Japan has a stretch of national holidays in late April/early May called “Golden Week” which includes Kodomo no Hi (Children’s Day) on May 5th. Although the holiday is now meant to celebrate the health and happiness of all children, it was originally Boys’ Day, while Hina Matsuri in March is for girls. But despite the more inclusive rebranding, most of the traditions are still focused more on boys. Here are a few:
Many families display a kabuto (ancient or samurai-era helmet) with the wish that their son will grow to be strong and healthy. These kabuto range in size and style but are typically expensive, and usually come with other armaments like a sword and a bow and arrow. They can be customized with additional decorations, such as a plaques with the family kamon (crest), the child’s name and birthdate, or sometimes with the name of the samurai whose armor the kabuto is modeled after.
For example, the name plaque with our son’s kabuto set is a music box that plays the “Koinobori” song and is in the style of Date Masamune – black with a crescent moon ornament – though it’s not an exact replica. Date is famous for being an ambitious and effective leader, a great military strategist, as well as funding a diplomatic expedition to Europe and North America. Families may choose a famous samurai’s kabuto in the hopes that their child will emulate some of that warrior’s well-known characteristics or sometimes just because they like the way it looks.
In addition to, or instead of, a kabuto families may also display gogatsu ningyo (May dolls) usually depicting a samurai or a character from folklore such as Kintaro or Momotaro. These dolls also represent strength and courage, especially in childhood.
Koinobori (carp streamers) are also displayed in the lead up to Kodomo no Hi. Traditionally the flags represent the father, mother and each son, but some families now chose to fly a banner for all children in the family. Koi are cultural symbols of strength and determination, able to swim upstream and overcome challenges. There may also be influence from a Chinese legend in which a carp swims upstream and becomes a dragon. As koinobori catch the wind they look like they are swimming, but personally I love them for the splash of color – they’re my favorite decoration this time of year.
Last, but never least, are the food-based traditions. On Kodomo no Hi, people typically enjoy sweets such as kashiwa mochi (sweet rice cakes in oak leaves) or chimaki (sweet or savory rice wrapped in bamboo leaves). In our house, a roll cake decorated to look like koinobori is the festive treat preferred by our son.
What are your favorite ways to celebrate Kodomo no Hi?