May 5th is Children's Day, or Kodomo no Hi (子供の日), and was originally known as Tango no sekku (端午の節句). It became a national holiday in 1948, but it has been a day of celebration in Japan since ancient times. Tango no Sekku was historically set as a festival for boys on the 5th day of the 5th month. Girls have their own festival, called Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival), held on March 3rd, which was similarly celebrated at JACCC. Like Girls’ Day, the Kodomo no Hi festival is well known for its own unique traditions and decorations that are specifically associated with the celebration of the holiday.
On Children's Day, families with boys fly huge carp-shaped streamers (koinobori) outside the house; the carp symbolizes strength and success. Many households with sons display helmets and armours worn by famous warriors and other heroes inside their homes. All over Japan, massive koinobori are also hung and displayed on poles outside of public buildings in commemoration of Children’s Day.
In recent years, as more people have moved into apartments and smaller houses, the carp streamers have also gotten smaller, and there are now miniature versions that are decorated indoors. Koinobori symbolizes the desire for children to become brave and strong individuals.
Iris flowers, which correspondingly bloom in early May, are symbolically placed in homes to ward off evil**. In addition, it is *customary to take baths known as syobuyu, which are filled with floating iris leaves*. **Rice cakes wrapped in oak leaves and filled with sweet bean paste, called kashiwamochi, are also eaten.
According to an ancient Chinese legend, a mixed school of fish tried to fight their way up a waterfall called “ryumon” (龍門), or Dragon Gate. While all the other fish gave up and drifted downstream, the carps persisted, and once inside Dragon Gate, they transformed into dragons. While there are different versions of this age-old tale, the Japanese version ripened into a proverb—”koi no taki-nobori,” 鯉の滝登り, or koi (carps) fighting upstream on the waterfall. It was shortened to the current koinobori, the modern name for the famous carp flags.
The black carp, which is the largest of the koinobori flags, represents the father and is known as the “magoi,” 真鯉. The red carp represents the mother (“higoi,” 緋鯉), and the last carp (often blue) represents the child (traditionally, the son) with an additional carp added for each younger sibling.
It is said that the kabuto was the inspiration behind Darth Vader’s helmet.
The warrior's helmet is pronounced “kabuto;” and the Japanese stag beetle is also called “kabuto.” It is a mnemonic(play on words), but the helmet “kabuto” has an eerie likeness to the beetle’s head.
Families celebrating Kodomo no Hi will also decorate their homes with samurai armor and helmet miniatures, representing their wishes to raise strong and powerful boys. The armor (“yoroi,” 鎧) and helmet (“kabuto,” 兜) form the word “yoroikabuto,” which you will hear often around this time of the year.
The samurai dolls often represent traditional folktale characters such as Kintaro and Momotaro, who symbolize courage and strength.
Traditionally in Japan, there are special foods that go with every holiday or occasion, and Children’s Day is no exception. Japanese people cook chimaki (粽) for this holiday—a rice cake made out of steamed sticky rice, or mochigome (餅米), wrapped in a bamboo leaf—and kashiwamochi (柏餅), a sweet Japanese treat that is wrapped in oak leaf.
Chimaki is made of steamed sticky rice wrapped artistically in bamboo leaves and secured with twine. Others use different kinds of leaves to improve chimaki’s aroma. The wrapping style and shape differs depending on which region the chimaki is prepared.
There are two types of chimaki. First is the sweet chimaki made with a gelatin called yokan. The second is the savory chimaki with meat and vegetables.
The savory chimaki dessert is usually available all year round, and the sweet chimaki comes into demand as Children’s day approaches.
Botamochi is a sweet rice ball wrapped with tsubuan(red bean paste) or dusted with kinako (soy bean flour) or kurogoma (black sesame seeds).
These sweets are called botamochi during the spring (vernal equinox) and they are also more commonly known as ohagi, which are offered during the autumnal equinox, but available year-round.
Kashiwamochi is a sweet Japanese treat filled with red bean that is wrapped in oak leaf. Although the leaves are not edible, they provide these tender cakes with an unique earthy flavor.
Discover Nikkei/JANM, together with JACCC, compiled photos to share our global Nikkei community’s Kodomo no Hi traditions. We want to show your family’s koinobori, special foods, and other traditional (or non-traditional) decorations and celebrations. See the gallery below for how the community is finding ways to celebrate this year despite the pandemic.