May boys be brave!


Japan’s festival calendar is filled with vibrant traditional, cultural, and religious festivals throughout the whole year. Some of these festivals are season-specific and some are celebrated only in a specific region of the country. Among many of these festivals, two stand out as they are dedicated to celebrate children. One of them is the Hinamatsuri which is celebrated on 3 March and dedicated towards girls. The other – Tango no Sekku – the boys’ festival which is celebrated on 5 May. Since the celebrations include Iris leaves this festival is also called Sobu no Sekku and Ayame no Hi. It is also called Kodomo no Hi which means ‘Children’s Day’.

Tango no Sekku is one of the five festivals held at the ancient Japanese Imperial Court and hence, it is a festival with much cultural and traditional importance. It is held to bless the boys of Japanese families to be brave, courageous, lucky, and healthy. The origins of Tango no Sekku stem from China and in the olden days it was celebrated as an elite festival, only for the boys of warrior and Samurai families.

Dolls of Tango no Sekku

Just like Hinamatsuri, the celebrations of Tango no Sekku also involve dolls. These dolls are displayed on platforms and often involve dolls of ancient warrior heroes and Kintaro dolls. Apart from that, ancient soldier uniforms, war helmets, swords, spears, and flags bearing family emblems are also on display.

Who is Kintaro?

Kintaro is a character that is much-mentioned during celebrations of Tango no Sekku. He is a hero who comes in Japanese folklore. Living with his parents in the Kintoki Mountain, Kintaro was a strong and brave boy with a giant-like physique. He was so strong that he could uproot giant trees and lift huge boulders with ease. His best friends were the animals living in the mountain and Kintaro was able to communicate with them. It is said that he used to ride a bear when he wandered in the forest and that he used to carry a hatchet with him.

As Kintaro grew so did his reputation and was recognised by a popular Samurai called Minamoto no Yomitsu. The Samurai enrolled Kintaro in his army, from then on he was called Kintoki Sakata.

Today, Kintaro is celebrated as a child hero and Kintaro dolls are widely used in Tango no Sekku celebrations. The story of Kintaro is told to the young children by elders and the character is used as a role model for the young boys.

Koinobori flags

One of the common and vibrant sights of Tango no Sekku is the Koinobori flags waving in the blue sky. These flags aren’t flat and two-dimensional like normal flags but rather three-dimensional and take the form of carp fish. The inclusion of the carp fish in Tango no Sekku celebrations also come from China. There is an old Chinese folk story, the gist of which is how a group of carp fish manages to fly over a bridge built across a river called Koga and triumph. Since the story is about being courageous and brave to overcome adversities, the carp fish is also used in Tango no Sekku celebrations.

Flags made to look like carp fish are hung over the roofs of houses. These flags are usually made out of either silk-like fabric or paper. The topmost flag – the black one – represents father, the head of the house. The red flag symbolises the eldest son of the family, and small green and blue flags represent younger sons. If the family is expecting a baby that year or had a recent childbirth, another fag is added to the end of the flag line.

The boys of the family hang these flags over the roof of the house and then sing special songs dedicated to Tango no Sekku celebrations. English translation of one such common song goes like this;

Carp windsocks are above the roof

The biggest carp is the father,

The smaller carp are children,

They’re enjoying swimming in the sky

On this day, the Japanese boys dress themselves in traditional kimono and visit their friends’ houses to see their flags and doll displays. The visitors are served rice cakes called Koshiwamochi and a sweet made with red bean paste wrapped in oak leaves. The boys as well as the family members bathe in scented water made by adding Iris flowers to water. The Iris leaves are thin and long, looking like swords and hence, the plant is much-affiliated with Tango no Sekku which celebrates bravery and courage. 

In some parts of Japan, on Tango no Sekku day, kites looking like carp fish are tied in a line along river banks. When the wind blows it looks as if the fish are swimming in the river.      

(Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)

By Chandana Ranaweera