Japan’s May Carp Flag: Children’s Day? Boys’ Day? Girl’s Day? What’s the difference?

If you’ve been to Japan during Golden Week in late April/early May, you’ll have seen carp flags hanging in the streets. Most of them are in groups of three or five, and the colors range from black, red to cyan, and sometimes green and purple.

So why do they fly carp flags in Japan? What does it mean? Is it possible to choose the number and color of carp flags? I’m sure you have these questions. Let’s take a look.

Children’s Day : Carp Flag

May 5 is the Japanese “Children’s Day” and the traditional East Asian festival “Duanwu Festival”. On this day, carp flags are hung in every household to pray for the children (especially boys) to grow up healthy and prosperous without illness.

The reason for flying the carp flag is the old Chinese folklore of the “carp jumping over the dragon gate” (鯉魚躍龍門, 鯉が竜門の滝ると竜となって天をかける). According to legend, the carp in the Yellow River, despite living in murky water, will jump over the Dragon Gate (located in Shanxi Province) and become a dragon if they endure. The carp flag in the air is a symbol of the boy’s ability to overcome hardships and become a dragon, just like the carp.

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Also, in Japan, tying a carp flag with a child conveys the message that “we are tying this because you are important” and is a sign of parental love for their child.

What is the color of the carp flag?

The carp flag in the Japanese mind is usually a version with three fish. From top to bottom, the colors are black, red, and cyan, and in descending order of size.

The black carp is called “Magoi,” which symbolizes the father who is the pillar of the family (called “Daikokuju” in Japanese); the red carp is called “Higoi,” which symbolizes the sun, and like the sun, the mother who gives birth to life.

The next color is the “kogoi”, which is green. Cyan is the color of spring, symbolizing the revival of everything and the growth of new life, so it is used to represent the children of the family.

However, when the carp flag was first created in the Edo period, there was only one color, black. Therefore, if you can see carp flags in ukiyo-e, they are all depicted in black. In the Meiji period, red was added, and in the modern Showa period, cyan was added. Later on, when there was more than one boy in the family, green or purple was added to supplement the colors.

Children’s Day is actually a boy’s day?

Careful readers may have noticed that in the above statement, we said that  Children’s Day is actually a boy’s day, which means that Children’s Day is actually a “boy’s day” in Japan. What is the reason for this?

In fact, in the earliest days,  May 5 was also celebrated as the “Dragon Boat Festival”. However, when the son of a shogun (the de facto ruler of Japan at the time) was born on May 5, the shogun started hanging carp flags to celebrate the birth of his son and to pray for his growth, and this custom has been passed down to this day.

In the past, if there were only girls in the family, the carp flag would not be hung on May 5. However, with the changes of the times, children’s day is now being celebrated as a festival for children as a whole, without any distinction between men and women. Now, there are even carp flags for girls.

When is Girls’ Day?

In Japan, on March 3, there is a festival called Daughter’s Day (Japanese: Hina Matsuri). On this day, parents set up a stepped display for their daughters with many dolls wearing kimonos.

From the top to the bottom of the stage, there are the Emperor, Empress, and courtesans, the band, attendants, and servants, as well as dowry equipment, bullock carts, heavy boxes, and sedan chairs. In total, there were almost fifteen dolls. In some families, if the dolls are well protected, they are used as dowry for the marriage of their daughters and are passed on to their daughters’ daughters. For families with a long tradition, there are even dolls that date back to the Edo period, and there can be as many as one or two hundred of them, which is very impressive.

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