My first child was born on May 5. We lived in Evanston, Illinois, and for the first six years of his life we celebrated his birthday on May 5, and for four of those years we also celebrated his brother’s birthday on May 2. The first week of May had become a special week in our house. When the boys were 6 and 4, we moved to San Diego and learned that something else had happened on May 5 and that for most of the people in this part of the country Margaritas and guacamole trumped birthday cake, even if the cake did look like Snoopy. Battle of Puebla or not, we continued to celebrate my son’s birthday on Cinco de Mayo. Then I came to work at Mingei International and learned that May 5 was also Boy’s Day (Tango no Sekku) in Japan. We had surfeit of celebrations.
In 1948 Boy’s Day became Children’s Day, a celebration of the healthy growth and happiness of all children. It’s also a time when children express gratitude for their parents’ love and care. Boy’s Day is still a part of that observance, so carp flags fly outside of houses to signify strength and perseverance, one for each boy in the family, and interior displays of warrior dolls are still in evidence. Girl’s Day (Hinamatsuri) also known as the Peach Blossom Festival continues to be observed on March 3.
Fortune has smiled once more on my family. I just learned that the days leading up to Children’s Day are called the Golden Week in Japan. That includes May 2. Now my other child can enjoy the benefit of an auspicious birthday. During Golden Week there are four Japanese national holidays — Showa Day on April 29, Constitution Memorial Day on May 3, Greenery Day on May 4 and, of course, Children’s Day. The week became “golden” when movie companies realized that all those holidays meant free time for families to take advantage of the golden opportunity to see a film or two. The name stuck, and now it’s become an unofficial national week off. It may not represent riches and success, but I’ll celebrate it with pleasure. After all, it’s the week my children were born.
I began to pay attention to these celebrations last Wednesday when the installation crew changed the contents of some cases in the Founder’s Gallery, so that we may observe our own version of Children’s Day at Mingei International. Boy’s Day banners hang in front of the windows. A vitrine in front of one holds large Boy’s Day dolls portraying Jingu Kōgō (Queen Jingu) and her minister Takenouchi who is holding the Queen’s new-born baby Ōjin. In front of the other banner is a vitrine with the Lord and Lady, often called the Emperor and Empress that occupy the top tier of a traditional Girl’s Day court doll display.
Japanese dolls (Ningyō) are rarely playthings, and they are more than holiday decorations. They had their beginnings as objects that purified and brought good luck. Often they belong to adults, providing when appropriate a temporary home for spirits. The warrior dolls (musha-ningyō) of Boy’s Day are fierce, storied heroes with stern faces whose courageous spirits persist after death and come to inhabit their doll images when stories of their great deeds are retold. While they are present in a household, they cleanse it of evil spirits. The elaborate court dolls that are displayed from late February until March 3, Girl’s Day, do not drive out evil spirits, they absorb them. Originally, dolls were made that resembled the daughters of a household. These girls were encouraged to hold their dolls and to rub them with their hands to make sure that any evil spirits in the girls were transferred to the dolls. To guarantee that the family was free of bad spirits, the dolls were taken to the river on Girl’s Day and allowed to float away, malevolent sprits and all.
The only Boy’s Day hero who is not male is Jingu Kōgō, wife of Emperor Chūai. Information about her is scarce, but she is believed to have lived in second and third centuries. Her story is one of legendary exploits. They say that she was a shaman, and while in a trance gave her husband the emperor a divine instruction to travel to a western land filled with treasure. He refused to obey and one report is that he was struck dead for his disobedience. Although pregnant, Jingu followed the instruction, armed herself and led an expedition to conquer the land in the west — Korea. To prevent her child’s being born before her return to Japan, she attached rocks around the waist of her skirt. Returning victorious nineteen months later from what is said to have been a bloodless conquest, she gave birth to her son Ōjin. As the legend grew through the years, Ōjin became Hachiman, the Shinto god of war, and Jingu became a deity as well — goddess of easy childbirth and naval warfare. Super Moms are not as recent a concept as I had thought.
Palace dolls (gosho-ningyō) are baby-like, white-skinned dolls that eighteenth century courtiers exchanged as tokens of their good wishes and protection. Their whiteness comes from gofun, the material with which they are covered. It can be burnished so that the dolls appear to be made from porcelain. Among those on view is Daikoku-ten, one of the seven lucky gods. Carrying a mallet — some call it a money mallet — he brings good fortune and cares for the household. There are court musicians, ladies in waiting, a charming young man with a rake and a lady with Chin dog also to be seen in this exquisite exhibition. In addition, I am happy to report that a good number of the indomitable Maneki Neko are still on hand to beckon us to join the fellowship of good luck bringers.
The Childrens Day display will be in the Founder’s Gallery through May.
Imperial couple (dairi-bina)
Japan, twentieth century
Wood, gofun, silk, paper
Empress Jingu and Minister Tokenouchi Holding Infant Ōjin
Boy’s Day Warrior Dolls
Japan, c. 1850
Wood, gofun, glass, silk brocade, straw, paper
Woman with dog
Girl’s Day Dolls
Japan, twentieth century
Palace doll (gosho-ningyō)
Japan, twentieth century
Clay and crushed shell