Seasonal Calendar of May

In this 'Seasonal Calendar', I would like to introduce traditional Japanese seasonal events, which come down to Japanese's modern life for the time being.

This Season's Traditional Events

May 5th is a national holiday called Children's Day, but it is also known since the old days in Japan as Tango-no Sekku. In Japan, there are special days to hold traditional ceremonies or events that are called Sekku. There are five days of Sekku in a year, and we call them Go-Sekku ( literally, five Sekku ) all together. One of this Go-Sekku is the Tnago-no Sekku, held annually at this time of year.

What is Tango-no Sekku?

Koi Noboris ( carp streamers )

Though Children's Day is celebrated for both boys and girls today, Tango-no Sekku is recognized as a boys' event in Japan. ( See our Hinamatsuri page for information on girls' event. ) Tango-no Sekku is an event to celebrate the birth of boys, wishing for his health and wellness in the future, so that they would grow up to be fine adults without getting sick or injured.

In the Zashiki ( a room furnished in Japanese style, with Tatami floors ) of a house, a Gogatsu Ningyou ( literally, May dolls, Japanese warrior dolls usually in miniature Japanese armour, especially made for this purpose ) would be displayed, while outside the house parents of boys fly Koi Nobori ( literally carp streamers ) from a high pole. Besides displaying Gogatsu Ningyou and Koi Nobori, customs like soaking in a Shoubu Yu ( literally, iris bath, a hot water bath with a bunch of iris floating ), and eating Chimaki ( mostly sweetly seasoned rice cake wrapped in bamboo leaves ) or Kashiwa Mochi ( rice cake with sweet stuffings wrapped with oak leaves ) are still preserved today.

Whethter because there isn't enough room, or because young generations don't like to be binded by traditions, or simply because it's troublesome I don't know, but recently less Koi Noboris ( carp streamers ) seem to be seen in the urban areas. It's a pitty indeed, for Koi Nobori carps swimming comfortably in the clear blue May sky, has always cheered me up blowing my tiny worries away, making me feel that my worries are nothing to be worried about. In fact, it was quite a task to find Koi Noboris ( carp streamers ) for the picture to use in this page.

The Origin of Tango-no Sekku

Tango-no Sekku is thought to originate from a Japanese rice planting ritual, put together with Chinese thoughts and events which later were brought into Japan around mid 6th century.

In Japan, May is the season for rice planting. Back in the mists of time, there was a custom in Japanese farm communities at this time of season, to welcome the deity of rice fields ( deity of rice ) and pray for good harvest, with young girls as priestess secluding themselves into huts thatched with irises and tansies to purge their body and soul.

Since rice farming was in the center of Japanese living back then, planting rice was thought to be the most important event of the year. This important event of rice planting seemed to have been a role for women in those days, because women were believed as a mother of birth and creation. It is said that young girls called Saotome, stayed all through the night inside huts and shrines, on the very night before rice planting, in order to purify themselves before greeting the deity of rice fields ( deity of rice ). Such rituals were called Satsuki-Imi ( literally, May seclusion ) or Imi-Gomori ( literally, seclusion to avoid evil spirits ).

This ceremony of purifying probably must have been done, to invite in the deity of mountains ( deity of rice fields, deity of rice ), who came down from the mountains to the village by cherry-blossom time, and then moved on into the rice fields when planting rice. It was believed then, that the mountain deity would come down to the village when spring comes, and turn into the deity of rice fields, or the deity of rice to stay until autumn when he brings harvest to the fields, and then go back again to the mountains to spend the winter as the mountain deity. Such worshipping in the deity of rice fields ( deity of rice, or the mountain deity ) is said to be called Sagami worship ( see our Hanami page for more details about Sagami worship ).

To the Japanese farmers in those days, rice planting was an important and sacred event that actually took control over their living, having Sagami worship as a background. Therefore, the secluding ritual of Satsuki-Imi or Imi-Gomori was also important to them that purity were expected of Saotome who were to play the main role in such a ritual. And since purity were expected, the huts in which Saotome were kept are thought to have been thatched with irises and tansies, for their distinct odor were believed to drive away the evil and sanctify uncleanness.

About Tango and Sekku

In ancient China, there was a certain way of thinking to accept it a special festive day when the month and day fell on the same odd number, based on the thoughts of Yin-Yang and the five elements, a theory of natural philosophy in ancient China. Days such as March 3rd, May 5th, July 7th, or September 9th were accepted as a special festive day, relying on this way of thinking.

When Chinese culture and ways of thinking were introduced to Japan around the middle of 6th century, Japanese customs became deeply influenced by them, with court nobles following in the footsteps of the developed Chinese customs and culture. On days such as March 3rd, May 5th, July 7th, or September 9th, various events came to be held at court establishing these festive days as Sechinichi ( literally, a day that falls on a seasonal turning point, see our Oshougatsu page for more information ). Later, these days became established officially by the Edo government (1603-1868) as Gosekku ( literally five Sekku days ), holidays to hold festive events.

Tango-no Sekku was one of these Sekku days, though it didn't actually have the essence of a joyous celebration. As the 'Tan' in the first half part of the word 'Tango' meant 'the beginning', and the latter half part 'go' represented 'horse' according to the theory of Yin-Yang and the five elements or the zodiac signs, 'Tango' can be interpreted as 'the first horse day ( of a month )'. Although there were several other days in a year that fell on a 'Tango', the month of May ( lunar calendar ) which fell on the month of 'horse' was considered to be a month of evil presage, once again according to the ancient Chinese thoughts.

Having a 'horse' day which was also regarded as a time of evil presage coinciding with the month of May, May 5th was thougt to be the worst of all others. In ancient China, it is said that people tried to expel evil spirits and protect themselves from bad luck on lunar May 5th, by creating human-like figures with tansies and hanging them on their front gates, or by taking iris dipped liquor. It might be needless to say that the Japanese court nobles of the Heian Period (794-1185), were quick to take in such customs.

The Development of Tango-no Sekku

In 12th century as the Samurai warriors began to gain power, Tango-no Sekku becomes a boys' event being influenced by Samurai culture. Samurai warriors known for their pride, seemed to have a tendency to get hung on winning or being brave. Since the word Shoubu ( Japanese name for iris ) is pronounced the same as another Japanese word that represents 'winning or losing' and 'martialism', it is thought that they came to respect the event of Tango-no Sekku. They must have consulted the omens I guess. They also came to hold gallant events for boys like Yabusame ( horseback archery, shooting wooden targets from the back of a galloping horse ) on lunar May 5th.

When the days of war and battles began in Japan around 14th century, improved skilled craftsmen began to make miniature helmets and armor for Samurai warriors, to display them in their houses and pray for war fortune and prosperity. It is said that it was after the 1600s, when the wars were over and it became peaceful again, that Koi Noboris ( carp streamers ) came to be made. By the middle of Edo Period (1603-1868), Koi Noboris ( carp streamers ) became flown by mainly Samurai parents of boys ( later spreading to general people ), wishing their healthy growth and success in life.

It's a personal guess, but I think it must have been sometime during this Edo Period (1603-1868), when the China-originated court custom somehow was combined with the Japanese farm ritual before rice planting. Since Edo ( now Tokyo ) was a big city with over a million residents by the end of 18th century, it is not hard to imagine that many people from rural areas must have been coming into the city every day.

Having such backgrounds, I think that farm culture could have been brought into the city of Edo, which easily might have got mixed up with the customs that were already there. Additionally, many Japanese traditional customs or events experiences a major change from around the middle of Edo Period (1603-1868), which seem to encourage my guess.

Decorations for Tango-no-Sekku

For Tango-no Sekku, traditions are still left today to display Gogatsu Ningyou ( literally, May dolls, Japanese warrior dolls usually in miniature Japanese armor, especially made for this purpose ) inside houses when a boy is born in the family that year ( generally from June of the former year to around April of that year ), while Koi Noboris ( carp streamers ) are flown from a high pole outside. These decorations for Tango-no Sekku seem to have unique derivations or history. Let's take a look at them below.

Sharing Roots with Hina-ningyou (Hina Dolls)!?

The Gogatsu Ningyous ( Japanese warrior dolls ) which is part of the Uchikazari ( literally, decorations inside houses ), are said that it originally used to be paper dolls ( probably what used to be called Katashiro, see our Hinamatsuri page for more information ) to transfer all the uncleanness and bad luck onto and let it drift away with the river. It must have been so since lunar May 5th was regarded as a time worst of all evil presage, as already said in 'About Tango and Sekku' of this page. Ancient Japanese must have got rid of the evil by using Katashiro. Later, people came to display warrior helmets made with paper or irises ( this too, seem to symbolize the feeling of ancient people trying to drive away the unwanted ), until they were replaced by warrior dolls for war fortune.

warrior helmet and armor

As craftsmen improved thsir skills, they began to make miniature but elaborate armor sets of a warrior helmet and armor suit. By around Edo Period (1603-1868), it seems to have become a trend for Samurai families, to display gorgeous miniature armor sets inside houses along with Samurai-related miniature accessories, such as bows and arrows, swords, or labarums with a family crest designed on it. This trend was popular mainly among Samurai families at first however, the custom of displaying Gogatsu Ningyous ( Japanese warrior dolls ) or flying Koi Noboris ( carp streamers ), are later said to have become widely spread among merchants and tradesmen, as they gained power during Edo Period (1603-1868).

Such trend comes down to today, and can still be seen in many Japanese homes with boys. Though in modern life, these decorations are displayed in the sense of 'celebrating the birth of a boy, wishing that those helmet and armor would protect the boy from sickness or injuries', not as to 'wish for his war fortune'.

Where Koi Noboris (Carp Streamers) Came From

Koi Noboris ( streamers designed like carps ) are decorations displayed outside houses called Sotokazari ( literally, decorations outside houses ), ususally flown from a high pole wishing a boy's success in life. ( The way they're streaming in the wind actually reminds you of a real carp swimming in the water, don't they? )

These Koi Noboris ( carp streamers ) flown from the poles, are said to derive from a Chinese legend brought into Japan, that 'if a carp completes his challenge swimming up against the torrent of a Chinese river called Longmen ( Ryu Mon, in Japanese ) the carp would ascend to the sky and become a dragon'. Related to this legend, it seems that carps came to be believed as a symbol for success in life here in Japan. Incidentally, the name of the river is pronounced Ryu Mon in Japanese, wich is said to have become the etymology of a Japanese word Touryumon ( literally climbing Ryu Mon ) representing a gateway to success.

In Japan, carps were also thought as a graceful fish with pride. Japanese thought that carps were always prepared to meet its fate once they were out of the water, since they didn't usually struggle in vain when they were laid on the cutting board to be cooked. It might have been because of such beliefs, that carps came to be regarded as a perfectly suitable symbol for a boys' event. It may be said that it was for the good taste of the Edo craftsmen to design such a suitable fish as decorations for Tango-no Sekku. ( Koi Noboris/carp streamers, are said to have appeared around the middle of Edo Period/1603-1868. )

Flying Koi Noboris ( carp streamers ) outside houses must have been important to the people in old times, especially to the Samurai families in a sense that it was an action of telling the world that a boy has been born in the family, which meant the continuing existance of the family. It could be said that the custom of flying Koi Noboris ( carp streamers ) not only palyed the part of celeberating the boy's birth, but also as to make the people around him realize, the security and prosperity of his family.

Sweets for Tango-no Sekku

For Tango-no Sekku, there are still customs left to eat Chimaki ( rice-cake sweets wrapped in mostly bamboo leaves ) or Kashiwa Mochi ( bean-jam-stuffed rice cake sweets wrapped in oak leaves ) in Japanese homes today. Popular Wagashiyas ( traditional Japanese sweets shop ) sometimes get unexpectedly crowded around this time of year, with people trying to buy these sweets for Tango-no Sekku celebration.

Chimaki

Way back in the days of Zhanguo Period ( Warring State Period from around B.C.453 to B.C.221 ) in China, there was a famous poet called Qu Yuan (340B.C.-278B.C.). It is told that May 5th was the date of the poet's tragic death, and that people stuffed rice in bamboo cylinders, to pray for his departed soul on the anniversary of his death.

This is thought to be the origin of the Japanese Chimaki eaten for Tango-no Sekku, though the Japanese Chimaki however, seems to be a little different from this original Chinese style. In Japan, Chimakis are mainly made by steaming doughs ( glutinous rice and rice powder kneaded with water ), wrapped in iris, bamboo or reed leaves. It is said that because they also used Chigaya ( imperatae rhizoma ) leaves to wrap the dough, the name of the food became Chimaki, which in Japanese means 'wrapped in Chigaya'.

Japanese Chimakis today seem to be made in several different styles reflecting locality, from the Akumakis ( literally, lye rolls, Chimakis cooked in lye ) made and eaten mainly in Kagoshima prefecture, to the Kyoto style using Kudzu ( starch of a Japanese plant called Kuzu ) instead of rice powder, or wrapping Anko ( sweet bean paste ) together with the dough. In these places, Chimakis still stand as special festive food for Tango-no Sekku celebration.

Kashiwa Mochi

While Chimakis are mostly made and eaten in the western part of Japan, Kashiwa Mochis ( bean-jam-stuffed rice cake sweets wrapped in oak leaves ) are more commonly eaten instead of Chimakis within the Kanto area centering Tokyo.

Kashiwa Mochis are rice cakes made from glutinous rice powder, with Anko ( sweet bean paste ) or Miso An ( sweetened soybean paste ) fillings. They are usually wrapped in oak leaves which they are named after and steamed. It is said that oak leaves came to be used to wrap Kahiwa Mochis consulting the omens, wishing for prosperity and continuing existance of the family, descending from the fact that old oak leaves don't fall off until a new sprout appears.

Since when Kashiwa Mochis began to be made is uncertain, though it could be said from one of Hiroshige Ando's ( 1797-1858, Japanese artist famous for woodblock prints ) works 'Futagawa' that people were already eating Kashiwa Mochi by the time this woodprint was published in 1852. Futagawa ( Toyohashi city, Aichi prefecture ) is told to have been one of the most famous places for Kashiwa Mochis, and in this woodprint of Hiroshige, you can see two travelers having tea over Kahiwa Mochis.

However, as sugar was still too expensive in those days, the fillings of Kashiwa Mochis are thought to have been salty or even tasteless. Unwelcomed stories are said to be left that a lordship who came by Futagawa tried the local specialty Kashiwa Mochi, though he threw it away crying out that he couldn't eat such bad tasting food. We might as well thank for the sweet Kashiwa Mochi that we have today.

Last Modified May 29th, 2007

Site of Reference

Kodomo no hi - Wikipedia ( English, Japanese, German, French, Spanish, Indonesian )

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kodomo_no_hi

Tango no Sekku no Yurai to Okazari - Okazarian ( Japanese )

http://okazarian.web.fc2.com/05_tango.html

http://okazarian.web.fc2.com/05_tango_koinobori.html

http://okazarian.web.fc2.com/05_tango_shobu.html

http://okazarian.web.fc2.com/05_tango_food.html

Gogatsuningyou - Okazarian ( Japanese )

http://okazarian.web.fc2.com/05_tango_doll.html

Nishino Jinja Shamu Nisshi - Tango no Sekku ( Japanese )

http://d.hatena.ne.jp/nisinojinnjya/20060505

Futagawa no Shuku ( Japanese )

http://www.trad-sweets.com/Futagawa/futagawa-main.html