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  • 執筆者の写真Narelle Katsumoto

Flying Carps? All about Koinobori and Children’s Day



Have you ever visited Japan and wondered about those carp flagged up in some places? Those colorful koi banners are called Carp Streamers or 鯉のぼり (koinobori). You can see them decorated all around the nation from April until the first week of May to celebrate Children’s Day or 子供の日 (kodomo no hi).


The Legend of Carp and How They Became Koinobori


Carp share similar meanings in Japanese and Chinese cultures. In both cultures, they symbolize resilience and bravery. Legend has it that when a carp successfully swims up a cascading waterfall, it transforms into a dragon. This belief inspired people to make carp talismans or charms for children during the Edo period.




From ordinary carp, how were they able to fly? The word Koinobori consists of the words “koi” and “nobori,” which means “carp” and “flag,” respectively. In the past, samurai warriors wielded flags during battle to signify their factions. These flags were often painted in different designs and colors, some of which even featured images of carp. Alongside fearsome samurai dressed in yoroi armors, these carp banners displayed “courage” and “strength,” qualities desired for boys. Since then, families have been koinobori flying from their roofs to commemorate their sons.    

 

History of Koinobori and Children’s Day


Setting up carp streamers was originally a tradition for the Boy’s Festival, now commonly known as Children’s Day, which is held on the 5th of May. This event was created for people to offer prayers for the good health of every young boy in their families and to hope they become strong warriors in the future. To celebrate, families would display a warrior doll or an armor set inside their homes and put up koinobori outside. 




The colors and the number of koinobori have drastically changed over time. During the Edo period, these flags represented the number of sons in a samurai family and were predominately black. These families would raise these koinobori with their flags adorned with their family crest. By the end of the Edo period, wealthy traders began to adopt these carp streamers to celebrate their children’s success and decorated them in five colors. This practice soon became so popular that by the Meiji period, the common folk also embraced it.




It wasn’t until the Showa period that carp flags donned the typical colors (black, red, and blue), which signified each family member. This was because, in 1948, Children’s Day was officially established to celebrate all children regardless of gender. As a result, koinobori came to represent all members of the family. 


Nowadays, due to the size of residences in large cities, smaller koinobori can be seen inside households. Not only that, but some families would also display small samurai dolls and kabuto helmets–even making origami out of them! Other colors, such as pink, green, and purple, have also emerged to represent all children in the family. More importantly, the biggest change would be how koinobori are set up. Compared to traditionally hoisting these carp flags vertically, many cities in Japan began hanging carp streamers horizontally over bodies of water. You can now see hundreds of koinobori flying over rivers and lakes!




How to Set Up Koinobori


Koinobori is crafted from paper, cloth, or various woven fabrics. Expensive ones made from silk or high-quality paper can also be purchased. The material is shaped into cylinders and then designed to resemble carp. They are suspended on wooden or bamboo poles. Carp streamers displayed outdoors are typically about 100 meters long.




Generally, a set of koinobori consists of three elements:


  • Yaguruma

  • Fukinagashi

  • Koinobori


Placed atop the pole, the yaguruma is a spherical spinning vane with a pair of two arrow-shaped spoked wheels. Historically, it served as a symbol of warfare (3). Below it hangs the fukinagashi, a streamer made of vibrant stripes decorated with the family crest. Beneath it is the koinobori. Traditionally these carp streamers are arranged from top to bottom:


  • The largest black carp symbolizes the father

  • The next largest red carp symbolizes the mother

  • The smaller blue carp symbolizes the boy

  • Other colored carp symbolize younger siblings




Whether they're soaring in the skies or adorning homes as small decorations, koinobori continues to captivate all generations in Japan. Let's pray for the health and success of all children. While you're at it, why not join koinobori festivals in your area?


Sources:

  1. https://koinobori-japan.jp/koinobori.html

  2. https://matcha-jp.com/en/239

  3. https://www.lucasswcd.org/uploads/1/1/8/3/118306178/fish_windsock_complete.pdf

  4. https://saitoworks.com/shop/touge-legends-nobori/#:~:text=Nobori%20Flags%20(%E5%B9%9F)%20are%20a,as%20warriors%20marched%20into%20battle

  5. Buckley, Sandra (2009). The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Japanese Culture. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 9780415481526.

  6. https://www.teachearlyyears.com/learning-and-development/view/celebrating-japanese-childrens-day#:~:text=On%20Children's%20Day%2C%20people%20in,(paper%20folding%20with%20cutting).

  7. https://www.japanhouselondon.uk/read-and-watch/create-your-own-koinobori/

  8. https://sports.yahoo.com/koinobori-why-over-japan-week-201226609.html

  9. https://www.j-higa.net/culture/25carp/carp

  10. https://orientalsouls.com/blog/culture-traditions/koinobori-japanese-carp-flag-history-customs-japan/

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