May 5 is Children's Day in Japan, when families celebrate the healthy growth and happiness of children. It became a national holiday in 1948, but it has been a day of celebration in the Asian country since ancient times.
In ancient Japanese times, the fifth day of the fifth month was traditionally called Tango no Sekku and was a festival for boys only. Girls had their own festival, called Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival), held on the third day of the third month.
Today Children's Day families with boys fly huge carp-shaped streamers (koinobori) outside the house and display dolls of famous warriors and other heroes inside. The carp was chosen because it symbolizes strength and success; according to a Chinese legend, a carp swam upstream to become a dragon.
In recent years, as more people have moved into apartments and smaller houses, the carp streamers have also gotten smaller, and there are now miniature versions that decorate the indoors.
Also on this day, families often take baths sprinkled with iris leaves and roots. This is because the iris is thought to promote good health and ward off evil. Rice cakes wrapped in oak leaves and filled with sweet bean paste, called kashiwamochi, are also eaten.
On May 5 of each year, events highlighting children are held throughout the country of Japan. At the National Kasumigaoka Stadium in Tokyo, tens of thousands of children and their parents participate in a Kids' Olympics. It has the look and feel of the real thing, since the National Kasumigaoka Stadium was the main arena for the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. It even features a torch relay, and there are races for parents and kids in different age groups.
Many activities involve the arts. At the Yokohama Noh Theater one year, a kyogen recital was held that featured 18 young actors. The youngest of them was a second grader and the oldest was in the seventh grade.
Kyogen is a type of comic theater that was founded around 600 years ago and is performed with traditional costumes and a distinctive acting style. The kids had been attending practices once or twice a week since the summer of 1996 to learn the unique comic expressions, movements, and uses of the fan. One of the pieces performed was called Shibiri, in which a servant claims he can't run an errand for his master because every time he tries to do so his leg falls asleep.
The theater was packed with parents and friends, who not only enjoyed the humorous pieces but were also extremely impressed with the kids' convincing performances.