TANGU NO SEKKU
May brings the reminder that in Japan, as in the United States, one of a nation's greatest assets is her children. May 5 is "Children's Day" in Japan, the day to stress the importance of respecting the character of children and promoting their health and happiness. It is also the day for children to express their gratitude for the tender love and care they receive from their parents.
On this day Japanese families celebrate Tango-no-Sekku, the Boys' Festival. With its special customs and observances, it is Japan's way of celebrating the healthy growth and development of her young boys.
If one travels through Japan from the latter half of April to early May, one sees nearly everywhere huge, gay-colored Koi-Nobori, carp-like streamers made of paper or cloth, which fill with wind and seem to swim in the air. Together with long red and white ribbons, the carp are hoisted on a bamboo pole, mounted by a pair of gilded pinwheels, high above the rooftops.
A carp is flown for each son in the family, a very large one for the eldest, the others ranging down in size.
The carp has become the symbol of the Boys' Festival because the Japanese consider it the most spirited of fish, so full of energy and power that it can fight its way up swift-running streams and cascades. Because of its strength and determination to overcome all obstacles, it stands for courage and the ability to attain high goals. The carp is an appropriate symbol to encourage manliness and the overcoming of life's difficulties leading to consequent success.
No one knows for sure when the observation of the Tango-no-Sekku began but some historians trace it to an ancient rural Chinese custom (Sechie), in which the royal guards wore ceremonial helmets and carried bows and arrows, which became popular at the Japanese court during the days of the Empress Regnant Suiko (593-629 A.D.).
One legend relates that the festival is a branch of a custom practiced by farmers in May, the time when insects begin to appear to harm the young plants. The farmers tried to drive the insects away by frightening them with bright banners and grotesque figures. Later, these figures came to represent warriors famed for their fighting power. As the Musha-Ningyo (warrior dolls) became more artistic, they were gradually displayed indoors, not to scare away insects but to remind the young boys of the family of manliness and to ward off evil spirits.
Another legend traces the origin of the Boys' Festival to Tokimune Hojo's victory over them invading Mongols
|on May 5, 1282. As a result, Samurai families erected the flags and streamers in celebration of the victory. Others believe that the unification of the country by the Ashikaga Shogun in the 14th century had been celebrated in this fashion on every May 5 until the interior decorations came to be emphasized.
In the modern observance of Tango-no-Sekku, a display is arranged in the tokonoma, or alcove, in the guest rooms of Japanese houses. Among the decorations are a miniature helmet, suits of armor, a sword, a bow and arrow, silk banners bearing the family crest and the warrior dolls which represent Kintaro, a Herculean boy who grew up to be a general; Shoki, an ancient Chinese general believed to protect people from devils; and Momotaro, the Japanese David the Giant killer.
Girls are the guests of their brothers on this occasion just as boys are guests of their sisters on the occasion of the Girls' Festival on March 3. Their parents provide them with the traditional delicacies such as Chimaki (sweet rice dumplings wrapped in iris or bamboo leaves) and Kashiwa-Mochi (rice cakes containing sweet bean paste wrapped in oak leaves).
Shobu, the Japanese iris, the long narrow leaf of which is somewhat like a sword in shape, has always been closely associated with the Boys' Festival. The iris leaf is prominent in the observance of Tango-no-Sekku because the sound of the word Shobu, although written with different characters, implies striving for success.
On May 5, the Japanese steep the leaves in hot water and enjoy the fragrant Shobu-yu (iris hot-bath) because of the traditional belief that the iris bath is a miraculous prophylactic against all kinds of sickness. Many public bath houses, particularly in the districts where the people are less affected by western influence and are accustomed to taking hot baths in the morning, open their doors early in the morning on May 4 and 5.
Also for the festival, finely chopped iris leaves are mixed with Sake to produce a drink (Shobu-sake) especially enjoyed bv the Samurai of old.
In ancient times, iris leaves were also believed to have the mysterious power of extinguishing fire and for this reason, in rural areas today, people still observe the custom of putting iris leaves on the eaves of their houses on May 5 as a talisman against the possible outbreak of a fire or presence of evil spirits.