Normally, I do write ups about Japanese celebrations for babies and children as my little Kaiju experiences them. But, some of the boys in my kindergarten class will be sitting for professional photos for shichi go san (七五三). So, I’ll be introducing it on the blog.
What is Shichi Go San?
I love seeing kids all dressed up for Shichi Go San in November, running around temples and shrines in gorgeous traditional Japanese clothing. But, I was rather shocked when I found out the “real” reason behind it.
Back in the day, infant mortality was high, so much that it was uncommon for kids to make it to their 7th birthday. In fact, kids were considered to be “on loan” from God (神様からの預かりもの | kamisama kara no azukarimono). The numbers 3,5,7 are auspicious and Shichi Go San began as a means for affluent families to celebrate their children reaching these unlikely ages. This is the bittersweet reason Japanese parents celebrate Shichi Go San.
Shichi Go San was initially celebrated by the imperial courts and wealthy and samurai families before spreading across Japan in the 17th century. It’s celebrated on November 15, but like Inu No Hi, families are not obliged to visit a temple or shrine on that exact date.
Shichi Go San is celebrated when girls are 3 and 7 and when boys are 5. Some regions/families celebrate a boy’s 3rd birthday as well. There’s no set standard for this practice. For Shichi Go San, children wear traditional Japanese clothing (kimono for girls, hakama for boys) or they may also wear formal dresses or suits. In the case of Japanese clothing, each age has a specific outfit that they should wear.
3 Year Old Girls and Boys: Kamioki (髪置)
For centuries, it was customary in Japan to shave the heads of boys and girls (to be rid of lice and fleas and I guess?) until they were 3 years of age. This is the origin of kamioki, or “leaving the hair.”
Girls wear kimono paired with a vest-like garment called a hifu (被布) and girls’ hair is decorated with cute hair clips. Boys wear hakama (袴) and a haori (羽織).
5 Year Old Boys: Hakamagi (袴着)
In 17th century Japan, it was customary for boys to begin wearing hakama from this age, signaling their transition from child to early adult.
7 Year Old Girls: Obitoki (帯解き)
Obitoki symbolizes the first time a young girl wears an obi with her kimono. It’s her first step into adulthood.
It’s hard to think about 5 and 7 year olds as mini adults, but keep in mind these customs come from centuries ago when the life expectancy was much, much shorter than what it is today!
What Do Children Do On Shichi Go San?
The same thing that they do for every other Japanese celebration for babies and kids — dress up, take professional photos, visit a temple/shrine for blessings, eat out with family. Just to be clear that’s not me downplaying the importance of shichi go san. If you’ve already gotten through Omiyamairi, etc, you’ll feel less stressed and pressure because you know what to expect for future events.
Tips For Shichi Go San
Here’s what I’ve picked up as I plan for little Kaiju’s big day:
Use Two Days For Shichi Go Sa
While it’s entirely possible to do a photo session and temple/shrine blessing on the same day, it’s not necessary. Save the kimono for the studio and kids can do the shrine/ lunch in whatever they’re most comfortable with wearing. You can also do the photo shoot as an immediate family thing with a fancy cake afterwards. Then leave the shrine visit and family lunch for when grandparents come to town.
Postpone Shichi Go San For A Year
Note: Kids are born between January 1 and April 1 are the youngest in their grade. They’re called “hayaumare” (早生まれ). Parents of hayaumare kids who will celebrate their first Shichi Go San at three years old tend to wait until the following year. This is because their children will be mature enough to sit properly/wear a kimono for a decent length of time. They’re also likely to be toilet trained or nearly there.
In my case, little Kaiju is hayaumare, so I’m unsure if we will celebrate in 2020 or in 2021. Guess it all depends….
BOOK YOUR PHOTO SESSION(S) IN ADVANCE — DO NOT WAIT UNTIL NOVEMBER
Nearly every place will be packed on the days leading up to November 15 and/or crazy expensive. But, if you book in the off season, you’re sure to get great discounts. Some parents book in advance so kids’ summer tans don’t clash with their kimonos. Parents also may want kids to have all their front teeth when it’s time to take pictures. (I think the toothy grins are cute though!). Most of the boys in my class have already taken their photos or will do them during summer vacation.
That’s all for Shichi Go San until little Kaiju celebrates hers…