Boys’ Day in Japan: Origin, Traditions and Food

What is boys’ day in Japan and when is it?

Boys’ day in Japan is called Tango no Sekku. It is on the 5th of May. Tango no Sekku is a day to celebrate the boys’ healthy growth and health.

5th May is also “Children’s Day” in modern Japan. It’s a national holiday in Japan. According to the Japan Holidays Law, Children’s Day is a day that values the personality of children, strives for their happiness, and thank their mothers.

What does Tango no sekku mean?

Sekku means seasonal festival. This festival has a Chinese origin. According to ancient China philosophy, odd numbers 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 were considered “yang(陽)”. “Yang” carries a mental image of heaven, maleness, light, activity, and penetration.

There are five such festival days a year, and they are called five seasonal festivals.

・ January 1 (New Year’s Day  元旦) Later changed to January 7 (People’s Day)
・ March 3 (Kamimi 上巳) Girl’s Day
・ May 5 (Tango 端午) Boy’s Day
・ July 7 (Tanabata 七夕) Star Festival
・ September 9 (Chuyo 重陽)

Why is it called boys’ festival?

During Edo period, the “Hina doll play” became popular among samurai and ordinary people, and it became a “girl’s festival” in connection with Kamimi festival (3th March). 

On the other hand, the Tango no Sekku is also called “Shobu (菖蒲) no Sekku”. Shobu means calamus, which is a kind of plant with medicinal benefits. The pronunciation of shobu (菖蒲) is the same as 尚武 which means warlike spirit. This day has come to be recognized as a “boys’ festival”. It seems that it was especially celebrated among the samurai.

How to celebrate Tango no Sekku?

1. Decorate with May doll 五月人形を飾る

It is recommended to start decorating from around 20th March to mid-April. 

There are the following types of May dolls.

Armor decoration (鎧飾り) : A set of armor, bow and arrow, sword, etc.

Helmet decoration (兜飾り) : Only a helmet worn on the head

・ Samurai doll   (武者人形) : A cute child doll in the shape of a samurai. There is also a Kintaro (金太郎) type of doll

2. Put up carp streamers 鯉のぼり

The reason why it is called “carp streamer” is that when a boy was born, his birth was celebrated with a banner or a flag.

At first, only the normal streamer was used, but the carp was drawn after the fact that the carp that climbed the waterfall became a dragon.

Like the May dolls, they are often put up from mid-April to mid-May. It will be good to be decorated before the rainy season.

Every year, there are many places for carp streamers sightseeing.

3. Calamus bath 菖蒲湯

A calamus is put into the bath tub filled with water.
The calamus contains essential oils and are said to be healthy even in the hot summer.

What are the special food to eat on Tango no Sekku?

1. Kashiwa mochi 柏餅

Kashiwa means oak leaves. Mochi is Japanese rice cake made of glutinous rice. Kashiwa mochi is made by wrapping mochi with red bean paste filling with large oak leaves. The flavorful leaves added more depth and aroma to the mochi.

Kashiwa is an auspicious plant that is said to lead to “prosperity of offspring” because old oak leaves do not fall until new shoots grow. However, unlike Sakura mochi (mochi with red bean paste filling wrapped in Sakura leaves), the leaves shouldn’t be eaten.

2. Chimaki ちまき

Chimaki is a steamed sweet rice cake wrapped in bamboo leaves.
Originally, it was wrapped in the cogon leaves(茅 chigaya), Maki (巻き) means wrap, that’s why it is called Chimaki.

Generally, chimaki does not have fillings. 

There are various variations of Kashiwamochi and Chimaki in each region. It will be introduced below!

3. Bamboo shoots タケノコ

Tango no Sekku is the season for bamboo shoots. 

It is said that eating bamboo shoots at the Boys’ Festival to wish that the boys will be brought up upright (まっすぐ) like the bamboo shoots.

There are many ways to bamboo shoots such as boiled, cooked with rice, put them in spring rolls etc.

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