Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Normally, this letter should be written next week since its subject, the unofficial holiday called “shichi-go-san” (七五三) is supposed to be celebrated on November 15. Still, I decided to transfer it, like the holiday itself gets transferred to the closest weekend or any other day its protagonists (or rather their parents) have time to spare since it involves several time-consuming procedures like dressing the children up in classic Japanese clothing (formal hakama trousers and montsuki kimono for the boys and colorful kimono for the girls), taking them to a Shinto shrine (preferably a famous and prestigious one) for a blessing ceremony and then –or simultaneously- getting their picture taken by a professional photographer. Most parents want a memento from their children’s shichi-go-san because it will always remind them when the children were three, five or seven years old –hence the name: in Japanese, “shichi” means “seven”, “go” means “five” and “san” means “three”.
The choice of odd numbers was not accidental: in Far Eastern cultures, odd numbers are considered auspicious and shichi-go-san started during the Heian Period (794-1185) as a celebration by the imperial court nobles who wanted to rejoice publicly for the fact that their children managed to reach these ages still healthy, since child mortality until after the Edo period (when the custom spread) was tremendously high. This also explains why in shichi-go-san boys celebrate their three and five years and girls their three and seven (usually boys died at a younger age) as well as an expression that some old-timers still remember: nana sai made wa, kami no uchi (七歳までは神のうち) or “until you become seven, you belong to the gods” expressing the unspoken fear of all parents of that time: that until their seventh year, their children were living with one foot in this world and with the other in the next.
Modern-day Japanese have obviously no reason to fear or to think of their children’s seven year as their first adulthood like their counterparts in the Heian, Kamakura, Muromachi or Edo periods did, but their ancestors in the Meiji period saw the tail of this fear’s shadow (child mortality was still high at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th) and gave this holiday the name and the popularity it still enjoys. And although most of them don’t know that November 15 was chosen because, according to the old calendar, it was the “kishuku-bi” (鬼宿日) or “day the demons don’t go out in the world” of the “kanazuki” (神無月) or “month of the gods” when all deities gather at the Izumo Taisha shrine in Shimane and they certainly don’t think that because their children wear their hakama or kimono for the first time that day they will keep on wearing it, something inside their heads tells them to continue observing the ritual; in a fast-aging Japan, perhaps this “something” is not only a parent’s love but the hope that the country will continue its existence keeping its past alive.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.