The history and meaning of Children’s Day in Japan

In Japan, Children’s Day – Kodomo no Hi – is held on May 5 and marks the final national holiday of the period known as Golden Week.

This is a series of national holidays that allows Japanese people to take the best part of a week off to travel, visit family, and spend money.

The purpose of Children’s Day is to “honour the character of children, emphasise their welfare and give thanks to mothers”. It is most famously signified by the Koi Nobori – carp streamers – which adorn houses, shopping streets and local parks.

These streamers celebrate the perseverance, vitality, and health of young Japanese boys. Because, despite the name, Children’s Day is usually considered as a festival of boys, the counterpart to the Dolls Festival (Hina Matsuri), held every year in March to celebrate the health and wellbeing of girls.

Children’s Day was established in 1948, as one of several national holidays formalised by Japan’s Public Holiday Law. However, it has a much longer history.

In 7th century Japan, the Tango no Sekku (Iris Festival) was established on the fifth day of the fifth month as one of the five festivals to mark the changing of the seasons.

From around the 11th century, the rural customs of hanging iris leaves (shobu) and another plant, yomogi, under the eaves of farmhouses, as well as eating rice cakes wrapped in oak leaves – both to ward off evil spirits and protect against fire and illness – became associated with Tango no Sekku.

From the Kamakura period (1192-1333), Tango no Sekku became increasingly important for powerful samurai families who began to adorn their houses not just with the traditional, sword shaped iris leaves, but also with armour and helmets. This tradition mirrored the presentation of replica suits of armour to local shrines in return for divine protection.

The Japanese characters for “martial spirit” (尚武) and iris leaves (菖蒲) are both pronounced shobu, making a connection between the iris leaves and valour, vitality and strength. As the political and military power of the samurai increased, the festival gradually came to be associated with the desire for a strong heir and continuing prosperity for the clan. ...continue reading