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端午の節句 兜(かぶと)

May, Carp streamers swimming in the sky - Seasons of Japan

Japanese tratitional name for May is "Satsuki". May is a month with its dazzling fresh green of trees and the season for rice planting. It is believed that the name is from the ancient Japanese language that "sa" meant cultivation.

Among many traditional events that have been handed down in Japan, the May event is "Tango no Sekku", also known as "Boy's Festival" and "Iris Festival", to pray for the healthy growth of boys. This article explains how Tango-no Sekku is celebrated in Japan.


What is Tango no Sekku?

Iris blooming in a garden in Kyoto

"Sekku", in simple terms, refers to a day that marks seasonal milestones and Tango no Sekku falls on May 5. Originally, it was an acient Chinese event to repel evil spirits. At that time, people feared that evil spirits would bring illness and disasters, therefore iris, with its distinctive strong fragrance and pointed sword-shaped leaves, was used to drive away evil spirits. This is the reason why Tango no Sekku is also called Iris Festival.

As the years passed, the meaning of this custom changed. In the samurai society after the Kamakura period, the sound of the Japanese word 菖蒲 (shobu, meaning "iris" in Japanese) was associated with the homophones 尚武 (shobu, meaning "to respect the way of martial arts") and 勝負 (shobu, meaning "to win"), and it became an event to pray for the success of the boy who would be the heir to the family.

Modern-day Tango no Sekku follows this trend. When May 5 was established as Children's Day in 1948 after World War II, the name was changed from "Tango-no Sekku" to "Children's Day," and it became a day to wish for the happiness of children, regardless of whether they are boys or girls.


What to do on Tango no Sekku?

Here are some of the customs associated with Tango no Sekku.

Carp streamers "Koinobori"

In May, carp streamers swimming heroically in the sky can be seen here and there. This custom is said to be based on the Chinese legend, which says that a carp that climbs over a steep waterfall becomes a dragon. The sight of a large flock of carp streamers soaring over the sky ocean is a sight to behold.

carp streamers are swimming in the blue sky ocean

"Gogatsu Ningyo" Dolls

The term "Gogatsu Ningyo" refers to all dolls displayed during the Tango no Sekku, including armor, helmets, and other armored ornaments, as well as worrior dolls wearing them. Armor and helmets were to protect warriors themselves, so that this decoration means to protect children from illness, accidents, and other calamities.

boy's festival doll called gogatsu ningyo

Shobuyu (iris bath)

Shobu-yu refers to a bath in which iris roots and leaves are boiled. As mentioned earlier, iris, with its distinctive strong fragrance, has been considered a medicinal herb to ward off illness and evil spirits since ancient times. On Tango no Sekku, people purify themselves by taking a bath with irises floating in it, wishing for good health. The iris bath is said to promote blood circulation, relieve lumbago and neuralgia, and relax the body with its fragrance.


What to eat on Tango no Sekku

On the day, "Kashiwa Mochi" and "Chimaki" are eaten for good luck.

chimaki rice cake and kashiwa mochi rice cake

Kashiwa Mochi

Kashiwa Mochi is a Japanese confectionery created in the Edo period (1603-1867), consisting of a rice cake filled with red bean paste and wrapped in an oak leaf. Since the old leaves of the oak tree do not fall off even when new leaves sprout, it was believed in samurai society that eating a Kashiwa Mochi would keep the family lineage alive. It is widely popular as a good-luck talisman for the prosperity of descendants.


A confectionary made by wrapping a rice cake in a bamboo leaf. The origin of chimaki comes from a Chinese legend. After Kutsugen, a politician and poet of the Chuxian Dynasty, was forced to flee his country due to a conspiracy and eventually threw himself into a river, the people of the country were saddened by his death and threw rice wrapped in bamboo leaves into the river as a memorial service. The custom of eating chimaki is said to have originated as a way of avoiding misfortune.


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