Tango no Sekku – Boys’ Day (端午の節句)

Masculinity – what would you normally associate this word with? A muscular man with a tough build, big chest, well-developed bulks of arm and leg muscles, and sexy six-pack abs? Well, not quite so in Japanese culture, although you may be correct in one sense, if that’s what you think. Anyway, in the Land of the Rising Sun, masculinity is often associated with qualities such as courage, determination and, yes, strength. Hence, a special day has been traditionally set aside by the Japanese to honour such masculine qualities and to celebrate the development of such qualities in young boys growing up to become strong and reliable men. This unique day is none other than Tango no Sekku (端午の節句) or Boys’ Day, which is observed on May 5 annually.

During imperial times, when the Chinese lunar calendar was still in use by the Japanese, Tango no Sekku was observed every year on the fifth day of the fifth month. However, after the adoption of the Gregorian solar calendar by the Japanese government, this festival was then moved to May 5, and has remained on that date since then. In 1948, the Japanese government officially declared it a national holiday and changed its name to Children’s Day (こどもの日, Kodomo no Hi).

Although Tango no Sekku is presently officially known as Children’s Day, many still prefer to observe it as Boys’ Day, in accordance with its traditional significance. Girls, on the other hand, have a different festival altogether for themselves, known as Girls’ Day or Hinamatsuri (雛祭り). In accordance with its official name of Children’s Day, May 5 is considered to be a day for appreciating children and the importance of promoting their happiness and health, regardless of gender. Nonetheless, as I’ve mentioned earlier, many still prefer to observe May 5 as Boys’ Day or Tango no Sekku, because this day has been traditionally considered to be a day for appreciating the healthy development of masculinity and strength in young boys.

Young children of Japan - the main focus of Japan's Children's Day (こどもの日, Kodomo no Hi)

Having its roots in Chinese culture, Tango no Sekku corresponds with the Dragon Boat Festival (端午节, Duānwŭ Jié) of the Chinese, the Dano Festival of the Koreans and the Tet Doan Ngo Festival of the Vietnamese. Despite that, Tango no Sekku bears a significantly different meaning altogether as compared to these three other festivals. It is also observed in a very different manner from the three festivals.

So, how is Tango no Sekku observed and celebrated? Before I move on, let me first tell you that I will be discussing on how Tango no Sekku or Boys’ Day is celebrated by the vast majority of the Japanese, and not how Children’s Day is observed as decreed by the Japanese government. In other words, I will be discussing on how this festival is observed according to its “masculine” significance, which is its traditional significance, and not how it is observed for children of both sexes, which is now expected by the Japanese government.

A very common sight to behold in the days and weeks prior to this festival is the raising of carp-shaped flags known as koinobori (鯉幟). As you can see in the picture below, this is a typical koinobori set, which is commonly raised above the roofs of houses with sons. A typical koinobori set like this consists of a flying dragon streamer (飛龍吹流し, hiryuu fukinagashi) at the topmost level, followed by a black carp streamer (真鯉, magoi), a red carp streamer (緋鯉, higoi), and subsequent smaller-sized carp streamers. The black and red carp streamers are said to represent the father and mother respectively, while the subsequent smaller-sized carp streamers are said to represent each son in the family, with each streamer differing in colour and ranging down in size to denote the relative ages of the sons. The more sons there are in the particular family, the more carp streamers are flown in the family’s koinobori set.

A typical koinobori (鯉幟) set commonly raised above the roofs of houses with sons during Tango no Sekku (端午の節句)

The tradition of raising carp streamers does have its unique significance. According to ancient Chinese beliefs, carps swim upstream and struggle their way against swift cascades and waterfalls to reach the topmost source of the river. Upon doing so, they then attain the power to transform into dragons. Such a belief was then brought into Japan and assimilated into Japanese culture. Since the carp displays utmost courage and determination in overcoming obstacles in swimming upstream towards its destination, the Japanese view it as a symbol of success, advocating that such qualities of masculinity displayed by the carp should be emulated by young boys in order to succeed in life. Carp streamers blown by the wind make them appear as if they are real carps endeavouring to swim upstream with all their might.

Carps or koi () - a symbol of success, courage and determination to the Japanese

If you were to enter the house of a Japanese household with sons during Tango no Sekku, another special sight that would capture your attention is the display of warrior dolls known as musya-ningyo (武者人形) or gogatsu-ningyo (五月人形). Such dolls may either resemble Kintaro (金太郎, Kintarou) or merely consist of traditional warrior armors and helmets. In the former type of warrior dolls, they are frequently made to resemble Kintaro, a heroic figure in Japanese folklore who was said to possess herculean strength and admirable courage. Nonetheless, they may also be made to resemble other prominent figures from Japanese history and legend. As for the latter type, a set of such a warrior doll comprises a traditional Japanese armor (鎧, yoroi) and the kabuto (兜), which is a warrior helmet used along with the armor by Japanese samurai in imperial times. Sometimes, a sword or a bow and arrow may accompany this armor-and-helmet set.

A warrior doll or musya-ningyo (武者人形) resembling Kintaro (金太郎)

A warrior doll or musya-ningyo (武者人形) comprising a traditional Japanese armor (鎧, yoroi) and helmet (兜, kabuto)

So, why would Japanese families with sons display warrior dolls during this festival? Well, the answer is simple. What would one most commonly associate warriors with? Strength and courage, of course! Qualities frequently linked with masculinity! Hence, the practice of displaying such dolls reflects every family’s hope that the young boys living under the family’s roof will grow up to become healthy, strong and courageous men, able to face obstacles in life resiliently.

Another popular custom practiced during this festival involves bathing in an iris hot bath. Basically, on this day, the Japanese would soak the leaves of Japanese irises known as shōbu (菖蒲) in hot water. They would then immerse themselves in a nice hot bath amidst the fragrance of irises. It is traditionally believed that the iris hot bath possesses prophylactic properties, in which it helps to prevent many diseases.

Japanese men enjoying a soothing iris hot bath

Nevertheless, that does not mean that the iris hot bath does not have a “masculine” connotation attached to it. The Japanese word for the particular species of iris used in the bath is shōbu (菖蒲), which sounds exactly like the Japanese word for warlike spirit (尚武, shōbu), although they are written with different characters. Consequently, the iris came to be linked with warlike spirit, an essence of masculinity according to Japanese tradition. Therefore, the custom of bathing in iris water during Tango no Sekku slowly developed and has now become an inseparable part of the festival.

Japanese iris known as shōbu (菖蒲), of which its leaves are used in the iris hot bath

Of course, just like any other festival, an invaluable part of Tango no Sekku which many would not want to miss is the gastronomical delights or, in simpler words, food! There are basically two special types of delicacies served on this day, namely kashiwamochi (柏餅) and chimaki (粽). Kashiwamochi are Japanese rice cakes made from glutinous rice, stuffed with red beans jam and wrapped with oak leaves. Chimaki, on the other hand, are rice dumplings made of glutinous rice wrapped with bamboo leaves.

Kashiwamochi (柏餅) - rice cakes wrapped with oak leaves

Eating kashiwamochi is said to hold a very special meaning to the Japanese, as these rice cakes are wrapped with oak leaves. Old oak leaves do not fall until new leaves appear, so it is said that this symbolizes the continuity between generations. As for chimaki, the custom of eating this delicacy during the festival is said to originate from Chinese culture. Known in Mandarin Chinese as zongzi (粽子, zòngzi), this rice dumpling delicacy is traditionally eaten by the Chinese during the Dragon Boat Festival. Since Tango no Sekku is somewhat adopted from the Dragon Boat Festival of the Chinese, it is natural for chimaki or zongzi to be eaten by the Japanese as well during the festival.

Chimaki () - rice dumplings wrapped with bamboo leaves

Having discussed how this festival is celebrated and observed, it is just right for us to review briefly the history and origins of this unique “masculine” festival. In reality, no one knows exactly how Tango no Sekku became associated with boys and masculinity, although it may be quite obvious that this festival was adopted from the Dragon Boat Festival of the Chinese. Strangely enough, the Dragon Boat Festival is not so much associated with masculinity and boys as Tango no Sekku is.

The exact year when Tango no Sekku was first celebrated in Japan remains unknown till this day, although many sources speculate that this festival was first observed during the reign of Empress Suiko (推古天皇, Suiko-tennou) (reigned 593 – 628). Nonetheless, it is said to have obtained its “masculine” connotation only during the Edo Period (江戸時代, Edo-jidai, 1603 – 1868), when Japan came under the military rule of samurais. During this period, many samurai families raised streamers and battle flags on this day, in addition to displaying martial-related decorations indoors. Reverence for the martial arts and warlike spirit was also linked to this day, subsequently bringing about its association with masculinity and boys.

Despite this fact, there exist many other stories and legends relating the origins of this “masculine” festival. One such story states that this festival branched out from a custom traditionally practiced by farmers during imperial times. In imperial Japan, the month of May is the time of the year when many insects start appearing, causing much damage to crops. The farmers attempted to scare away the insects by using brightly-coloured streamers and grotesque-looking figures. As time passed, these grotesque figures eventually evolved into warrior-like figures associated with strength and courage. Gradually, they transformed into more artistic figures and were then placed indoors during this festival to inspire young boys with the spirit of manliness and courage.

Hojo Tokimune (北条時宗) (1251 - 1284)

Another story links the origins of this festival to Hojo Tokimune (北条時宗, Houjou Tokimune) (1251 – 1284), a regent-ruler of Japan famed for his victory over the Mongol army that invaded Japan in 1281. At that time, Kublai Khan, the first Mongol emperor of Yuan Dynasty China, ordered armies to be sent from both China and Korea to invade Japan. Nevertheless, those Mongol troops were devastated due to a large typhoon as well as attacks led by Hojo Tokimune. In celebration of Tokimune’s victory over the invading Mongol armies, many warrior families then raised streamers and flags. This eventually gave rise to the idea of raising streamers during Tango no Sekku.

A painting depicting the Mongol invasion of Japan in 1281

Besides these two stories, there is yet another story which relates the origin of this festival. Since imperial times, the period around the month of May has been the season for rice-planting. In order to pray for an abundant yield of crops, fertility and the purification of the village, it was customary in imperial Japan for young women to isolate themselves for a day in a women-only hut known as onna no ie (女の家). The young women would cover this hut with lots of iris leaves, which was believed to possess purifying powers due to their strong smells. As a result of the women isolating themselves on this day, the boys were then left alone to be celebrated!

Regardless of what the actual origin of this festival may be, Tango no Sekku or Boys’ Day has now become one of Japan’s most important observances. Although it is now officially known as Children’s Day in recognition of all children regardless of gender, its association with boys and masculinity is still very much attached to the minds of most Japanese. And it is this unique association with boys that has brought much intrigue for this festival in the eyes of many non-Japanese.

Young boys joyfully celebrating Tango no Sekku or Boys' Day

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