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Celebrating Children’s Day

In Japan, May 5 is known as Children’s Day or Kodomo no hi – a day for families to wish health, strength and happiness upon their youngest generation. On this day, koinobori (cloth carp streamers), flutter in the wind, children snack on mochi wrapped in oak leaves, and communities host kid-centric events. The roots of the modern holiday trace to ancient times and the celebration of Tango no Sekku, or Boy's Day. Held on the fifth day of the fifth month on the lunar calendar, families celebrated their little future warrior and honored the traditions of his male ancestors. Hinamatsuri or Doll Festival was a separate holiday held on March 3 to honor girls. In 1948, Children’s Day was modernized to be inclusive of all children and May 5 became a national holiday.

Jun’ichiro Sekino, "Totsuka – Carp Streamers." A pair of koinobori fly above the eaves in this colorful print. (Jun’ichiro Sekino, "Totsuka – Carp Streamers," 1963. Ronin Gallery.)

The traditions and decorations of Children’s Day feature many symbols strength. Families display colorful arrays of koinobori - carp-shaped streamers or windsocks - outside their home. The carp plays a popular role in Japanese folklore as the most spirited of fish—so full of energy and power that it can fight its way upstream and leap over cascading waterfalls. As the koinobori swim in the wind, the family wishes the strength and perseverance of the carp for their children. Today, koinobori represent the whole family, with the top one depicting the family crest, followed by a black koinobori symbolizing the father, and a red koinobori for the mother. The children are distinguished by blue, green, purple or orange koinobori, with the carps ranging down in size from oldest to youngest.

Nobukazu, "May: Carp Streamer." Here, a black koinobori can be seen to the top left of the print. Since this print dates to the end of the 19th century, the koinobori points to the celebration of Boy's Day (Tango no Sekku), the origin of the Children's Day we know today. (Nobukazu, "May: Carp Streamer," from the series Twelve Months in Modern Times, 1891, Ronin Gallery.)

Due to samurai origins of the celebration, warrior symbolism such as samurai helmets and armor might be displayed in the home. Characters known for their courage and strength, such as Momotaro or Kintaro, are also popular figures on children's day and may be displayed as dolls. It is customary for children to take a shobu-yu – a bath with floating iris leaves – because it is believed the iris will promote good health and ward off evil .  Even the traditional treat kashiwamochi – a steamed rice cake containing sweet bean jam, wrapped in an oak leaf – carries associations of strength.

Shuntei, "Cat's Cradle." Red yarn winds around pale wrists in this game of cat's cradle. Shuntei, "Cat's Cradle," from the series Children's Games, 1896, Ronin Gallery.)

This year, Ronin Gallery celebrates Children’s Day with a collection of prints from Shuntei’s Children Games. From scenes of cat’s cradle to hand ball, this series captures the world of play. Shuntei brings each pastime to life through his delicate figures and bright kimono. To explore the series, be sure to visit this week's online exhibition Shuntei: Children's Games.

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