Carp Streamers on Children’s Day

Children’s Day in Japan

The 5th of May, the last day of Golden Week, is known as Children’s day – Kodomo no Hi (子供の日) in Japan. It’s a day adorned with smiles, carp streamers, and paper samurai hats.

Kodomo No Hi – Children’s Day in a Nutshell

Fish-shaped streamers (windsocks) flowing in the wind, kids playing with origami samurai hats, purple irises growing and displayed – Children’s day, kodomo no hi, is recognizable from the first glance.

From 29th of April to 5th of May, Japan celebrates a string of public holidays known as Golden Week. Most take a break from school and work, and many take the opportunity to travel.
The last of the Golden Week holidays is known as Children’s day, and it’s a celebration of childhood and vitality.

Stemming from an ancient agricultural holiday, kodomo no hi has changed forms a few times through its long history. Nowadays, it’s the time to display symbols of strength and pray for the health of children. People celebrate youth and express wishes for their children to grow up strong and brave.

Origami carp and Samurai hat

It All Begins with Kintaro

In the 10th century, there was a brave warrior, a samurai’s aide named Sakata Kintoki. His exploits became the stuff of legend, and the story quickly warped to give birth to a legendary boy of superhuman strength, known as Golden Boy – Kintaro (金太郎).

It’s said that Kintaro was raised in the wilderness by a mountain witch. Depicted as a wild, hairy, naked or barely dressed boy, Kintaro carries a hatchet. He is friends with animals and is famous for organizing friendly wrestling matches between animals – he has even won a wrestling fight against a bear once. You can often see Kintaro battling a huge black carp, an incredibly powerful creature according to East-Asian mythology.

This good-spirited, rosy-cheeked boy is celebrated as a symbol of immense strength, courage, and perseverance, and as such, became the role model for many boys in Japan.

 

Kintaro doll
Kintaro Golden Boy with his trusty axe.

 

From Boy’s Day to Children’s Day

Kintaro was and still is an ideal that boys across Japan strive to be like. He’s historically linked to this holiday that was once dedicated to boys.

Originally, Children’s day comes from a holiday called Tango no sekku (端午の節句), celebrated by the Japanese court on the 5th day of the 5th month. The Girls’ day, Hinamatsuri, is part of the same holiday cycle, celebrated on the 3rd day of the 3rd month. New Years, Oshogatsu, celebrated on the 1st of the 1st month, belongs in this group too.
Even before it was designated Boy’s day, a holiday was celebrated on this day. It involved hanging mugwort flowers and ayame, Japanese irises, to ward off evil spirits. Irises still sometimes appear in Children’s day celebrations.

Since Girls’ day is not a national holiday, the government changed Boy’s day to become Children’s day – a day for all children, in 1948. Since then, boys and girls alike take a day off to celebrate, and a carp streamer is hanged for all children in the house, not only the boys.

 

Kintaro and his bear friend in front of kashiwa mochi
Kintaro and his bear friend in front of kashiwa mochi

 

The Symbols of Children’s Day in Japan

Carp Floaters – Koi-nobori

Colorful fish-shaped streamers (windsocks, floaters) hang all around the streets of Japan on this day. They’re called koi-nobori (鯉のぼり).

The fish is a Japanese symbol, carp (koi), known for its tenacity and strength.

Carp, like salmon, is known to swim upstream and jump up obstacles in water in an impressive aerial show.

There’s even a famous Chinese myth of a school of carps trying to jump up a waterfall – with immense tenacity, one finally makes it up, and gets turned into a dragon. Thanks to stories like this, carps became symbols of perseverance, strength, and success in Japan.

Usually, each family with kids will put up their own koi-nobori, each fish representing one member of the family. The largest is usually black and represents the father. Red is smaller, and represents the mother. Blue, green, yellow, purple, and other color streamers are small and they represent the children of the family, usually ordered by age.

They’re a spectacular sight that makes streets explode with color, but it’s also amazing to see hundreds of carps floating above rivers.

Koinbori - carp streamers floating over a river

Samurai Helmets – Kabuto

In the times of the samurai, the holiday Tango no sekku became a day that ensures the protection of samurai boys. People started displaying samurai weapons and armor in their homes, as symbols of strength and courage.

As the custom spread, it also changed.

Over time, people started displaying only some parts of samurai armor (usually kabuto, the helmet), armor miniatures, or little samurai dolls to celebrate the holiday.
When people of all classes started celebrating the holiday, they didn’t have access to real samurai armor – so they started displaying origami samurai helmets, made of paper.

A colorful samurai helmet
A kabuto samurai helmet adorned for Children’s Day

Kintaro dolls

Little ornamental dolls, representing Kintaro and the samurai, became a big part of Boy’s day (and later Children’s day) celebrations in the Edo period of Japanese history.

The famous strong-boy is a beloved figure that Japanese boys look up to. Kintaro is often depicted wrestling a large black carp, or hanging out with his friend the bear (the same one he bested in a wrestling match).

 

Kintaro seizing a trout
Kintaro wrestles a black koi.

 

Foods and Snacks for Children’s Day

It’s no holiday if there’s no tasty food to make the celebrations sweeter!

Kashiwa Mochi

Kashiwa mochi (柏餅) is a famous Children’s day food. It’s Japanese chewy rice cake, mochi, filled with red bean paste, and wrapped in an oak leaf.
Unlike cherry leaf treats, the oaken leaves are non-edible. Instead, the Kashiwa leaf is a symbol of a successful lineage.

Chimaki

Chimaki (粽) is an ancient recipe: mochi wrapped in bamboo leaf.
This type of leaf, growing locally in many parts of Japan, has an anti-bacterial effect and the ability to keep the mochi inside of it fresh. On top of that, it infuses a unique, refreshing aroma into the cake.

Kashiwa mochi, chimaki, origami samurai helmets, and the historic ayame – Japanese iris flower, are all symbols of Children’s day in Japan

Chimaki and Kashiwamochi in a basket
A Golden Day for All Children

As Children’s Day in Japan approaches each year, the nation anticipates a vibrant celebration of youth and vitality.

May 5th marks the culmination of Golden Week. It’s the time when families across the country come together to honor the well-being and happiness of children. With lively displays of carp streamers, paper samurai helmets, and dolls depicting the samurai or the legendary Kintaro, the festivities evoke a sense of resilience and hope for the future.

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