Hichigosan as an occasion to remind children of the way of kami

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Young children wearing their traditional clothes—boys wearing hakamas, and girls kimonos—stand before the altar of a Shinto shrine, accompanied by parents also wearing their traditional clothes, and bow in solemn prayer while clapping their hands. This is the scene witnessed in autumn every year all over Japan, especially on and around November 15. The occasion is known as hichigosan, which are Japanese pronunciations of the numbers “seven-five-three.” Although November 15 is not recognized as an official national holiday, with May 5 already recognized as a national holiday as “Children Day,” it is still one of the most celebrated days among the Japanese, especially those with young children.

What is the significance of hichigosan as an event that so many Japanese celebrate today by going to Shinto shrines? Why are the numbers “seven-five-three” chosen, and not other numbers? The second question is easier to answer: the numbers “seven-five-three” in hichigosan refer to the ages of children, seven for seven-year old girls, five for five-year old boys, and three for three-year old boys and girls. These numbers are chosen because they are odd numbers, which are regarded as lucky numbers, and these ages are chosen because they signify the three critical stages in the life of young children in Japan.

Why are these ages—three, five, and seven—regarded as the critical stages in the life of young children in Japan? We take it for granted today that having a baby is a joyous event for every family. However, not every baby was expected to live beyond infancy in Tokugawa Japan, with the infant mortality rate estimated to have been as high as 50%. In fact, hichigosan is said to have its origin when the Third Tokugawa Shogun Iemitsu (1604-1651), concerned about the poor health of his fourth son Tokumatsu, prayed for his health and longevity on November 15, one of the auspicious days in the old lunar calendar. Soon the custom spread among ordinary Japanese to celebrate when boys and girls reached critical stages in their early life: at age three when they are ready to start growing their hair, at age five when boys were allowed to wear their traditional hakamas, and at age seven when girls were allowed to wear their traditional kimonos. Hichigosan thus served as the occasion to remind the parents that their children had safely reached the critical stages of their development as human beings.

Things are very different in Japan today, with the infant mortality rate being among the lowest in the world along with such countries as Finland, Iceland, and Norway. While most children are expected to live beyond age seven, the custom of celebrating the rites of passage at ages three, five, and seven is still widely observed in Japan today. With the infant mortality rate as low as it is today, the meaning of hichigosan is quite different from that in Tokugawa Japan. No longer does it serve as a reminder to the parents that their children have reached the critical stages of their development. Rather, it has become a festive occasion for children and parents alike to visit Shinto shrines wearing their beautiful hakamas and kimonos and enjoy autumn leaves as beautiful and colorful as their hakamas and kimonos.

While hichigosan has become one of the most celebrated days by the Japanese, what tends to be forgotten are its cosmic implications. Age three carries a special significance in that children reach the critical age when they become like human beings, not helpless babies who are not much different from other creatures. As human beings, children are now expected to follow the way of life of humans, which in Eastern philosophy, needs to follow the way of heaven, and the way of earth. In other words, how we humans ought to conduct ourselves in life should be derived from the laws that govern in heaven and earth, namely, in nature. At age five, children acquire further characteristics of being human as they start to interact more fully with the environment filled with the energy of five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. At age seven, the energy of the sun and the moon are added to the energy of five elements, meaning that children are now cosmic beings supported by the energy that fills the whole universe. As long as they pay homage to Shinto shrines, parents who celebrate hichigosan with their children need to remind their children of these cosmic implications, for Shinto, as a folk religion that finds kami in everything in and around us, offers a promise of developing a worldview that sees the unity of all beings in the universe.