Today (November 15) is a special day in Japan called “7-5-3 Day” or “Shichi-go-san” (七五三).
Maybe you’ve already heard of it, but let me introduce this interesting and adorable celebration to you.
What is Shichi-go-san?
Shichi-go-san (七五三: 7-5-3) is a Japanese festival celebrated for children aged 7, 5 and 3, thus the name. The official date is November 15th, but as it’s not a national holiday most families will hold their festivities on the nearest weekend instead.
Parents of a 3-year-old or 5-year-old son and / or of a 3-year-old or 7-year-old daughter will take them to a local Shinto shrine. There, they pray to Ujigami (氏神), the Shinto guardian god of good health, wishing for the well-being of their children.
Usually a purification rite (harai, 祓い) and the reciting of a Shinto prayer (norito, 祝詞) are performed on that day.
For tourists it’s a great opportunity to take cute photos. If you happen to be in Japan around that time of the year, I suggest you visit one of the bigger shrines. Most families are busy taking millions of photos for their family album.
A family leaves Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto with their 3-year-old daughter, dressed in a beautiful kimono.
Origins of Shichi-go-san
Shichi-go-san dates back to the Heian Period (794-1185) when aristocrats celebrated the growth of their children.
This practice was adopted by commoners during the Edo period (1603-1868). In order to pray for the health of their kids, they started visiting shrines. The 7-5-3 Day as we know it today evolved in the Meiji era (1868-1912).
Why the ages 7, 5 and 3?
You might wonder how they decided on these ages. Odd numbers such as 3, 5 and 7 are considered to be lucky numbers according to the East Asian numerology.
In ancient times, those ages were associated with certain milestones in the life of a Japanese child:
Age 3: Children didn’t get their hair shaved anymore and were allowed to grow it:
Especially during the era of the samurai, kids would have their heads shaved at birth. Children at the age of three celebrated “kamioki” (髪置き). Finally they were allowed to grow their hair. This custom does no longer exist, but the tradition that marks this occasion lives on.
Nowadays, boys and girls who are 3 years old will wear traditional Japanese clothes, probably for the first time in their life, while visiting a local shrine.
Age 5: Boys put on a hakama for the first time in public:
The celebration known as “hakamagi-no-gi” (袴着の儀) marked the first time boys aged five could wear their official “hakama”.
Age 7: Girls began using an obi sash to tie their kimono, instead of cords:
Seven-year-old girls were allowed to replace the simple cords they used to tie their kimono with the traditional obi. This celebration is called “obitoki-no-gi” (帯解きの儀).
A 7-year-old girl and her 3-year-old sister celebrate “Shichi-go-san” at Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima (Hiroshima).
Why November 15th?
There are many theories concerning the date of “Shichi-go-san” – and nobody knows which one is really true.
Some say it’s because November 15th is the festival day for Ujigami, celebrating the fall harvest under the lunar calendar. Apparently that date was chosen because it was considered the luckiest day of the year, not only according to the traditional Japanese calendar, but also according to yin and yang.
Others suggest it’s because 7+5+3 add up to 15. Another story is that the Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646-1709) celebrated the health of his 3-year-old son, Tokumatsu, on that date.
Whatever the truth is, in modern times people don’t celebrate the “7-5-3-Day” on November 15th anymore – unless it falls conveniently on a weekend. Everybody is busy and thus the shrine visit has to wait until the whole family has a day off – which is usually on the weekend closest to November 15th.
Traditional Candy for Shichi-go-san: Chitose Ame
Children don’t only get to dress up in beautiful clothes, they also receive a special type of candy which is only handed out for the “7-5-3 Day”.
It’s called Chitose Ame (千歳飴), literally thousand-year candy, which is a long, thin, red and white candy. It’s traditionally carried in paper bags with a crane and a turtle on it, which represent health and longevity. There’s an old Japanese saying which makes this quite obvious:
“Tsuru wa sennen, kame wa mannen.” (鶴は千年、亀は万年)
“Cranes live for 1,000 years, turtles for 10,000 years.”
Some paper bags are also decorated with images of pine trees and bamboo, the symbols of good luck.
The girl holds a Chitose Ame paper bag in her left hand.
Other Japanese Festive Days and Holidays
Apart from “Shichi-go-san” there are a lot of other interesting Japanese holidays and festive days you should know about. I’ll keep introducing more holidays in the future, so stay tuned:
- January 1: Shogatsu (Japanese New Year’s Day)
- February 3 or 4: Setsubun (Bean Throwing Day)
- February 14: Japanese Valentine’s Day
- March 3: Hina Matsuri (The Doll’s Festival)
- May 5: Kodomo no Hi (Children’s Day)
- July 7: Tanabata (The Star Festival)
- December 24: Christmas in Japan
- December 31: Omisoka (Japanese New Year’s Eve)