The Golden Week Holiday of Children, Carp and Sweets
Today (May 5) is a famous National Holiday in Japan, now known as Children’s Day, or Kodomo no hi（こどもの日). It is the fourth of the collection of Holidays in Japan that make up Golden Week, which is usually a week-long series of Holidays where many Japanese have work off and travel in and out of Japan. Because of the timing of this year’s calendar, Golden Week has actually been broken up into two sets of Holidays around two successive weekend.
The roots of Kodomo no hi date back nearly 1,500 years and, until fairly recently, was a festival to celebrate boys. There is also a Girls Day, known as Hinamatsuri (雛祭り), which is celebrated on March 3, although it is not recognized as a National Holiday.
Until 1948, the festival was known as Tango no Sekku and was celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th moon in the old lunar calendar. After Japan switched to a Western calendar, the date was moved to May 5. In 1948, the government changed the name to Kodomo no hi and declared it a National Holiday to celebrate all children and give thanks to their mothers.
Of course, there are some primary traditions observed on kodomo no hi, most notably koinobori and kashiwa mochi.
Families with boys raise colorful flags of koinobori, carp-shaped flags, which symbolize boys growing and becoming strong. Typically the pole will contain one or two larger carp that can symbolize the father and mother. One carp streamer is added for each boy in the family. This ritual is based on an ancient Chinese legend of a carp that swims upstream and becomes a dragon. The carp is admired for it’s ability to fight upstream against strong currents, thus overcoming obstacles and gaining success. Some of the carp flags also have a rider, known as Kintaro, who was a legendary child figure in ancient lore who rode a bear instead of a horse and communicated with animals. Families will also set out warrior dolls with kabuto, a traditional helmet worn by samurai. Both kintaro and kabuto, symbolize strength and bravery.
People also celebrate with sweets, especially the traditional Kodomo no hi offering of kashiwa mochi. These are rice cakes (mochi) with sweet bean paste, wrapped in oak leaves (kashiwa). Another favorite of kids and adults on this day is chimaki, a sweet rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves.
Many people also take baths sprinkled with iris leaves (shobu) and roots to promote good health and ward off evil.
While a hundred or more countries around the world celebrate some form of Children’s Day, a celebration, very similar to Japan’s version, is also held in Korea on May 5, while other versions with similar themes are held in early June in China, Taiwan, and Vietnam.