Seasonal Calendar of November

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

This month I would like to introduce the Japanese Shichigosan ( literally, 7,5 and 3 ) event, as November's seasonal traditional event.

Shichigosan

Shichigosan ( literally, 7,5 and 3 ) is a Japanese event to visit the shrines, to celebrate the healthy growth of small kids aged 7, 5 and 3. When children reach the age of 3, parents dress them up and bring them along to the nearest shrine from their homes, to celebrate and thank god for the child's healthy growth on November 15th. Generally, boys are taken to the shrine once again on November 15th when they are 5 years old, while girls also visit the shrines again on the same day with their parents at the age of 7.

Usually, children are dressed in traditional Japanese Kimono for this Shichigosan event, but western clothes are also worn today, due to modernization and to reduce financial strain of parents ( those traditional Kimonos are pretty expensive stuff ), or to free them from the trouble of putting those complicated traditional clothes on young children.

boy with toy sword

As for children it often appears to be an exciting event, being dressed in traditional clothes which they usually don't wear. Most girls have the first experience in their life to wear make-ups, while boys go crazy for the toy sword which often comes along, when you buy a set of traditional boys' outfit for this event.

The excitement reach a climax when kids are given Chitose-ame ( literally, thousand years candy, long stick candies in a decorated rectangular paper bag, produced and sold only for this event ) for their celebration, though they'd find out later that it wasn't such a deliciuos treat after all, and recognize that it was just another product in the name of good-luck talisman, more later in their life when they grow up to be an adult.

Shichigosan is said to be a ritual that came out from the local cultures of Kanto area ( the eastern area of Japan including Tokyo ), to thank god for letting the children grow up to these ages safely, and to pray for their continued growth and good health. There seems to be a similar event in Kansai area ( the western regions of Japan including Osaka ) called Juusanmairi ( a visit to the shrines on age 13 ) corresponding to this Shichigosan event, but I guess I'll write about that some other time.

Why 7, 5 and 3?

Some people may not understand why this celebration is only held when the children's age are 7, 5 and 3, while parents are always thankful for the healthy growth of their children. Err ... I sincerely respect those who are always thankful for their kids' growth, you're good parents, no doubt.

One reason for this is thought to be the ancient Chinese ways of thinking ( Ying Yan and the five elements ). In ancient Chinese thoughts, odd numbers such as 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 were considered as Yan numbers, which were thought to bring good luck. The Shichigosan celebration being held on the year of the children's age 7, 5 and 3, seems to derive from that.

The roots of this Shichigosan event is said to date back as far as Heian Period (794-1185) or Muromachi Period (1338-1573), but details are not exactly known. Though it is told that in those days, the celebration was not limited to the age of 7, 5 and 3, as well as the date of this event which also was not determined on November 15th.

However, regarding the fact that Japanese culture has been deeply influenced by Chinese culture, from around the middle to the end of this Heian Period, it might be natural to think that this custom started sometime during this period. And when Edo Period (1603-1868) comes around, the custom of celebrating Shichigosan on the respective ages of 7, 5 and 3, seems to have become established among Samurai warriors, who often tended to be supersitious, later spreading to the public.

The Basic Rituals of Shichigosan

Another reason for this event being a celebration for only 7, 5 and 3-year-olds, are because some theories say that there were basic rituals called Kamioki ( literally, put hair ), Hakamagi ( literally, wearing Hakama ) and Obitoki ( literally, taking off Obi ) seen in Heian Period. Although these rituals were held regardless of the children's age or the date at that time, they are thought to have played a large part in forming the Shichigosan custom.

Well then, what on earth do these three words mean? I mean, they must be names of the old rituals, but what exactly did they do?

Kamioki

The ancient ritual of Kamioki literally meaning 'putting on hair' in Japanese, is said to have been held for both boys and girls who were three years old. In old times when this ritual took place, it is said that Japanese infants under the age of three, were not allowed to grow their hair. Hair was usually shaven off their heads until three, maybe because they could not handle them by themselves, or because babies were believed to be a gift from god, and hair was considered to be unhallowed.

When they became three years old, this Kamioki ritual was done and children were allowed to grow one's hair. During this ceremony of Kamioki, soft white silk cotton caps were placed on a child's head by an aged person called Kamiokioya ( literally, Kamioki parent ), wishing that the child would live long until his or her hair turned white.

Hakamagi

boy in Hakama

Hakamagi literally meaning 'putting on Hakamas', is something held only for boys when they grow up to be five years old. It's a ceremony for boys to put on Hakama ( Japanese kilt ), for the very first time in their life. Since Hakamas became a formal attire worn by Samurai warriors in public during Edo Period, this custom seems to have a meaning for boys to become a member of the society as grown up men.

During the ceremony of Hakamagi, boys were also made to wear a crown on their heads and were made to stand on a Goban ( Go board ). When they were up on the Goban, it is said they were made to pray facing four different directions. The Goban seems to represent a place of fight, and by making a boy pray facing all four directions on the Goban, it was believed then that the boy would be able to take control over all four directions, whenever he had to face a situation to fight in his upcoming life.

Because this Hakamagi custom was thought to be an important event for boys, the person to assist the boy wear his first Hakama called Hakamaoya ( literally, Hakama parent ), and the person to place the crown on his head called Kanmurioya ( literally crown parent ), were both played by those in high social position, or by an honorable person. Kanmurioya was thought to be especially important, since the person was thought responsible for the boy's lifetime as his godfather, mentor and protector.

Obitoki

girl in Kimono

The last of the three rituals Obitoki literally meaning 'taking off Obi', was a ceremony for 7-year-old girls. Kimonos worn by girls under the age of seven ( boys under the age of five ), ususally had an Obi ( sash ) sewed and attached around the waist. Girls were allowed to take off this attached Obi, when they grew up to be seven years old, and wear a wider Obi called Maruobi ( literally, round obi ) that was seperated from their Kimono completely. Since such Obi were worn only by grown up women, this ceremony must have had a sense to accept these 7-year-old girls into the society, as grown up women.

A brand new Obi was given to a girl on the occasion of this ceremony, by an Obioya ( literally, Obi parent ), a woman who was able to become the girl's parental surrogate. This Obioya is also told to have assisted the girl, when she wore her first Obi around her waist during this ceremony, wishing that the girl would not corrupt herself. Since Obi was thought to be something to keep one's soul sealed inside itself, Obitoki was considered to be an important ceremony for girls.

The Date of Shichigosan

Relying on these ancient rituals, Shichigosan is usually celebrated when the children's ages are 7, 5 or 3. Then how did it become a celebration on November 15th of these respective ages?

It is said that it was around the middle of Edo Period (1603-1868), when the date of Shichigosan event was determined. Stories are told that it was because of the third Shogun ( leader of Samurai warriors, who ruled Japan in place of the emperor, Tycoon ) Iemitsu, of the Tokugawa Shogunate ( the Tokugawa government ) who held the ceremony of Hakamagi on November 15th, to pray for the healthy growth of his physically weak grandson Tsunayoshi, who later became the fifth Shogun.

Then why did Iemitsu hold the ceremony on November 15th? Were there any particular reasons for it?

About 28 Shuku

The main reason for that is thought to be the ancient Chinese celestial constellation called Nijuhasshuku ( literally, 28 places to stop ) which developed in India, then brought into Japan through China. Nijuhasshuku defines that there were 28 spots for the moon to pass on its orbit, and since the moon was thought to come across one spot a day, ancient people seemed to have regarded these spots as 'Shuku', a word that represents 'a place to stay for the night'.

According to this constellation, it was believed then that the day when the moon came across Kishuku ( literally, goblin's place ) which was one of the 28 spots, was the most auspicious day of the month. This was believed so, because it was thought that Buddha was born when the moon was on Kishuku, and each day of the month which corresponded to this, was thought to be auspicious.

Although this Chinese constellation was once passed out to India, later it was reverse-imported to China taking on an astrological aspect. Since it developed differently in China and India, the calculating systems of the constellation seem to differ between the two countries, which might explain the reason for the Nijuhasshuku brought into Japan, having the calculating system of India. When calculated in Indian procedures, the 15th day of every month is supposed to be a Kishuku day, which in the times of Edo were regarded as the best festive day for celebrations except weddings.

Iemitsu, the third Shogun of Tokugawa government, must have considered this Nijuhasshuku when holding the Hakamagi ceremony, wishing the health and prosperity of his grandson. As for the reason why Iemitsu held the ceremony in November, it could be gathered that he must have followed in the customs of his early ancestors.

Since November of the lunisolar calendar was thought among ancient people, to be a month to thank god for having been able to finish that year's harvest ( mainly rice ) without trouble, it is said that ancient people came to go to the shrines during this month, not only to thank for the year's harvest, but also to thank and pray for the healthy growth of their children. ( Well, regarding the fact that children were thought to be 'a gift from god', it could be thought that children too were a certain form of 'harvest' in a way. It also seems alike in the sense of raising up 'seeds' ... oops, excuse me folks. )

The date of Shichigosan is said to be completely set on November 15th, after the lunisolar calendar was abolished and our present Gregorian calendar was put to use, during Meiji Period (1868-1912). But currently, less families seem to stick to the traditional form of holding the Shichigosan event exactly on November 15th, especially when the day falls on a weekday in our present calendar.

For most families it is becoming rather common now, to celebrate it on any Saturdays, Sundays and Holidays in November. It is also said that in cold northern parts of the country such as Hokkaido, Shichigosan tends to be held a month earlier on October 15th, for it grows too cold to hold the event by its original date.

About Chitose-ame

Chitose-ame ( literally, thousand years candy ), are long stick candies produced and sold only for this Shichigosan. The first to sell these stick candies is thought to be a candy shop in Asakusa during Edo Period (1603-1868), though there are several theories and the exact name of the person who started it, seems to differ according to each theory.

One theory has it that the candy shop must have started selling these candies expecting a boost in its sales, by naming it Chitose-ame ( literally, thousand years candy ) linking the product to Shichigosan. Selling them in rectangular paper bags with festive symbols such as ShouChikuBai ( literally, pine trees, bamboos, and apricot trees, often regarded as a symbol for celebration in Japan ), or Tsuru, Kame ( literally, crane and tortoise, usually regarded as a symbol for long life in Japan ) designed, it could be seen that the seller at least had some intention of increasing his sales. Though it must be admitted that he succeeded, for Chitose-ame still come down to today.

boy eating Chitose-ame

Now, Chitose-ame are still sold when the Shichigosan season comes up. Two long stick candies in celebrating colors of red and white respectively, are usually packed inside a lengthwise rectangular paper bag. It also seems to be a common scene for shrines to distribute them to children, who came to the shrines with their parents to attend Shichigosan ceremonies. However, the disappointing thing is that they don't give them away for free. ( In some shrines, Chitose-ame are usually distributed to the children who attended the Shichigosan ceremony, which often tends to be just simple purifying, but the ceremony needs to be paid for. Isn't that a little too smal-minded? )

A Rite of Passage

As baies were considered to be 'a gift from god' in the old days, it could be thought that Japanese children were allowed for the first time, to start their lives as human when they've become three years old and were able to grow their hair. But even after their life as human had begun, they still had to strive through several more years to be old enough to dress like other adults, and to be allowed to join the adult community.

However, the survival rates of young children are thought to have been very low, due to nutritional deficiency, poverty and lack of knowledge for health. In cases when children could not live up to their age of celebration, many parents might have convinced themselves, that their chilren were not yet ready to live as human, and were taken back to god where they came from, without having to experience cruel life in human society. Especially, the survival rates of boys were lower compared to that of girls. This may be the reason why boys' celebration of Hakamagi is held prior to the girls' Obitoki, since boys had to play the role as a family's successor, despite such serious circumstances.

Seen this way, it could be said that the event of Shichigosan originally had much importance as a rite of passage, to celebrate that the children has grown up safe and healthy to the appropriate age, to be able to participate in human society. Although there are other Japanese events besides Shichigosan that are also held as a rite of passage such as (O)Miyamairi or Seijinshiki, it seems that they have one thing in common. They are all based on a certain way of thinking, to make human existence culturally, religiously and mentally meaningful, and this way of thinking seems to be deeply involved in forming the Japanese identity.

Though on the surface, I do feel it a pity that today it's becoming just a picture-taking-event for doting parents.

Last Modified Nov.28th, 2006

Site of Reference

Shichigosan - Gogen Yurai Jiten ( Japanese )

http://gogen-allguide.com/si/shichigosan.html

Koyomi no Page ( Japanese )

http://koyomi8.com/directjp.cgi?http://koyomi8.com/reki_doc/doc_0745.htm

Shichi-Go-San - Wikipedia ( English )

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shichi-Go-San

Susanowo to Nigihayahi no Nihonn-gaku ( Japanese )

http://blog.livedoor.jp/susanowo/archives/50056688.html

Hakama toha - Hakama ( Japanese )

http://www.weblio.jp/content/%E8%A2%B4