One of the holidays during Japan’s Golden Week is all about celebrating boys’ samurai spirit on Children’s Day.
Back in March, we had Girls’ Day AKA Hina Matsuri (ひな祭り) , so this time around is all about the boys!
Up until 1948, this day was known as Boys’ Day. Then, was officially renamed Children’s Day as a means to express gratitude to mothers.
(Side note: Can we just talk about how unfair it is that a day for boys is a national holiday while a day for girls is business as usual?)
Boys’ Day has its roots in Tango no Sekku, one of the 5 sekku (節句) or annual ceremonies of the Japanese imperial court hundreds of years ago.
Tango no Sekku ((端午の節句) was traditionally held on the fifth day of the 5 month and when adjusted to the modern calendar, it’s celebrated on May 5.
Now, I don’t have a son, but every year, I spend Golden Week in Ibaraki with my in-laws. And every year, my mother-in-law breaks out my husband’s huge samurai doll and prepares all the traditional food and sweets of Boys’ Day. (He’s the only son, so it’s a very special holiday for her!)
My husband’s gogatsu ningyou. My MIL puts him on display every year❤️ pic.twitter.com/ISmN6UDuhF
— Teni Wada (@WadaTeni) May 4, 2019
What To Do on Boys’ Day/Children’s’ Day
Families with newborn boys will likely go to a shrine to celebrate his hatsu sekku (初節句).
Just as families with girls break out the hina dolls, families with boys break out all the deeply-symbolic decorations.
Inside a Japanese homne, you might find:
兜 | kabuto
Available on Amazon Japan
五月人形 | gogatsu ningyou or 武者人形| musha ningyou
鯉のぼり | koi nobori
For a fun, 5 minute craft, you can make your own koinobori with your kids:
Unlike Hina Matsuri, boys’ marriage prospects will NOT dwindle if the dolls are not put away by 11:59 pm on May 5. However, as the rainy season is right after Children’s Day, it’s best to put them away to prevent mold.
Irises, the Patron Flower of Samurai
Tango no Sekku/Boys’ Day/Children’s Day whatever you want to call it, also coincides with the annual bloom of irises (菖蒲 | ayame). (I should mention that this was when Japan used its old calendar. Iris bloom from late May to June.) As such, you can find references to the holiday as ayame no hi (菖蒲の日).
Read more about the gorgeous Suigo Itako Iris Garden and the Suigo Itako Ayame Festival here: A Picture-Perfect Outing in Itako City, Ibaraki Prefecture
Irises are significant for several reasons.
First, iris leaves resemble the blade of a katana (刀) the weapon of samurai. Also, it was once tradition to bathe boys in ayame yu (菖蒲湯), a bath filled with irises, to keep them from getting sick as the weather changes from winter to spring. (Because if you ever lived with a man, you know just how a single cough will have them on their deathbed…)
But, what really makes the iris an important flower is that the alternate reading of its kanji (菖蒲) is “shoubu.” It shares the same reading for the kanji for victory (勝負 | shoubu). And what good is a samurai if he can’t win his battles?
How to Feed Your Samurai – The Food of Boys’ Day
One treat you’ll definitely see around this time of year is kashiwa mochi (柏餅). And, if you think it looks like sakura mochi, you’re absolutely right!
Kashiwa mochi is wrapped in an oak (kashiwa) leaf. Sakura mochi is wrapped in a pickled sakura leaf. Oak trees, are of course, big, strong, and mighty. We certainly can’t have boys eating anything wrapped in dainty cherry blossom tree leaves.
Another dish is chimaki (ちまき)、seasoned mochi rice mixed with shiitake mushrooms, bamboo sprouts, and pork, and wrapped in bamboo leaves, all what a growing boy needs to be healthy and strong.
For more on Children’s Day and other Japanese celebrations, I recommend this book, Japanese Traditions: Rice Cakes, Cherry Blossoms and Matsuri: A Year of Seasonal Japanese Festivities:
The next Japanese celebration for kids that we’ll celebrate is Tanabata, a fun summer event. Stay tuned!
Celebrating Boys’ Samurai Spirit on Children’s Day