Luscious locks, traditional clothes, and candy sticks–today’s post is all about Shichigosan!
What is Shichigosan 七五三?
If you grew up in a Japanese home, I bet in your home you have framed photos of you or your parents under the age of 8, dressed up in fancy kimono (girls) or hakama (boys), possibly for the first time. Most likely the photos were taken at a jinja (shrine) or at a photo studio, and the date in the corner of the photo probably is November 15. Don’t worry! We haven’t been snooping on your family photo album. It’s just that many Japanese families commemorate their children’s third, fifth, and/or seventh birthdays in this way–it’s called Shichigosan, and the official date for that celebration is November 15!
Undoubtedly Shichigosan is a big milestone in the life of a child. It’s a chance for the family to celebrate the next step of maturity in the life of their little one. On this special day, girls wear kimono, and boys wear hakama. You could say that Shichigosan is the traditional Japanese equivalent of the now prevalent Western birthday party. Although children don’t receive gifts for Shichigosan, it’s customary to eat chitose ame, the stick of hard candy with a repeating pattern on the inside. Because of its long shape, chitose ame signifies long life.
Where Did Shichigosan Come From?
In contrast to many other Japanese celebrations and festivals, which were originally imported from China, Shichigosan seems to be a grassroots celebration. It was popular among samurai families in the Edo Period, but it goes back as far as the Heian Period. During that time, children did not always live past infancy, and these birthdays were significant markers in the life and development of a child. Both boys and girls celebrated the third birthday celebration, called kamioki no iwai 髪置の祝い. This was the first time the child’s hair was allowed to grow long. Until then, it was kept short to encourage the hair to grow thick and luscious in the future.
Next was the fifth birthday, called hakamagi no iwai 袴着の祝い, celebrated by boys. On this day, they wore hakama for the first time. Today, most families skip kamioki no iwai for boys, and instead celebrate only this five-years-old shichigosan. The seventh birthday is a dream come true for girls. It’s called obi toki 帯解き, and this is when they get to dress in kimono with a real obi (帯, kimono belt) for the first time. That’s every bit as good as dressing up as Cinderella or Elsa!
As for the official date of Shichigosan, why November 15? Take a guess! (You’ll find the answer at the end of this post.)
Shichigosan has been celebrated by countless Japanese families throughout history. Although the basic idea has remained the same, each generation of children feels the significance in a different way, and every child in every generation has his or her own story. For today’s post, we asked Junko (Japanese expat living in the US) about her memories of her Showa Era Shichogosan celebration.
(See Mottainai! 3 Free, No-Hassle Tips for an Eco-Friendly Lifestyle for another interview with Junko)
Although their family was poor growing up, Junko’s okaachan wanted to give her a proper Shichigosan celebration, so when Junko was seven years old, Okaachan worked extra hard and set aside the money to purchase a beautiful kimono. She dressed Junko in the kimono, gave her lipstick and white face powder (along with a powder puff to suppress the itch), and took her to a jinja (shrine). There, a professional photographer offered to take their picture. Little Junko didn’t want it, because she knew it would cost more money than was had already been spent on her outfit. Okaachan insisted, the photo was taken, and the result was the picture above, with Junko wearing a gorgeous kimono and a miffed expression.
Other than Shichigosan, children in those days had very quiet birthday celebrations. Junko’s siblings didn’t exchange gifts, but they did eat osekihan (お赤飯, sticky rice cooked together with azuki beans).
“Traditionally Japanese didn’t glorify birthdays. The emphasis was on oshougatsu (お正月, New Year’s), entering schools (less on graduating, in my opinion,) getting a job (since it used to be for life,) weddings, births of babies and funerals.” –Junko
We appreciate Junko for sharing her photos and her personal memories about Shichigosan. Happy face or mad, the photos reveal a mom’s love for a precious daughter, and a daughter’s sunao 素直 innocent and honest consideration for her hard-working mom. That is something worth preserving for posterity!
Over To You!
How about you? What do you remember most about your shichigosan? If you have children or young nieces or nephews, do you plan to celebrate their third, fifth, or seventh birthdays in the traditional way? Post your shichigosan photos on Instagram with the hashtag #wafuuinthewestshichigosan and tag us @wafuuinthewets.
Answer: Shichigosan is celebrated on November 15 because the sum of 3, 5, and 7 is 15!