Traditions

Traditional Japanese holidays.

Traditional Japanese holidays.

In Japan, May is the most active time of field work: transplanting rice seedlings to the main fields, planting cereals and legumes, caring for vegetable crops, and pest control. Taking care of the future harvest, the health of family members and the community, especially children-all this required the conduct of magical rites. Therefore, in early May, on a day that was considered important for determining the weather for the entire season, a holiday was held, which is now known as Kodomo no hi (“Children’s Day”). But this holiday became the day of all children only after the Second World War, and before that it was a Boys ‘Holiday-by analogy with the Girls’ Holiday.
The May holiday still retains its traditional flavor and is considered primarily “boyish”. However, this day has other names: Tango no sekku (Celebration of the first day of the horse) or Cebu no sekku (Festival of irises) – which are somehow connected with mystical protective ceremonies. The origins of this holiday can be found in China during the Han Dynasty (III century BC – III century AD). During the holiday, medicinal herbs were collected and ritual dolls were made from wormwood in order to ward off diseases and misfortunes from the child. On the fifth day of the fifth moon, the holiday has been celebrated in Japan since the seventh century. This day was chosen because the horse, on whose day the holiday falls, symbolized bravery, courage and other qualities that a young warrior should possess. As part of the ritual, competitions of horsemen, horse archers, etc. were held. On this day, the emperor went out into the fields and together with the courtiers collected medicinal herbs, and the peasants put up bright scarecrows and flags in the fields to protect the crops from birds and insects.
Over time, these figures, most often depicting warriors, were created more and more skillfully and were perceived not just as guardians of the future harvest, but also as children’s amulets. They began to install them at home, leaving only colorful flags on the fields. Already in the Tokugawa period (1603-1867), the holiday began to acquire the character of a military sports competition with the participation of sumo wrestlers, horse races with archery and demonstration sword battles. So the young generation was brought up with a military spirit, perseverance and courage. Gradually, the holiday was transformed into a day honoring boys who have not reached the age of majority – 15 years.
So Tango no sekku became a tribal holiday of the samurai elite, since all the attributes of the festive ceremony – toy armor, weapons, battle banners-could only be owned by members of samurai families. On this day, the offspring of noble families took a bath with iris flowers, symbolizing valor, since the name of the flower is consonant with the word “success”. Small exhibitions of samurai figurines and military equipment were held in the homes of representatives of the military class. On several shelves, covered with green cloth, were placed swords, armor, helmets, fans, bottles of sake. Two vases with irises – symbols of valor, success and health-were placed around the edges. Special dolls were placed on the shelves, and among them a young warrior was sure to be present, preparing for his first battle.
Many of these warriors have real, though semi-legendary, prototypes: the male-clad Empress Jingu, famous for her campaign in Korea (III century AD), her first minister Takenouchi no Sukune, who supposedly lived 300 years, Momotaro-the hero of children’s fairy tales, born from a peach (“momo”), Emperor Jimmu, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Yoshitsune, etc.
Houses were decorated for the holiday, using iris leaves, the shape of which resembles a sword. They were scattered at the entrance to the house, placed on the roofs and under the eaves of the houses to ward off demons and evil spirits. In rural areas, tall trees were felled in front of houses, or poles with cryptomeria leaves attached to their tops, or other objects, such as a pennant depicting the mythical spirit seki, designed to ward off evil demons and cure diseases. This was done to invite the Holy Spirit to the feast, which was believed to descend from the Sky on tall trees or poles during the prayer for a good harvest in the 5th month and bring a bountiful harvest. The nobility also displayed spears, halberds, and banners in front of their homes. Ordinary people were forbidden not only to exhibit, but also to have the attributes of the military class. Nevertheless, savvy people of “ignoble origin” found a way to join the celebration and celebrate in their own way, replacing the banners with cloth images of the brave long-lived koi (“carp”), hung on a high pole. Such banners were called koi-nobori (nobori – “flag, banner”) and were more like a trumpet made of cloth with colorful drawings. Now the number of carp fluttering in the wind at the house indicates how many boys live in the family, and the length-the age of the children: the older the boy, the longer the carp. It was no coincidence that carp was chosen. The Japanese consider it a symbol of perseverance, courage, perseverance in achieving the goal, the bravest and noblest of fish, because it can swim against a strong current and jump over a waterfall.
According to another version, a certain spirit in the form of a carp patronized the Empress Jingu during her campaign in Korea. Legend has it that when the Japanese fleet was crossing the strait, a carp jumped out of the waves and showed the ships the way to the Korean coast. Since then, carp is revered as a deity and made talismans in the form of carp. Be that as it may, the huge bright carp that seem to float over the houses for several weeks after the holiday is a very beautiful sight. There is another interesting custom-boys must crawl through the carp from head to tail, so that they are lucky in life. During the day, kite competitions are organized, in which both children and adults take part, and boys are given gifts – previously these were traditional dolls depicting warriors, but now most often just toys.
Special dishes are prepared for the holiday: timaki rice balls wrapped in iris or bamboo leaves-a symbol of health and endurance, kashiwa-mochi tortillas wrapped in oak leaves – a symbol of longevity, as well as sekihan rice cooked with red beans – a symbol of health. A set of this ritual food, each dish of which did not include rice, was a magical means of ensuring the health of children in each family and the continuation of its kind. Since the second name of the holiday is Cebu no sekku (“Festival of irises”), many interesting customs are associated with this flower. So, in the old days, officials wore wigs made from the leaves of this plant, and boys played with bunches of iris, competing to see who would whip them louder on the ground. Irises were widely used as a medicinal plant. A bath made of iris leaves was taken, believing that it prevents diseases and has preventive properties. The leaves of the iris were crushed in sake, using it as a ritual drink. The leaves were strung on a thread and placed in a decorated kusuridam medicine bag. These bags were specially made for the 5th day of the 5th month, believing that their production helps to avoid colds and promotes purification from sins.