Shichi-Go-San, a cherished Japanese festival, holds profound cultural significance as it celebrates the milestones of children at the ages of three, five, and seven. The name itself, which translates to "Seven-Five-Three" in English, reflects the specific ages around which the festival revolves. This traditional event, observed annually throughout the month of November, but in a much more special way on November 15th, provides a unique lens through which to explore the cultural values, family traditions, and religious aspects that are interwoven into the fabric of Japanese society.
Transcending time: roots of a festival
The roots of Shichi-Go-San can be traced back to the Heian Period (794-1185), where it was initially a practice among the aristocracy. Over time, it evolved and became more widespread, encompassing people from various social strata. The ritualistic nature of the festival reflects Japan's historical connection with Shintoism, the indigenous spirituality of the country, which often incorporates reverence for nature and ancestral spirits and it is celebrated on November 15 as it is considered a day of good omen.
However, it is also widely believed that the first Shichi-Go-San celebration in history was held by Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi on November 15, 1681 when he went to a Shinto shrine to pray for the health of his eldest son, Tokumatsu.
In contemporary Japan, the celebration of Shichi-Go-San has adapted to the changing dynamics of society. While the essence of the festival remains intact, there are modern elements that have been incorporated. Families may choose to commemorate the occasion with professional photography sessions, capturing the children in their traditional attire. Additionally, some families may opt for more casual clothing, blending tradition with a more contemporary approach.
In the face of societal changes and the influence of globalization, Shichi-Go-San has encountered challenges in maintaining its traditional elements. Some families may find it challenging to adhere to certain customs, especially if they reside in urban areas or have adopted a more modern lifestyle. However, the festival's adaptability and the enduring importance placed on family and tradition contribute to its continued relevance.
Why Three, Five, and Seven?
The ages of three, five, and seven are considered significant in Japanese culture, symbolizing stages of growth and development. Shichi-Go-San serves as a symbolic passage for children transitioning from early childhood to a more mature stage.
It should also be noted that girls of ages three and seven, as well as boys of ages three and five, don elaborate and colorful kimonos. The garments are often chosen with care, reflecting regional styles and family preferences. The act of dressing in traditional attire not only enhances the celebratory atmosphere but also connects the children to Japan's rich cultural heritage.
Age Three (San): At the age of three, children are seen as leaving their toddler years and both boys and girls are celebrated. Families often visit Shinto shrines to pray for the health and well-being of the child and they may also seek blessings for a prosperous future.
Age Five (Go): Even at five they embark on the journey to elementary school for both boys and girls, the age of five is a significant milestone for boys. Of course, girls are still celebrated, but the focus is often on boys at this age. Boys at the age of five often wear a traditional kimono, called "hakama," for the first time. This formal attire marks a symbolic step towards maturity. Similar to the age of three, families visit shrines to express gratitude and seek blessings for the child.
Age Seven (Shichi): At the age of seven, both boys and girls are viewed as entering a stage of increased responsibility and awareness and they are celebrated again, completing the "Shichi-Go-San" tradition. Seven is considered an age of transition, and it is often marked by the girls wearing traditional Japanese kimonos with obi belts tied in a more adult-like manner. For boys, it may involve wearing more formal clothing. Families visit shrines once again to give thanks for the child's health and to pray for their continued well-being.
Rituals for Growing
As we have seen above, central to the Shichi-Go-San celebration is the visitation to Shinto shrines. Families bring their children to these sacred places to express gratitude for their health and well-being, seeking blessings for their continued growth and happiness.
During the Shichi-Go-San ceremony at the shrine, a Shinto priest performs rituals to bless the children. This may involve purification rites, prayers, and the symbolic waving of a ritual implement called a haraigushi to ward off evil spirits. Parents may also make offerings such as rice, sake, or other items to express gratitude and seek continued protection for their children.
The rituals performed at the shrines include prayers offered by parents and the symbolic receiving of "Chitose-ame," long, thin, red and white candy sticks. "Chitose" means a thousand years, and the candies represent the wish for a long and prosperous life. The red and white colors, common in many traditional Japanese celebrations, symbolize joy and purity. The wrapping of the candies often features images of cranes and turtles, animals associated with longevity in Japanese culture.
After the shrine visit, families often celebrate with a festive meal and take commemorative photos of the children dressed in their traditional attire.
While the specifics of the celebrations may vary, the underlying theme is a celebration of life, health, and the passage into different stages of childhood.
Passing Down Traditions
Shichi-Go-San serves as a conduit for the transmission of cultural values from one generation to the next. The rituals, attire, and practices associated with the festival contribute to the preservation of Japan's cultural heritage. Through participation in Shichi-Go-San, children not only experience a rite of passage but also gain a deeper understanding of their cultural identity:
Traditional Attire: During Shichi-Go-San, children typically wear traditional Japanese clothing such as kimono or hakama. This attire is a symbol of cultural heritage and reflects the importance of preserving traditional clothing customs. Here we present some very appropriate models for these special dates, with which girls feel comfortable and happy, stealing at the same time all the looks.
Ancient Rituals: The visit to Shinto shrines during Shichi-Go-San involves traditional Shinto rituals performed by priests. These rituals have been passed down through generations and are an integral part of Japan's cultural and religious heritage.
Furthermore, Shichi-Go-San plays a pivotal role in Japanese culture and society:
Strengthening Family Bonds: Shichi-Go-San emphasizes family bonds and the importance of familiar relationships. The festival provides an opportunity for families to come together, celebrate, and participate in traditional rituals, fostering a sense of unity and continuity.
Respect for Ancestors: The act of visiting Shinto shrines during Shichi-Go-San also reinforces the respect for ancestors and the practice of expressing gratitude for their protection and guidance.
Chain links: Parents play a crucial role in transmitting cultural practices associated with Shichi-Go-San to their children. Through participation in the festival, children learn about their cultural heritage, customs, and the importance of certain life milestones.
Shichi-Go-San has not only retained its significance within Japan but has also garnered interest and appreciation on a global scale. The celebration has become a subject of fascination for individuals from different cultural backgrounds, leading to cultural exchange and cross-cultural understanding. This international recognition further highlights the universal themes of family, growth, and celebration embedded in Shichi-Go-San.
In essence, Shichi-Go-San is not only a celebration of children's growth and well-being but also a powerful vehicle for the preservation and transmission of Japanese cultural traditions.
In the intricate tapestry of Japanese culture, Shichi-Go-San stands as a vibrant thread, weaving together tradition, spirituality, and familial love. The celebration of children at the ages of three, five, and seven encapsulates the essence of growth and transition, symbolizing the hope for a prosperous and fulfilling future. As Japan continues to evolve, Shichi-Go-San remains a testament to the enduring significance of cultural celebrations in fostering a sense of identity, continuity, and shared values.
These celebrations are rooted in Shinto traditions, and they highlight the importance of family and community in Japanese society. They also reflect the cultural significance placed on the early years of a child's life. The ceremonies are not only religious but also serve as social events, bringing families together to share in the joy and growth of their children: it reinforces the continuity of cultural practices, fosters a sense of identity and belonging, and strengthens family and societal bonds.