Shichi-go-san  festival: take a look at the history and contemporary practice of the Shichi Go San Festival for 7, 5, and 3 year-old children in Japan.
Shichi Go San Festival 七五三
The Making of Little Adults: The Celebration of 7-5-3 (Shichi-Go-San)
by Stephanie Plewes
7-5-3 (Shichi-Go-San) children parade in their finery
November 15th is the Shichi-Go-San ("7-5-3") Festival in Japan, celebrated as a gala day for three and five-year-old boys (or, in many areas, for five-year-old boys only) and three and seven-year-old girls. On this day, prayers are offered for the healthy and happy futures of the children.
These ages in particular are celebrated both because the ages of three, five and seven are seen as important markers of stages in a child's growth, and because odd numbers are seen as lucky in Japan.
Late last year, my friend in Kagoshima sent me some pictures of her niece on Shichi-Go-San. There were several professional photographs of her in different poses and modeling different outfits. Although only two years old (not even three!), she was dressed well beyond her years, in elegant kimonos, with her hair meticulously and opulently styled, posing with a parasol in one picture, and was even wearing make-up!
She looked beautiful, but I found the practice of dressing a child in such a way odd, so set out to find the meanings behind this celebratory day.
Shichi Go San Festival
There's a reason why shichi-go-san is celebrated on November 15th. Fifteen is the sum of three, five and seven, and is therefore also considered an especially auspicious number. However, speaking of numbers, my friend's niece was only two years old, so it can be surmised that, while the particular ages of three, five and seven are the typically traditional ones, the practices and traditions have evolved over the years and allow for much flexibility.
Generally, in modern day celebrations of shichi-go-san, the children are dressed in their finest clothes, with girls often appearing in kimono and boys in hakama, going to their local Shinto shrine with their parents to pay homage to the tutelary deity of the neighborhood. There the parents give thanks for the health of the child and pray for continued happy and healthy futures.
The child is given a candy called chitose-ame ("thousand year candy"), which is supposed to ensure the child's longevity and health. Chitose-ame is a long, thin red-and-white candy and comes in bag decorated with crane and turtle illustrations, the crane and turtle both being symbols of long life in Japan. Red and white is also an auspicious color combination.
Let's have look at the possible roots of the shichi-go-san tradition of praying for the health and well-being of children.
Shichi-go-san may have developed during the Heian period, when court nobles used to celebrate their children's transitioning from helpless infancy to lingual articulacy to fledgling self-sufficiency.
Shichi Go San Festival at Izanagi Shrine, Awaji
However, it is also suggested that the idea originated in the Muromachi era when, due to the high infant mortality rate at that time, children were only recognized in their family register after the age of three. From there on in, traditional coming-of-age ceremonies developed for the next two "lucky" numbers: five and seven, and became customary among samurai society in the Edo era and quickly gained popularity, spreading throughout Japan from their birthplace in the Kanto region.
It has also been suggested that because at the time of the origin of the festival bacterial pathology was unknown to the rulers, infant deaths were often blamed on evil spirits, so when the children reached the ages of 3, 5, and 7 the gods were thanked for bringing the children good health.
The first of these ceremonies, for three year olds, was kamioki. kamioki literally means "hair leaving" and had its roots in the established practice of shaving the head of a baby, whether boy or girl, seven days after its birth, and keeping the head shaved until the age of three. It was believed that constantly cutting the hair this way would encourage even more luxuriant growth. In the spring following the third birthday, the kamioki ceremony was held, and thereafter the "hair leaving" took place, i.e., the hair was left to luxuriantly grow.
The second ceremony, for five year old boys, is hakamagi-no-gi, and is all about putting on a hakama (loose pleated trousers used for formal wear) and haori formal coat. This ceremony is held for five-year-old boys and marks the first time for them to wear this formal attire, associated with roles and responsibilities.
The third ceremony, obitoki-no-gi, is held for seven-year-old girls, and is the first time the girls wear "obi" (a broad sash for the kimono) instead of a a kimono tied with attached strings. The obi sash is more difficult to tie and more ornamental, so symbolizes the transition to womanhood. When the obitoki-no-gi first began, way back in the Kamakura era, it was for 9 year olds, and for boys too, but in the Edo era the hakama-no-gi became the norm for boys at age five, and the age at which the obitoki-no-gi was performed for for girls came down to 7.
Behind all of these ceremonies is the idea of the child transitioning in a new step towards eventual adulthood.
Shichi Go San Festival at Izanagi Shrine, Awaji
The three shichi-go-san ceremonies held to celebrate the child's growth are not always carried out anymore. Nowadays they are often replaced by just a visit to the shrine to express gratitude and pray for the child's future.
Another modern trend is for parents to take the opportunity to have their child photographed in ceremonial finery, and send the photos out to friends and family.
Finally, the flexible choice of date for the shichi-go-san shrine visit may also be a sign of the times. Visit a Japanese shrine even a couple of weeks before or after the official day of November 15, and you will be sure to witness a happy shichi-go-san family group. Japanese today are choosing to keep the warm sense of togetherness and childlike fun of this family-focused heritage without necessarily subscribing to strict observance.
Also by Stephanie Plewes