Happy Boys’ Day!
Over a month after the fact, let me introduce you to the Japanese holiday of Boys’ Day.
May 5 is also my cousin’s wedding anniversary, Cinco de Mayo, and International Midwives’ Day, but Boys’ Day is the holiday I grew up celebrating and continue to observe with my family. (Also, compared to the other holidays, celebrating Boys’ Day does not involve any long-distance phone calls or drinking. And since all three of my children are sons and they were all caught by midwives, Boys’ Day and any kind of Midwife Appreciation Day are pretty much the same thing in my mind.)
Boys’ Day is traditionally May 5, the fifth day of the fifth month. Girls’ Day is March 3, the third day of the third month, but it seems to be getting more and more overlooked in favor of lumping the girls together with the boys in May and calling the whole celebration “Children’s Day.” There are enough elderly Japanese people in Hawai’i to observe things The Way They Have Always Been, so traditionalists celebrate boys and girls equally but seperately. This means I make real mochi for Girls’ Day in my own honor and the boys and I eat it until we are nearly sick, but we make a bigger deal about koi and candy and going out for sushi for Boys’ Day. Since I am the doting mother, that is fair enough for me.
There are koi-nobori windsocks flying everywhere in Hawai’i in honor of Boys’ Day. The koi is a carp fish, but comparing an ordinary gray carp to a Japanese decorative koi is like comparing a junkyard dog to a freshly-puffed standard poodle in the show ring at Westminster. (Granted, much to our husband’s annoyance, we have a very soft spot for both stray dogs AND fussy ones, but the point is they are NOT the same.)
With good care, real koi can live for more than 50 years. They come in all sorts of fiery colors, from a hot tangerine orange to a metallic gold and even a sort of calico combination of black and white and red. Traditional koi windsocks are even more rainbow than the actual fish.
Each koi windsock represents a boy in the family, starting with the father. Modern families include a fish for the mother, too, since without mothers there would be no sons to celebrate. They are hung in order and left to whip in the wind to remind everyone how brave and strong koi are, and how the family hopes their boys will also grow to be brave and strong. Where I live, it’s pretty much just my family and a couple of Japanese restaurants hanging out koi, but it is a tradition I love, even if it is unfamiliar here in the Intermountain West.
The original legend is about a special koi fish who fought his way against the current to swim upstream all the way up a mountain. When he finally reached the top of the mountain, he was magically transformed into a beautiful, glittering dragon.
I’ve taken some liberties with the story when telling it to my sons–the koi has personality, for sure. My koi wonders if he can be better than he is, even though he is already quite grand. He decides to swim against the current even though it would be easier be like the other fish and drift along comfortably with the current. It gets hard, but the koi is persistent and keeps his mind on his goal.
I liken this to being steadfast in making good choices, courageous in the face of negative peer pressure and growing into the respectful gentlemen I see in them even now. The metaphor must be extended, see, or all my little darlings would get is: “Mom wants me to be like a fish. . . .?”
Here’s hoping some of the message sticks.
Meanwhile, we are still eating the last of our Tomoe Ame rice candy, the Japanese treat of choice this year. I’ve taken our koi windsocks down from our gate for this year, but I never stop reminding these little men of their potential to add goodness to the world. And they never get tired of hearing about the fish who worked to become a dragon.