Children’s Day, May 5, was formerly known as Boy’s Festival (Tango no Sekku), however, the name was changed to create a more inclusive holiday. Children’s Day focuses both on the importance of happy, healthy children and the gratitude children feel toward their parents.
Despite the name change, the holiday remains largely geared toward celebrating the health and future success of Japanese boys, and Boy’s Festival remains a key focus of the day. Koi-Nobori, or carp streamers, are hung, a symbol of strength against odds, and samurai dolls are displayed as part of the Children’s Day festivities. One koi-nobori, interestingly, is hung for each male child in the family, with the largest streamer being allotted to the oldest child and stepping down in size for subsequent boys.
The origin of the Boy’s Festival is uncertain. Some scholars trace it to an ancient Chinese custom called sechie, featuring ceremonial helmets by palace guards, that was popular during the reign of Empress Regnant Suiko (593-629 A.D.). Others believe the Festival originated from the May custom of using banners to scare insects during the growing months. Over time, these banners became more grotesque before taking a turn to become heroic figures that were displayed indoors as symbols of manliness.
Still others trace the holiday to Tokimune Hojo’s defeat of the Mongols on May 2, 1282. Finally, others believe the Festival is linked to the unification of Japan by Ashikaga Shogun. What all of these possible origins of the holiday have in common is the emphasis on strength and manliness, and the decorations used in Japanese homes reflects elements of each potential start of the holiday.
Items displayed during Boy’s Festival include a miniature helmet, armor, a sword, a bow and arrow, silk banners with the family crest, and warrior dolls (musha-ningyo) representing Kintaro, a famous general, Shoki, an ancient Chinese general who protected people from demons, and Momotaro, who can best be described as the Japanese version of David.
In addition to traditional treats like Chimaki (sweet rice dumplings wrapped in iris or bamboo leaves) and Kashiwa-Mochi (rice cakes containing sweet bean paste wrapped in oak leaves), leaves of the Japanese iris (shobu), prized for their resemblance to a sword, are steeped in hot water for bathing (the iris is believed to protect against illness) and mixed with sake to create shobu-sake, an ancient samurai beverage.
The Girl’s Festival (Hina Matsuri or Doll Festival) is celebrated on March 3.