by Brett Iimura and Iona Macnab

The celebration of shichi-go-san (七五三,or 7-5-3) is held on November 15 each year, which is considered to be one of the most auspicious dates in the Japanese calendar. The custom originated in the Heian period (794–1185), when children were at a higher risk of succumbing to illness. Japanese numerology holds that odd numbers are lucky, so families of nobility would visit shrines to celebrate their children’s growth and pray for their health at three critical times in the child’s early life.

Traditionally, children weren’t allowed to grow out their hair until the age of three. Up until that time, their heads were shaved. Upon reaching five years of age, boys were allowed to wear their first hakama pants in public, and at the age of seven girls wore their first obi to tie their kimo- nos instead of cord. By the Edo period (1603–1868), this practice was not limited to nobility, and most families around Japan began to visit shrines to have priests pray for the health of their children on November 15.

These days most parents celebrate shichi-go-san with their children by getting them dressed up in formal wear and having professional photo- graphs taken. At five years old, boys wear the formal haori jacket and hakama pants, and they are often photographed holding ceremonial swords. At age seven, the girls dress in full ceremonial kimono and wear their hair up in a traditional style decorated with ornaments. Some moth- ers have their daughters grow their hair long until shichi-go-san specifi- cally so that it can be worn in this style.

In recent years, many families have begun to dress their children in West- ern-style clothes for the occasion, with party frocks and little suits with bow ties among the most popular. Some young girls change from their traditional shichi-go-san kimonos to dressing up like little princesses in sparkling ball gowns, gloves and even tiaras for their photographs.

It is interesting to note that the traditional way to calculate one’s age in Japan is based on being age one (rather than zero) at birth. This is called kazoe-doshi, and originated from the premise that the soul ages from con- ception onwards, and is not connected to the chronological passage of time. Until 1948 Japanese were considered to turn one year older at the New Year, so in fact a child born on December 31 would turn two the next day!

What this means for shichi-go-san is that some families choose to cel- ebrate according to the kazoe-doshi system of counting, when their chil- dren are actually six, four and two years old according to the contempo- rary calendar. This system can be particularly useful when you wish to celebrate for two or more of your children at the same time.

So what happens during shichi-go-san? Many families take their children to the shrine to pray for their health. But the day is not celebrated as a national holiday, so recently many families celebrate on the closest weekend, and some even prefer to take advantage of bargain prices at photography studios before the November rush by celebrating a month or so earlier. However, November 15 will be particularly busy at shrines around the country, as it falls on a Sunday this year. After being blessed by the priest at the shrine, the children receive chitose ame (thousand years candy), which is usually shaped like a long stick, and takes a long time to eat, somewhat akin to an all-day sucker. The special bag for the candy is usually illustrated with cranes and turtles, two animals which symbolize longevity in Japan.

Many kindergartens in Japan celebrate shichi-go-san by having the kids make special bags for their chitose ame and also taking special photographs. At five years old, boys wear the formal haori jacket and hakama pants, and they are often photographed holding ceremonial swords. School For visitors to Japan in November, shichi-go-san is a fabulous photo oppor- tunity at the major shrines. The kimonos that the girls wear are particu- larly ornate, and the five-year-old boys are quite an entertaining site in their haori and hakama as they run around and play in the shrine grounds—only to reveal their ordinary running shoes under their formal clothes!