Shichi-go-san (七五三 – literally ‘7-5-3') is a Japanese festival held annually in November to celebrate the health and longevity of boys aged 3 and 5 and girls aged 3 and 7.
As part of the festival, children are dressed in kimono and visit the shrine with their families to participate in a Shinto purification ceremony to pray for a long and happy life and to mark their passage into middle childhood. The ages three, five and seven are said to have been chosen as odd numbers are considered auspicious in Japanese numerology.
The custom dates back to the Heian period (794-1185) when child and infant mortality was high. It began amongst court nobles and then spread to the samurai class who added several rituals. By the Meiji period (1868-1912), Shichi-go-san had evolved to become part of mainstream culture and ritual.
During the samurai era, it was customary for children to have their heads shaved at birth. It was kept short until the age of three. The Shichi-go-san festival marked the time when children could start growing their hair, referred to as “kamioki” (literally ‘putting on hair'). Although this custom is no longer observed, the celebration of the day that marked it is. At the age of three, boys and girls make their first debut at the local shrine wearing traditional Japanese clothes.
At the age of five, boys celebrate “hakamagi-no-gi“, their first time to officially wear “hakama” or formal Japanese pants.
At the age of seven, girls celebrate “obitoki-no-gi” when they wear the traditional “obi” sash to tie their kimono for the first time instead of simple cords.
Nowadays, traditional wear may be switched for Western style suits and dresses.
It is an occasion for formal photographs and for girls to have their hair and make-up done. It is an important rite of passage observed by the family. Children receive gifts including chitose-ame (“one thousand year candy”). The stick-shaped candy, made of glutinous rice, barley and water, is red/pink and white in color, lucky colors in Japan. They are placed in a bag decorated with turtles and cranes which, with their long life spans, are Japanese symbols of longevity.
While the official date is November 15th, as the day is not a national holiday in Japan, many families celebrate it on the closest weekend before or after the date. However, you may see young children dressed for the occasion anytime during November.
It is generally accepted that November 15th was chosen as the date for Shichi-go-san as it was an auspicious date in the old calendar. However, there are also the added theories that the 15th signifies the adding of the ages 3, 5 and 7, and that it coincides with the date that the famous Edo era Shogun Tokugawa first put hakama pants on his son in celebration of his growth.
If you're visiting shrines in Japan this month, be sure to have your camera close at hand to capture this important milestone for young children and their families.
Popular shrines to observe the ritual in Tokyo are Meiji Jingu in Harajuku, Hie Shrine in Asakusa and Kanda Myojin Shrine in Ochanomizu.
Meiji Shrine: The JR Yamanote Line to Harajuku Sta., the Chiyoda or Fukutoshin Subway Line to Meiji-Jingumae Sta. (C 03, F 15)
Hie Shrine: The Ginza or Namboku Subway Line to Tameike-Sanno Sta. (G 06, N 06), or the Ginza or Marunouchi Subway Line to Akasakamitsuke Sta. (G 05, M 13), or the Chiyoda or Marunouchi Subway Line to Kokkai-Gijidomae Sta.(C 07, M 14)
Kanda Myojin Shrine: The JR Chuo or Sobu Line, or the Marunouchi Subway Line to Ochanomizu Sta. (M 20)