Beautiful Colors in Japan

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Carp streamers hanging at home near the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto.  Photo by: Shannon Murphy

By: Shannon Murphy

Japan is full of amazing tradition and customs.  At the end of April, I began seeing beautiful and colorful fish streamers displayed at many Okinawan residences and schools.  I was sure they had a special meaning.  After a little research, I found out the fish streamers (carp) are displayed during the month of May to celebrate Golden Week.

Golden Week is celebrated annually as a collection of four national holidays that fall within seven days.  Schools are usually closed during Golden Week and many businesses will either close or have limited hours.

In fact, if you ever plan to visit Japan, it’s a good idea to avoid this week!

Golden Week is one of the three busiest times of the year to visit Japan (New Years and Obon week are the other two.)  Public transportation can get quite crowded and it would be challenging to make hotel and airline reservations.  Popular sightseeing spots and beaches will also be very popular.

The national holidays making up the Golden Week are (Descriptions by www.japan-guide.com):

  • April 29 – Showa Day (Showa no hi):

April 29th is the birthday of former Emperor Showa, who died in the year 1989.  Until 2006, Greenery Day (see May 4) used to be celebrated on this day.

  • May 3 – Constitution Day (Kenpo kinenbi):

On this day in 1947, the new postwar constitution was put into effect.

  • May 4 – Greenery Day (Midori no hi):

Until 2006, Greenery Day used to be celebrated on April 29th, the birthday of former Emperor Showa.  The day is dedicated to the environment and nature, because the emperor loved plants and nature.  Before being declared Greenery Day, May 4th used to be a national holiday due to a law, which declares a day that falls between two national holidays, a national holiday.

  • May 5 – Children’s Day (Kodomo no hi):

Traditionally it was called Boy’s Day, but it is more commonly referred to as Children’s Day.  The Boy’s Festival (Tango-no-Sekku) is celebrated on this day.  Families pray for the health and future success of their sons by hanging up carp streamers and displaying samurai dolls inside the home, both symbolizing strength, power and success in life.  Girls have their own festival celebrated on March 3rd.

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Okinawan school flying the colorful carp streamers. Photo by: Shannon Murphy

Back to the colorful carp streamers…

Tradition calls for homes to display one streamer for each boy in the household.  The eldest gets the largest carp, the other sizes range down according to the age of other boys in the home.  They are usually found flying in the breeze above school grounds, the balconies of apartment buildings, or the front porches of houses.

The Japanese chose the carp because it is seen as the most spirited of fish, so powerful that it can swim up streams and cascades.

The carp stands for courage and for attaining high goals.

Modern day celebration of Tango-no-Sekku also include decorations inside the homes of boys consisting of “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.” (Source: Ginkoya)

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Decorations displayed inside the home of boys. Photo source: Ginkoya

I know many of you are now wondering if the Japanese celebrate their girls.  They do, but very differently.  Their day is celebrated on March 3rd, Girl’s Day or Doll Festival (Hina Matsuri), with a set of ceremonial dolls and peach blossoms displayed in their homes.  These dolls are passed down from generation to generation.  On this day, families with daughters wish them a successful and happy life.

The dolls are replicas of an ancient emperor and empress and their subordinates.  The peach blossoms symbolize happy marriage and signify the feminine traits of gentility, composure, and tranquility.  After the celebration, the dolls are boxed up and put away until the following year.  If a family can afford it, each daughter will have her own set of dolls.

May has come to an end, but I am still finding carp streamers on display.  I am sure they will all be stored away soon (or maybe it’s like in the United States where you still have neighbors with Christmas lights on the house in June?)  I have really enjoyed seeing them, especially because they make buildings and homes more colorful.  It has been another fascinating tradition to discover.

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