Wishing Boys Health, Courage and Prosperity
By Chandana Ranaweera
Japan is not just a country that is well-developed and reaching new heights of technological advancements every day. Many might recognise Japan for its cars, electronics, and robotics but apart from the material development, the country does possess a unique traditional and cultural heritage that dates many centuries back.
Amidst all the modernity, the Japanese take time to honour their culture and heritage, and take pride in celebrating age-old festivals and performing unique cultural practices that have been passed down through generations. Lots of Japan’s festivals and celebrations revolve around the seasonal changes the country experiences every year. The friendliest and most welcoming season of them all – the spring – is the time when Japan holds most of their festivals which are a unique element of their heritage. One such age-old traditional festival is celebrated today in Japan and this one, focuses and celebrates young boys of Japan.
What is Tango no Sekku?
Every year on 5 May, Japan celebrates Tango no Sekku which is ‘Boys’ Day’. It was one of the five annual ceremonies held at the imperial court and was celebrated in the fifth day of the fifth moon in the Chinese calendar. After Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar, the day was set on 5 May. The day was dedicated to celebrating and recognising boys and fathers and was considered the counterpart of Hinamatsuri or the Girls’ Day which is celebrated on 3 March every year.
However, in 1948, the name of the festival was changed from ‘Boys’ Day’ to ‘Children’s Day’ to include both girls and boys in celebrations as well as mothers to signify the qualities of the unity of family.
The festival was originally celebrated in hopes of bringing good health and prosperity to boys. The traditional customs of this festival is said to have been adopted by ancient Chinese practices and was originally celebrated only by the Samurais of Japan as a family tradition for the boys in the family. Later on, the practice of the festival spread to laymen families as well and currently, the festival is celebrated in every household in Japan.
How is it celebrated?
Just like it is in Hinamatsuri celebrations, a display of unique Japanese dolls on a special shelf is arranged. On Hinamatsuri it is mothers who hand over the dolls to the girls and on the Tango no Sekku it is fathers who present the special sets of dolls to the boys of the family. Among these dolls are the figures of Samurai warrior heroes, replicas of Japanese katana swords, spears, headgears, and the dolls of Kintaro.
Who is Kintaro?
Kintaro is the main character of Tango no Sekku. According to Japanese folklore, Kintaro was a child hero. Literally translated to ‘golden child’ Kintaro was a giant boy who was strong, healthy, and brave. He lived in a forest and had wild animals as his friends. He rode a bear while yielding an axe and was able to wrestle and defeat a large grizzly bear with ease. When Kintaro grew up his strength also grew and the word of this youth with an unusual strength spread.
The news reached a samurai named Yominsu Minamoto who wanted to meet Kintaro. After being impressed by Kintaro’s strength the samurai made him one of his followers and from then on he was called Kintoki Sakata. The Japanese often use the healthy and strong Kintaro’s story as a model story to encourage the young boys. The Kintaro dolls that are exhibited during the festival are larger than other dolls, symbolising the strength Kintaro possessed.
What are Koinobori flags?
Another unique element of Tango no Sekku celebrations is the special flags the Japanese put up. Made out of colourful silk cloths or thin paper, these flags almost look like kites and takes the shape of colourful carp fish. These flags are called Koinobori flags and hoisted over the roof of the house on Tango no Sekku day. Carp fish is another unique element of the Boys’ Day celebrations.
Also adopted from an ancient Chinese legend which tells a story of a group of carps that swam upstream and crossed a bridge over a river called Koga, the carp fish used in Tango no Sekku celebrations symbolise the resilience needed to overcome challenges. After putting up the Koinobori flags Japanese boys sing songs, just like how girls sing on Hanamatsuri day.
“Carp flags are waving over the roof The biggest is for father The smallest is for little brother Swim in the sky in glee, are the carps” On the Tango no Sekku day Japanese boys dress themselves up in colourful traditional Japanese wear called kimono and visit their friends’ houses. The visitors are treated to a special sweetmeat unique to Boys’ Day called koshichi mochi – a special rice cake – and a sweet wrap where red bean jam is wrapped in an oak leaf and served.
Apart from that another sweet meat called chimaki where sweets are wrapped in bamboo leaves is also served. At the end of the day the celebrations are brought to a closure by the whole family getting together and wishing the young boys of the family a happy, healthy, and prosperous future.
(Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)