Thursday, May 4, 2017

TANGO NO SEKKU: A Closer Look at Children's Day

Officially, May 5th is a designated national holiday called "Children's Day" (こどもの日 Kodomo no Hi), established in 1948 by the Japanese government. The day is supposed to celebrate the health and happiness of all children, but the official national holiday of "Children's Day," masks a separate, unofficial holiday called Tango no Sekku (端午の節句). This observance, also known as "The Feast of Banners," which traditionally happens on the 5th day of the 5th Chinese lunar month, is a day which celebrates boys born in a family, girls having their own festival called Hina Matsuri (ひな祭り) held on the third day of the 3rd Chinese lunar month.

Boys Day vs Girls Day
These days enshrine traditional idealism. The Doll Festival meant for girls (see my post on Girls Day here) is a day when families traditionally pray for girls that they may develop the virtues expected in a “good” Japanese woman, namely respect for one’s parents, chastity and marriageability. In contrast, Boys Day is a day when families traditionally pray that boys develop good "manly" qualities, namely bravery, strength, a martial spirit and fatherhood.

Boys Day celebrated all the males in a family, including fathers. It is my thinking that this one thing, the recognition of the patriarch of a family, was possibly the reason that lead to the government creating the official holiday of "Children's Day," where "all children are celebrated," and gratitude is expressed not only towards fathers, but towards mothers as well. It could also be that after World War II, the Japanese government no longer wanted a holiday which promoted a "martial spirit" in its male citizens. However, while the official holiday is "Children's Day," celebrating the health and happiness of all children, and encouraging children to express gratitude to both their parents, Boys Day celebrations continue to be observed, albeit unofficially.

Boys Day Observations
Quite possible the best-known Boys Day observation is the hoisting of large, carp-shaped windsocks called "Koi Nobori" (鯉のぼり) which seem to swim through the air. Together with long red and white ribbons, the carp are hoisted on a bamboo pole, mounted by a pair of gilded pinwheels, high above rooftops. A carp is flown for each son in the family, a very large one for the eldest, the others ranging down in size. is a festival to pray for the health and courage of boys.

The carp has become the symbol of the Boys Festival for many reasons. For one, it is Chinese legend that a carp that swims upstream becomes a dragon. Furthermore, the Japanese consider it the most spirited of fish, so full of energy and power that it can fight its way up swift-running streams and cascades. Because of its strength and determination to overcome all obstacles, it stands for courage and the ability to attain high goals. The carp is considered an appropriate symbol of manliness and the overcoming of life's difficulties leading to consequent success.

In addition to flying carp streamers, families often arrange a display of traditional symbols of strength and masculinity in Japanese culture. The decorations on display may include a traditional Japanese samurai helmet, or "kabuto" (兜), a suit of armor, a sword, a bow-and-arrow, silk banners bearing the family crest, and/or dolls of fictional characters in Japanese stories for boys, such as Kintaro (金太郎) and Momotaro (桃太郎).

A typical Boys Day display, note the bow-and-arrow on the left,
the helmet in the middle, and the sword on the right.

 Kintaro doll, complete with kabuto helmet

And an Anpan Man doll with a kabuto riding a koi nobori,
because why not? :-D

For Boys Day, chimaki (粽), which are sweet rice dumplings wrapped in iris or bamboo leaves, and kashiwa-mochi (柏餅), which are rice cakes containing sweet bean paste wrapped in oak (柏, kashiwa) leaves, are traditionally served.

 Chimaki. Hey! These things look like tamales!

 Kashiwa mochi. If there's a Japanese holiday,
there's probably a mochi for it.

Shobu - The Flower of Boys Day

Originally, the observation of this day was based on the Chinese lunar calendar, and it coincided with the blooming of Shobu, or Iris, which is why this holiday was also known as the “Iris Festival” (菖蒲の節句, shobu no sekku).

 The iris flower was significant enough to warrant
its own suit in the Japanese hanafuda card game

Shobu (菖蒲), the Japanese iris with a long narrow leaf which is somewhat sword-like in shape, has always been closely associated with Boys Day. The iris leaf is prominent in the observance of Tango-no-Sekku because the sound of the word shobu is homophonous with a word written with different characters (勝負), which means "strife," "struggle," "fight," "match," etc.

 Iris leaves floating in a public bath in Japan

On May 5th, the Japanese steep the leaves in hot water and enjoy a hot fragrant iris bath (菖蒲湯, shobu-yu) because of the traditional belief that the iris bath is a miraculous prophylactic against all kinds of sickness. Many public bath houses, particularly in the districts where the people are less affected by western influence and are accustomed to taking hot baths in the morning, open their doors early in the morning on May 4th and 5th. Finely chopped iris leaves are mixed with sake to produce shobu-sake (勝負酒) especially enjoyed by the Samurai of old. In ancient times, iris leaves were also believed to have the mysterious power of extinguishing fire and for this reason, in rural areas today, people still observe the custom of putting iris leaves on the eaves of their houses on May 5th, as a talisman against the possible outbreak of a fire or presence of evil spirits.

A song for Boys Day
The following song is traditionally sung for boys day. It can be heard in many department stores, especially in stores selling dolls and decorations for boys day.

屋根より高い 鯉のぼり
大きい真鯉は お父さん
小さい緋鯉は 子ども達
面白そうに 泳いでる

yane yori takai koi nobori
ookii magoi wa otousan
chiisai higoi wa kodomotachi
omoshirosou ni oyoideru

Higher than the roof fly the koi nobori
The great big black koi is father
The smaller colored koi are all children
They seem to have fun swimming through the air

You can hear the song below.

Related Post:
Hina Matsuri: Japanese Doll Festival - AKA "Girls Day"