Japan’s courageous and noble samurai warriors play a significant part in Children’s Day and it’s customary for families to display samurai dolls, their armour (gogatsu-ningyo) and military helmets (kabuto) within the home, as a symbolic gesture to bring bravery and strength to children.
Some of the public samurai displays can be large and ornate, whilst those inside the home are generally more modest. At school children enjoy listening to intriguing tales of samurai legends and rustling up their own paper kabuto helmets.
Kintaro the Legend
Perhaps the most well-known legend connected to Children’s Day is Kintarō the Nature Boy, an enchanting tale of a child raised in the mountains who befriended animals, rode a bear instead of a horse, and grew up to become a monster fighting warrior.
Depicted as a chubby-cheeked child wearing the traditional samurai kabuto, and often alongside a koi carp, Kintarō looks cute rather than fearsome and his story appeals to children’s sense of adventure. Honored in doll form, it’s hoped that he’ll inspire children with his kindness and bravery.
Koi carp are believed to be strong fish who battle upstream through strong currents and waterfalls and have come to symbolize the wish for children to grow up with the strength of character.
In ancient times samurai warriors flew banners on the battlefield, and these eventually morphed into the koinobori that you see today. Families display a streamer with their family crest at the top, followed by a series of brightly colored fish in descending size.
The large black fish at the top represents the father of the household and red the mother. More carp are added for each child, with the smallest at the bottom for the youngest member of the family.
By early May the cherry blossom in Japan has faded and the iris flowers (shobu) are beginning to bloom. In Japanese culture, these purple blooms are believed to be lucky talismans with the power to calm raging fires and ward off evil spirits. As a way of ushering good fortune for their children into the home, families display iris flowers and sprinkle the leaves and roots into baths, known as syobuyu.
Mochi is a rice sweet, chewy in texture with a red bean paste center. It’s a popular type of Japanese sweet (wagashi) all year round but for Children’s Day, it’s traditional for families to prepare Kashiwa mochi wrapped in an oak leaf. Leaves fall from the mighty oak tree as new buds emerge during the springtime and are said to symbolize strength, good luck, and prosperity for the family.