The Rituals of Childhood

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You are struck by ritual and tradition everywhere in Japan – from the moment you step off the plane to the ground crew bowing your arrival. What may seem quite different, or even quaint at the time, is actually just a continuation of values and traditions instilled upon the Japanese from the very beginning of their lives.


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It’s important to start life right with regards the gods, so once you’re 30 days old you’ll want to get a good introduction – called omiyamairi. Here the newborn is dressed up in a formal dress (sometimes made by the mother’s family) and is brought to the family shrine where the gods can get a good look. The priests offer up a prayer wishing good health and life-long happiness, making sure to say the name of the baby, the parents’ names, and the family’s address. Just to make sure the gods know exactly who is getting their blessings!

Fast forward to another significant milestone: this time the 100th day of life and a very indulgent childhood tradition called okuizome, the first food – a ritual dating back 1,300 years (to the Heian period). The baby is “fed” a very lavish and specific meal (which, only being 100 days old, it can’t actually eat) but symbolically, the meal ensures one will never go hungry during their lifetime.


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The menu is pretty specific and pretty fancy for an infant, consisting of one soup, three sides, and an entire sea bream. The meal gets even more ritualistic, as there is a strict order in which the meal should be “eaten” by the baby. The order goes rice, soup, rice, fish, rice, and then soup again. This is repeated three times, each time culminating in a wish for the infant – be it for long life, good health, happiness in marriage, etc. This tradition brings the entire family together.

If you’ve been to Japan, I think you’ll agree that one of the most adorable sights is a young Japanese boy or girl dressed in a fancy kimono. If you’ve seen this at a shrine it’s pretty likely, they were celebrating the shichi-go-san custom.


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Shichi-go-san literally translates to “seven-five-three”. If you guessed that children ages seven, five, and three observed the tradition, you’d be correct! In Asian cultures, odd numbers have always had a place of importance and are still revered to this day. The numbers are considered lucky, and strong in that they cannot be evenly split. However, there’s a darker reason for celebrating a child’s third year – historically infant mortality was so high that most parents didn’t add their young children to their family registry until three years of age, a definite milestone in a hopefully continued long life.

Rituals aside, as a child in Japan gets older he or she is subtly (and not so subtly) pushed to conform to societal norms as well. The expectations of a Japanese child may seem markedly different to other cultures. In an article on the societal pressures that shape Japan, Tour Leader Richard Farmer discussed how schools in Japan pressure students to conform at an early age – these expectations on children aren’t inherently right or wrong; they are just cultural observations.

There’s no escaping it: Japanese children work hard. After a full day at school (which ends with cleaning the school) most students head to Juku. Juku is a sort of cram school students attend as a supplemental part of their education, going from one school to another as their day ends, some not getting to go home until after dinner. Once home, they still need to do their homework for the next day as well! These are so normal here that they don’t seem strict, just, well, expected.


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The final rite of passage for Japanese children, Seijinshiki or Coming of Age day, is truly the end of their childhood. Unlike the west, Coming of Age Day isn’t celebrated as a birthday but held annually on the second Monday of January for every person who has turned 20 the previous year. Thousands of new Japanese adults don their finest (and sometimes most garish) kimono and gather at large function centers and city halls across the country. Once there, a ceremony is held marking their crossover into adulthood. If you’re picturing a ritualistic and serene entry into adult life, think again. After the ceremony large drinking parties are held which are almost inevitably shut down by the police for rowdy behavior; another seemingly common rite of passage in other countries besides Japan. Some rites transcend borders and language!

Japanese childhood is rife with ceremony, pageantry, and rites. While most have their ties from a thousand years of Shinto religion, some are more societal. All of them, though, are a part of Japanese culture. They are passed down from family to family and serve as a through line of generations. Regardless of how politics or technology changes modern culture, Japanese protect their rituals and their traditions. It’s one of the most fascinating aspects of living and visiting here.

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