April 24, 2020

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Children’s Day, or Kodomo no Hi, is a national Japanese holiday celebrating the health, happiness, and individually of the country’s children. Good fortune is wished upon them as they express gratitude and respect for their parents, teachers, and other role models.

Children’s Day is celebrated every year on May 5th. It’s the last day of Golden Week—Japan’s week of four unique holidays spanning from the end of April to the beginning of May.

Golden Week is one of the few times the entire country is on vacation, and it’s typically the longest break Japan’s working people get. Needless to say, celebration ensues.

Read on to discover the history and symbolic meanings behind the last day of Golden Week as well as the traditional activities and foods enjoyed during Children’s Day celebrations.

A Japanese family holding hands on cherry blossom pathway

History of Children’s Day

Golden Week has been a tradition since 1948, when national holiday laws were first introduced in Japan.

Before 1948, the Boy’s Festival, or Tango no Sekku, was held annually on the fifth day of the fifth month. A more traditional holiday, Tango no Sekku was held at the Japanese imperial court and only honored sons. Girls had their own day, Hina Matsuri, or the Doll Festival, which was held on March 3rd, the third day of the third month.

When national holidays became the norm in Japan, March 5th was renamed Children’s Day. And now all children—sons and daughters—are celebrated.

fish-shaped carp flags

Symbols of Children’s Day

Carp flags, or koinobori, are the iconic symbol of this holiday. Children’s Day promises these streamer-like fish made of cloth, which are meant to bring the children of a household good luck. When the wind blows through the koinobori, it makes it look like the fish is swimming.

The day before Kodomo no Hi, families raise carp flags to represent the members of the household. The carp flags come in different colors, with each one representing a different family member. Black carps usually represent the father (magoi), red or pink the mother (higoi), and other colors—like blue, green, and orange—symbolize the children.

A carp is supposed to symbolize determination, strength, and success. There’s actually a legend behind the use of this special freshwater fish. According to this myth, if a carp has what it takes to swim all the way upstream, it will transform and become a dragon.

Origami of kabuto

Other iconic Children’s Day symbols are origami of kabuto, a traditional Japanese military helmet that symbolizes strength and health, as well as a Golden Boy doll. These samurai-looking dolls often represent characters from traditional Japanese folklore, like Kintarō and Momotarō who symbolize courage and strength.

Iris flowers, which typically bloom in early May, are the seasonal flower of Children’s Day. Irises are symbolically placed around Japanese households, which is said to help ward off evil. Another, more traditional use of irises is to take a special bath known as shobuyu ( also sometimes spelled syobuyu), where iris leaves are set to float around in the bathwater.

While carp flags are strung up outside, Kabuto, Kintarō dolls, and seasonal irises are usually displayed within the home. For people living in apartments, small carp flags are also available and can be hung inside.

Mochi wrapped in oak leaves.
steamed rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaf

Traditional Children’s Day Foods

Like holidays around the globe, Children’s Day features traditional foods that are enjoyed year after year. Since children are the focus of Kodomo no Hi, it makes sense that many of the holiday’s traditional foods are on the sweeter side. That being said, these Children’s Day treats are enjoyed by people young and old.

The first traditional Children’s Day food is kashiwa mochi. These traditional mochi—sticky rice cakes—are filled with a sweet red bean paste before being wrapped in oak leaves. The second treat enjoyed during Kodomo no Hi is chimaki. This is a steamed rice dumpling that’s wrapped in an iris or bamboo leaf. Inspired from China’s zongzi, Japan’s chimaki is a slightly sweeter rendition. Children also enjoy other sweets, like pastries and cakes decorated specially for the holiday.

Children are the future, and Kodomo no Hi celebrates the health, happiness, and individuality of these young people. On May 5th, the final day of Golden Week, Japanese traditions are carried out to bring children good fortune, with the hope of helping them become strong, independent adults.

Which part of Children’s Day do you find the most interesting? Tell us in the comments below!

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Dallas Ernst
Dallas Ernst

Dallas Ernst is a content producer, writer, and creative with a B.A. in English/Professional Writing. She enjoys editing, writing, baking, and film. She currently lives in Long Island, NY.