to the prosperity of descendants.
The holiday has always been about praying for children’s health and growth but the celebratory activities have continued to change along with the changes in our society. During war years and the Edo period when there were still Samurai in Japan, families taught their boys how to fight and instill the Samurai spirit. This was considered early education during these historical periods. In recent years, our society has become more global and there is a greater need for children to learn English. More and more families are encouraging their children to learn English from a young age. It is important that parents pay attention to the new trends in society and make sure their children are prepared for what is to come.