Children’s Day and Koi

From April 29th to early May, there are several public holidays in Japan, this is called Golden Week. Many businesses, as well as public schools, are closed during this time. It is a popular time for workers to take off work and travel. However, traveling is discouraged this year and people are advised to stay home because of Corona. Even though you are not able to visit Japan during this time, I thought it would be interesting to talk about the last day of Golden Week, Children`s Day(Kodomo No Hi).Children`s Day takes place on May 5th every year. Koinobori or Carp streamers are hung up all over Japan before the holiday. Koi have become ubiquitous with Children`s day. Before I go further, allow me to explain the significance of Koi in Japanese culture.

Koinobori 
663highland, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

Koi in Japanese culture

In English, we use Koi to describe the colorful Variety of Amur carp. In Japan, Koi simply means carp and Nishikigoi refers to the colorful ones. Nishikigoi mean much more in Japan than just an ornamental pond fish, they are the national fish and are often used to represent Japan. They can swim upstream against the current and jump over barriers. They can grow to be quite large if they are reared in clean water and properly taken care of. They are also known for their longevity, the average Nishikigoi lives to be around 70. The oldest Nishigoi(and oldest freshwater fish), Hanako lived to the age of 226. As a result, they are associated with positive attributes such as bravery, strength, luck, and prosperity. Koi were brought to Japan a thousand years ago from China to be eaten. Nishikigoi were created when farmers began breeding them to get different color variations in the 19th century. The hobby is said to have originated in the prefecture of Niigata which is still known for its Koi farms. Nishikigoi are often found in public and private ponds in Japan. They also can be seen on temple and shrine grounds because of their symbolism in Japanese religion. In Shimabara, Nagasaki the fish can be seen swimming in drainage canals that are filled with clean fresh spring water that flows from a nearby volcano, called Mount Unzen.The clean spring water allows the fish to thrive in the canals. TShimabara is famous in Japan for it`s Nishigoi.

Koi and Children`s Day

Childrens Day was originally known as Boys Day to encourage the growth of boys and to celebrate their fathers to a lesser extent until it was changed in 1948 to include girls and their mothers. Before Childrens Day, Carp Streamers or Koinobori are hung from home and businesses to celebrate the holiday. Koinobori are colorful Carp windsocks that look like they are swimming when it is windy outside. Black Koinobori represent fathers and red Koinobori represent mothers. Other colors are used for children. They ordered from the oldest to youngest. Koi were chosen as a symbol for Boys Day(now Children`s day) because of their ability to swim upstream and fight currents. Koi represent courage and the ability to overcome obstacles. The choice of Koi also pays homage to the Chinese story of a school of golden Koi swimming upstream in the Yellow River during the Han Dynasty. At the end of the river, there was a giant waterfall and many of the Koi turned back. But the remaining fish for years tried to leap to the top of the waterfall, all while their efforts were mocked and sabotaged by demons. Finally, after 100 years, one golden Koi was able to make it to the top of the waterfall and was turned into a golden dragon as a reward for its determination by the gods. (This is why the Pokémon Magikarp(based on a Koi ) evolves into the dragon Pokémon, Gyarados.)The Koinobori when the wind blows looks like they are swimming towards the heavens like the golden carp that became a dragon.

Other Traditions on Children`s Day

Families will often display dolls of the folk hero, Kintarō, to represent courage and bravery. He is a young boy who has super strength and is the subject of many folk tales. Kabuto (Samurai helmets) are also displayed to hope for the protection of children’s bodies. In the Kanto region of Japan, Kashiwa Mochi, white mochi(Rice Cake) filled with red bean paste and wrapped with a Kashiwa (Sweet Oak) leaf are eaten on Children`s Day. Kashiwa trees are a symbol of prosperity as their leaves do not fall off the tree until new leaves start growing. People eat Kashiwa Mochi to wish for children to grow up well. The leaf is not edible so only eat the Mochi if you have the chance to try it. In western Japan, Chimaki, a rice dumpling with various fillings wrapped in Bamboo leaves is more widely eaten because Kashiwa trees are not native to western Japan. Chimaki is associated with the story of a Chinese poet named Qu Yuan who jumped into a river after the king of the Ancient State of Chu went against his advice which resulted in the capital of Chu being captured by the State of Qin. Villagers in boats tried in vain to save him and threw Zongzi(Chimaki) in the water so fish would eat that instead of Qu Yuan`s body. Chimaki and the legend of Qu Yuan were brought to Japan during the early Heian period(794 to 1185).

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