Saturday, November 15, 2008

Shichi-Go-San (Seven-Five-Three)

On November 15, or the nearest weekend, people across Japan take their three and seven year old girls and their three and five year old boys to visit the local Shinto shrine. Most girls are dressed in kimonos, while the boys don haori jackets and hakama trousers. Though in recent years an increasing number of children are wearing western-style dresses and suits. The reason people take their children to the shrine on this day is because November 15 is Shichi-go-san, which means seven-five-three. The numbers three, five, and seven are considered to be lucky according to Japanese numerology. This is a Shinto festival, not a recognized holiday.

This festival is said to have been celebrated as far back as the Heian period (794-1185) where nobles celebrated the growth of their children on a lucky day in November. The festival was subsequently set on the fifteenth of that month during the Kamakura period (1185-1333), because the fifteenth was considered one of the most auspicious days of the year in the Japanese almanac. Shogun Tsunayoshi Tokugawa was said to be celebrating the growth of his son, Tokumatsu, on that day.

As time passed, this tradition passed to the samurai class who added a number of rituals. Children, who up until the age of three were required by custom to have shaven heads, were allowed to grow out their hair. Boys of age five could wear hakama for the first time, while girls of age seven replaced the simple cords they used to tie their kimono with the traditional obi. By the Edo period (1603-1868), this practice spread to commoners, who began visiting shrines to have prayers offered by priests.

The customs for this day have changed very little. The only real changes are that the custom of children having shaved heads no longer exists and people like to take a lot of photographs of their little kids all dressed up.

Children are given Chitoseame (thousand year candy) on Shichi-Go-San. Chitoseame is long, thin, red and white candy. It is given in a bag with a crane and a turtle on it. Chitoseame is wrapped in an edible thin clear rice paper film that resembles plastic. The crane and the turtle traditionally symbolise longevity in Japan. The candy and the bag are expressions of parents' wish that their children lead long and prosperous lives.

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