Tuesday, May 26, 2009


2009.5.18.Kyoto Shimbun 2009.5.18 News
On May 17, "Otaue Taisai," a rice-planting ritual to pray for a bountiful harvest, was performed at the sacred rice paddy of Tarobo-no-miya Shrine in Owaki-cho, Higashiomi City. Female high school students wore the colorful costumes of "Saotome," or rice-planting girls, and planted rice seedlings one by one in sync with the song.

The rite has been performed since 1940. Nineteen junior and senior high school students at Shiga Gakuen played ritual roles such as seedling planters, seedling givers, and others.

The seedling planters entered the approximately 50-square meter sacred rice paddy, wearing sedge hats and green kimono costumes with red sashes. They carefully planted "Nihonbare" rice seedlings, to the sound of drums and the singing of the rice-planting song, "Since olden times, the heart and soul of Japan, land of vigorous rice plants, is agriculture."

Rice planted this day will become a votive offering after it is harvested around September or October. Mizue Hayashi, a sophomore at Shiga Gakuen High School, said, "I wished for the seedlings rich growth as I planted them."

Photo= Female high school students in red sashes plant rice seedlings (Owaki-cho, Higashiomi City)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Samurai (侍 or sometimes 士) is a common term for a warrior in pre-industrial Japan. A more appropriate term is bushi (武士) (lit. "war-man") which came into use during the Edo period. However, the term samurai now usually refers to warrior nobility, not, for example, ashigaru or foot soldiers. The samurai with no attachment to a clan or daimyo was called a ronin (lit. "wave-man").

Samurai were expected to be cultured and literate, and over time, samurai during the Tokugawa era gradually lost their military function. By the end of the Tokugawa, samurai were essentially civilian bureaucrats for the daimyo with their swords serving only ceremonial purposes. With the Meiji reforms in the late 19th century, the samurai were abolished as a distinct class in favour of a western-style national army. The strict code that they followed, called bushido, still survives in present-day Japanese society, as do many other aspects of their way of life.
Etymology of samurai

The word samurai has its origins in the pre-Heian period Japan when it was pronounced saburai, meaning servant or attendant. It was not until the early modern period, namely the Azuchi-Momoyama period and early Edo period of the late 16th and early 17th centuries that the word saburai became substituted with samurai. However, by then, the meaning had already long before changed.

During the era of the rule of the samurai, the earlier term yumitori (“bowman”) was also used as an honorary title of an accomplished warrior even when swordsmanship had become more important. Japanese archery (kyujutsu), is still strongly associated with the war god Hachiman.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Kodomo no hi - japanese children's day

For Kodomo No Hi (Children's Day), families raise colorful carp-shaped "Koinobori" flags, one for each member of the family. The largest and uppermost flag represents the father, followed by the mother, and small carp to represent children.

Children's Day (Kodomo-no-hi or Tango no Sekku) is one of the most popularly celebrated national holidays in Japan. Until recently, Tango no Sekku was the boys' day (also known as Feast of Banners) while the girls' day (Hinamatsuri) was celebrated on March 3. In 1948, the government decreed this day to be a national holiday to celebrate the happiness of all children and to express gratitude towards mothers. It was then renamed Kodomo no Hi.

May 5th marks the beginning of summer on the old lunar calendar and the begining of the 5th month, which according to the Chinese calendar was set aside to be a month for purification. To expel evil spirits and celebrate the future of their sons, families hoist koinobori (cloth carp streamers) from balconies and flagpoles. Gogatsu ningyo (5th Month Dolls) are displayed in homes and store windows with images of Kintarou, usually riding on a large carp, and a traditional Japanese samurai helmet, a Kabuto. Kintarou and the Kabuto are both symbols of a strong and healthy boy. Kintarou (金太郎) is the childhood name of a hero of the Heian period, famous for his strength as a child. It is said that Kintarou mounted on a bear, instead of a horse, and played with animals in the mountain when he was a young boy.

Some children may also take shyobuyu (a bath with floating iris leaves), and eat kashiwa-mochi (a rice cake wrapped in an oak leaf ) and chimaki (a dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves). Carp, samurai, irises, oak trees, and bamboos all symbolize strength.

Symbols on Children's Day

The carp kites which are flown for this festival are called 'koinobori' and are colourful - usually decorated with red or blue - and made of white cloth. They symbolise success due to the carp's long life and golden colour and are also supposed to drive away evil spirits. They are believed to represent strength and determination of spirit in the same way the carp travels against the current. In some houses, a carp is flown for each family member with the father's being the largest at the top down to the youngest child's at the bottom.

As well as kites, warrior dolls are also displayed inside the house and special food is eaten: 'kashiwamochi' which is sticky rice cakes filled with red bean paste and wrapped in oak leaves, and 'chimaki', sticky rice cakes wrapped in bamboo leaves. The oak and bamboo symbolise strength and a successful life and the oak is also connected with the Shinto religion as both this and Hina Matsuri (Girl's Festival) are Shinto festivals.

The 'gogatsu ningyo' (May Dolls), Masculine samurai dolls of famous historical and literary fame, samurai helmets and armour are seen not just in homes, but also in the shops. The perfect gift from Japan, tourists buy them in droves so they are available all year round instead of just at festival time but the most comprehensive display of masculine dolls in stores is right before the Children's Day Festival. In all shapes and sizes and costs, there is something for everyone.

In Samurai times, helmets and armour were decorated on this day as they were considered the most important of the fighting tools and boys as young as fifteen went to war. The items were intended to strengthen the spirit of the young boy and, in remembrance of these days, small versions of these items are still popular.

With the increasing lack of space as people move to small inner city apartments, it is becoming more common to display small dolls and carps inside the house or on a balcony if there is one, so miniaturised versions of the traditional displays are now common.

The History of Children's Day

While originally imported from China, the Boy's Festival has changed dramatically over the years. May 5th was originally adopted as a festival for boys corresponding to the Doll Festival for girls. However, gradually, the day became a joint day for all children and was renamed Children's Day in 1948 and made a national holiday. Despite this renaming, the symbols of courage and strength really honour only boys and girls are still celebrated in March.

At the end of April and the beginning of May, along with the Children's Day Festival, there are a number of other public holidays; the 29th April is Midori no Hi (Greenery Day), the 1st May is May Day, the 3rd May is Kenpoo Kinenbi (Constitution Day) and the May 5th is Kodomo no Hi (Children's Day). As such, it is common to get holidays for the entire week to 10 days depending on where the weekends fall. This succession of holidays is known as Golden Week.

While this profusion of festivals means there is a lot to see and do throughout Japan at this time, it is really a time to avoid travelling as many Japanese use the break to travel both within Japan and overseas and trains and other transport are packed past capacity.