The other day, someone brought some mochi (Japanese rice cakes) into work, each of which featured a design of a traditional symbol of May in Japan. I thought I’d introduce some of these symbols here.
Origami kabuto – The kabuto (samurai helmet) is a symbol of Kodomo no Hi (Boy’s Day, May 5th) in Japan, as traditionally families would want their sons to grow up strong and brave, like a samurai warrior. Making origami kabuto is a popular Kodomo no Hi activity, and they’re pretty easy to make (make them large enough and you can even wear them!)
Bow & Arrows – These are the weapons of Kintaro, a Japanese folk hero who was reputed to be strong and brave even as a child. Some Japanese display dolls of Kintaro in their houses at Kodomo no Hi in the hope that their children will grow up as strong as Kintaro.
Chimaki – This a type of dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaf that is served at Kodomo no Hi – perhaps because its shape resembles the koi-nobori carp streamers that are the most prominent symbol of Kodomo no Hi.
Koi-Nobori – “Carp streamers,” the symbol most commonly associated with Kodomo no Hi, as the carp represents the strong and healthy growth of boys. I’ve written more about the symbolism of Koi-nobori here.
Kashiwa-mochi – These are mochi rice cakes wrapped in oak leaves eaten by children on Kodomo no Hi. Tall and strong, oak is thought to promote the healthy growth of boys (it’s interesting that in both Paganism and Japanese tradition, oak is associated with strong masculine energies!)
Kabuto – The samurai helmet is another very prominent symbol of Kodomo no Hi, related to the tradition of displaying “Gogatsu no Ningyo” (May Dolls) in homes around May. These dolls represent samurai warriors, and just as Hina Ningyo (Hina Dolls) are displayed at Hina Matsuri to bless young girls and wish for their marriage, Gogatsu no Ningyo are displayed in the hope that boys grow up to represent the samurai ideals of strength, discipline, honour, filial piety and valour.
Axe & Bib – These are both symbols of Kintaro, the Japanese folk boy-hero. The axe is his weapon, and the diamond-shaped red bib his standard attire (the bib is emblazoned with the character 金, meaning “gold,” and is the first character in the name “Kintaro”).
Satsuki Azalea – These pink flowers bloom in May – their name, “Satsuki” is the traditional Japanese word for “May.” Hence the names of the children in the film My Neighbour Totoro – Satsuki and Mei (May)!
Shobu – The Shobu, or Japanese Iris, is another May-blooming flower. Some Japanese add dried irises to their baths on May 5th to expel evil and cleanse themselves.