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Things to Know about Japan’s Children’s Day Celebration in May

From among the many annual traditional events in Japan, this time, we introduce Tango no Sekku, also known as children's day, which is held in May. Let's find out what it's all about.

What is Tango no Sekku

Tango no Sekku is a traditional event held every year on May 5 to celebrate the healthy growth of boys. It has its roots in a calendar event to ward off ill will that changed over the years into a Japanese tradition. Japanese iris (shobu), which was considered to be a medicinal herb that wards off ill will and purifies evil spirits, were traditionally hung on the eaves. Because the Japanese word for the iris has the same pronunciation as the word for warlike spirit (shobu) that signifies respect for warriors, it gradually transformed into a festival to celebrate the birth and growth of boys who would take over the family line.

May 5th Is Children's Day

In addition to being Tango no Sekku, May 5 is a national holiday that was designated in 1948 as Children's Day. It is considered to be a day for "respecting the individuality of children and striving for children's happiness while also appreciating mothers" and is celebrated through a variety of events and festivals across the country that parents and children can enjoy together.

Japanese Iris

As mentioned earlier, Japanese iris is indispensable to Tango no Sekku. It has long been valued for its strong scent that was believed to ward off ill will. Japanese iris is used in a variety of ways for Tango no Sekku to pray for sound health, such as displaying them on the eave of a house and enjoying shobu-yu baths with iris leaves. Shobu-yu is offered at some public baths during this time.

Koi-nobori

There is a variety of decorations for Tango no Sekku, both in and outside of the house. Koi-nobori (koi banners) is probably the most famous outdoor decoration and is based on koi (carp) which, in Chinese legend, is said to turn into a dragon and ascend into the heavens. Koi are considered not only to be full of life, but also to be brave because they do not move when placed on a cutting board. As such, they were chosen as an apt symbol to wish for a boy's success in life. There are many koi-nobori swimming in the sky in people's gardens and tourist spots in May. They come in a variety of sizes and designs, so you can enjoy seeing all the different ones.

Tetsu-kabuto and Gogatsu Ningyo

Major decorations inside the house include tetsu-kabuto (steel helmet) and gogatsu ningyo dolls. The gogatsu ningyo come in a variety of designs such as those wearing armor and helmets and those in the form of heros in traditional fairy tales. Both tetsu-kabuto and gogatsu ningyo represent a desire for boys to grow up safely into strong, robust and wise adults and usually have a byobu (folding screen) or military curtain in the back, and tools such as bows and swords around them. Although the dolls have generally become smaller due to the size of people's houses, there are still some homes and public buildings that have large, impressive decorations.

Sweets Eaten at Tango no Sekku

Sweets typical of Tango no Sekku include chimaki and kashiwa mochi. Although it was traditionally common to eat kashiwa mochi in the Kanto Region and chimaki in the Kansai Region, the differences are disappearing. Both appear in Japanese sweets store shortly before May.

Chimaki

Chimaki is a type of mochi sweet. The shape and size depends on the region, but they are commonly made by adding sugar to kneaded mochi rice, wrapping them in a triangular shape with leaves such as bamboo grass and steaming them. They are distinguished by a fine sweetness. It is said that eating chimaki is based on a traditional Chinese "custom for avoiding misfortune" that was passed to Japan.

Kashiwa Mochi

This is also a type of mochi sweet and is made by wrapping kneaded rice flour filled with azuki sweet bean paste in an oak leaf and steaming. Although oak leaves dry up in the fall, they do not fall off the branches until new leaves start to grow in the spring. Therefore, they are considered to be a good omen that represents the continuation of the family line.

If you are in Japan in May, you may be able to experience Tango no Sekku firsthand, be it seeing the koi-nobori or eating kashiwa mochi. Hopefully, there will be an opportunity to see this Japanese tradition.

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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