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Discover the origin of the May 5th holiday – Boys’ Day or Children’s Day

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Girls Festival, or Hinamatsuri, is celebrated in early spring on March 3. So you’d expect the Boys’ Festival to be in store as well. Not enough. It turns out that Tango-no Sekku, or Boys’ Festival, falls on the same day that we call Children’s Day, both of which are celebrated on May 5.

As confusing as it may seem, even most Japanese do not make a clear distinction between the two. In a word, Tango-no Sekku is a traditional event (tango is the first day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar) and Children’s Day is a national holiday.

Initially, Tango-no Sekku was a court ceremony to ward off disease and misfortune. It has endured since the time of Nara (710-794), as one of the Gosekkuor five seasonal holidays, and was an official holiday of the shogunate and remained a national holiday until 1872. But it gradually became a boys-only event as the iris used in the ceremony was pronounced shobu (respecting the warrior spirit), and the long, thin, pointed leaves of the iris look like swords. So, samurai families specially designated this day to pray for the safe growth of the boy who would be their heir.

Children’s Day was adopted after World War II. Its roots date back to 1925 when June 1 was established as International Children’s Day at the World Conference on Child Welfare in Geneva. After its institution in Japan in 1948, the National Holidays Act declared that the day would celebrate the growth of all children, not just boys. Then it evolved into a modern promotion of their happiness as well as giving thanks to mothers.

The two ideas merged, with May 5 being the designated day for the celebration. Perhaps because of the popularity of Tango-no Sekku and its longstanding traditions, many people still think of Children’s Day as a day for boys.

Kabuto helmet Photo: Kimtoru/photoAC

Before May 5, families with boys display a gogatsu ningyo (May doll), or yoroikabuto; yoroi (armor) and kabuto (helmet). They are believed to guard against disasters and wish for the strong, courageous and vigorous growth of boys. Much like the Girl’s Festival dolls, these displays can be simple or quite elaborate. “Star Wars” fans know they are the inspiration for Darth Vader’s mask.

Koinoborior carp streamers, are the most visible symbols of Tango without sekku. They are hung outside houses to wish the healthy growth of children. This custom began in the Edo period (1603-1867) when samurai warriors decorated the entrance to their residences with banners. Carp are symbols of courage and success, and are associated with a Chinese legend – the carp that successfully swam up the Yellow River and reached the Dragon Gate were reincarnated as dragons.

Traditionally, the largest black koinobori is magoi, symbolizing the father. Following, higoi, smaller in red or pink signifies the mother; kogoi, even smaller ones in blue, green, orange, or purple represent children in consecutive birth order. These five colors are auspicious in various festivals. Although the tradition is dying in urban areas, you can still see these streamers floating in rural areas, even across rivers. The ways to hoist carp banners vary by prefecture.

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Kashiwa mochi Photo: Choco Latte/photoAC

Kashiwa mochi is the most popular food for Children’s Day. Kashiwa (oak) add crunch and flavor to moist fluffy rice cake with bean paste inside. Kashiwa is linked to the prosperity of the offspring because its old leaves do not fall during the winter until new shoots come out.

Chimaki is also a treat for children’s parties. It is a sweet rice cake wrapped in bamboo leaves and steamed. This been a popular on-the-go meal for warriors during the Warring States period. Some families cook bamboo shoots mixed with rice. Bamboo shoots grow wildly and are full of vitality, making it a perfect food for the occasion, with the hope that the boys will grow up and be healthy.

Some people take shobu-yu (iris bath), in which irises, also used as medicinal herbs, are put in water to enjoy their fragrance on the night of the Tango without sekku. This is meant to ward off evil spirits and help children get through the hot summer healthy.

In conclusion, May 5 is not just a day to celebrate boys. It may not be fair, but although the so-called March 3 Girls’ Festival is not an official national holiday, Children’s Day is a holiday on the calendar.

Now that you know the origin of this day, it’s a good reason to take your children on vacation during Golden Week and pamper the mother who gave birth to them.

© Japan today