Shichi Go San
Shichi Go San Festival 七五三
The Making of Little Adults: The Celebration of 753 (Shichi-Go-San)
Late last year, my friend in Kagoshima sent me some pictures of her niece on Shichi-Go-San. I was surprised when I opened them up - although Yume is only two years old, she was dressed up like a tiny adult.
There were several professional photographs of her in different poses and modeling different outfits, in one she was even donning a parasol!
The photographs all shared a common theme she was wearing her best clothes and was dressed well beyond her years. Yume wore elegant kimonos, her hair was meticulously and opulently styled, and she was even wearing make-up!
She looked beautiful, but I found the practice of dressing a child in such a way odd and so was encouraged to research the meanings behind this celebratory day.
On November 15th, Shichi-Go-San (7-5-3) is celebrated as a gala day for three and five-year-old boys and three and seven-year-old girls. On this day, prayers are offered for the healthy and happy futures of the children.
These ages in particular are celebrated both because these years are seen as important age markers in the stages of a child's growth and because odd numbers are seen as signs of good luck in Japan.
15, which is the aggregate of 7, 5, and 3 is also considered an especially auspicious number. However, as my friend's niece was only two years old, it can be surmised that while these particular ages are the typically traditional ones, the practices and traditions have developed and been adapted over the years in modern practice.
Generally in modern day celebrations of shichi-go-san, the children are dressed in their finest clothes, with girls often appearing in kimono and boys in hakata, and they attend their local Shinto shrine with their parents, where they pay a visit to the tutelary deity.
There they give thanks to the health of their children and pray for continued happy and healthy futures. They are given a candy called chitose-ame (thousand year candy), which represents long life and is supposed to ensure the child's longevity and health.
Chitose-ame is a long and thin candy colored red and white, and comes in bag decorated with crane and turtle illustrations. Both of these animals are symbols of long life in Japan. Red and white are also perceived to be an auspicious color combination.
The roots of the tradition of praying for the health and well-being of children can be found in a few varieties, which are summarized below.
The first notion is that it came about during the Heian period, when court nobles used to celebrate the passing of their children from infants to middle childhood. These numbers were especially celebrated as they are now, due to the luck perceived in odd numbers.
However, it is also suggested that the idea originated in the Muromachi era. It is believed that due to the high infant mortality rate at that time, the children were only recognized in their family register after the age of three.
It is said that in the following periods, three traditional coming-of-age ceremonies began to develop, which became customary among samurai society in the Edo era and quickly gained popularity, spreading from its birthplace in the Kanto region throughout Japan.
It has also been suggested that because at the time of the origin of the festival, bacterial pathology was unknown to the rulers, infant deaths were often blamed on evil spirits, so when the children reached the ages of 3, 5, and 7 the gods were thanked for bringing the children good health.
The first of these ceremonies indicated above is that of kamioki, celebrated for three-year-old boys and girls. In this tradition, both boys and girls have their heads shaved shortly after birth.
They remained shaved until the age of three, and in the spring following their third birthday, they hold the kamioki ceremony, upon the completion of which the children's hair is permitted to grow longer.
The second ceremony is hakamagi-no-gi, which is the ceremony for putting on the hakama (Japanese traditional skirt for formal wear). This ceremony is held for five-year-old boys and marks the first time the children wear their hakama.
The third ceremony, obitoki-no-gi, is held for seven-year-old girls, and exhibits the first time the girls wear "obi" (a broad sash for the kimono) instead of a string.
Behind all of these ceremonies is the implication that the children have reached an age of maturity, where they are able to move towards a new step in their childhood.
These ceremonies are also held to celebrate the child's growth. These ceremonies are not always followed anymore, but have been replaced by a trend in recent years to visit the shrine to express gratitude and pray for the child's future.
The chitose-ame has also become an indispensable feature of the celebration. Today, we also see a modern trend developing whereby parents take the opportunity to have their children photographed in their finest clothes, and frequently send these photos out to friends and family.
Also by Stephanie Plewes