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Goin’ Japanesque!

Koinobori, The Japanese Seasonal Tradition Held in May!

Koi Fish Swimming in the Sky?

In late April to early May, in various parts of Japan, you will see the sight of koi fish (carp) swimming in the sky. Of course these are not live fish but streamers made to look like koi. Those of you who have seen this may have wondered about this unique sight. Compared to the old days, we see less of this outdoors but this is the sight of a seasonal tradition that is unique to this time of year. So why is it that Japanese use koi shaped streamers? Why is it practiced at this time of year? Title photo:


The Time for Koi Banners: The Seasonal Festival of Tango


The day that the koi-nobori or koi shaped streamers are put up is May 5th, during a celebration called the “Children’s Day”. As the name implies, the “Children’s Day” is a festival for children. On this day, an event called the “Tango no Sekku (Seasonal Festival of Tango)” is held to celebrate the growth of boys. 

The “Tango no Sekku” originates from the Chinese concept of “Sekku”, an event to ward off evil. The concept reached Japan in the Nara Period (710 -794AD) and it became recognized as a sekku for boys during the Kamakura Period (1185–1333). Traditionally, during sekku, people would wear iris or wormwood leaves or place them in the entrance of their homes as it was believed that the strong aroma of these plants had a power to ward off evil spirits. The iris later became a symbol of valiance as the iris “shobu” sounds like “尚武 (pronounced shobu)” meaning martial spirit and “勝負” (also pronounced shobu) meaning competition and the “tango no sekku” became a festival to wish for boys to grow into strong samurai. 

March 3rd Girl’s day: Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival) Part 1: History and How to Display the Hina Dolls


The Origin of Koi-Nobori: Koi Shaped Streamers


In the Edo Period (1603-1868) samurai households with boys 7 years or younger would display armors, helmets and banners during the period of tango no sekku with the hopes that the boy will grow into a strong warriors. Eventually, this tradition was imitated by wealthy townspeople. However, at the time, displaying streamers was not permitted and so instead, they used the “koi-nobori” made of koi drawn on washi-paper or cloth. This is how the koi-nobori was born. 


Why Koi Fish?


It originates from the classical story of “Toryumon” from China. In the middle of China’s Yellow River, there is a rapid waterfall called the “Ryumon”. It was said that the koi that could swim upstream against this area would become a dragon. In China, the dragon was a symbol of the emperor so a difficult challenge to become someone of high status became known as a “Toryumon”. From this story, the koi became regarded as auspicious; and in Japan, the “koi-nobori” depicting an image of the koi fish was put up to wish for the success of their children. 


Koi-Nobori Now and Then


Nowadays, the koi-nobori we see are in different colors of black, red, blue, green; they come in a variety of sizes from large to small as well. The numerous koi together is said to symbolize a family. The largest black koi called the “magoi” is symbolic of the father; the slightly smaller red koi called the “higoi” is symbolic of the mother; the smaller children koi are called “kogoi”. 

Additionally, the decorations that accompany the koi-nobori each have different meanings. It is said that god dwells in the “kagodama” that is placed on the very top. Below that is a talisman called the “yaguruma”. The cloths of 5 colors that sway in the wind along with the koi are called “fukinagashi”; it is said to remove any evil. 

In fact during the Edo Period, the koi-nobori did not look like how it does nowadays. As depicted in the work of Utagawa Hiroshige, the ukiyo-e artist, in the past, it was just one black “magoi”. However, in the Meiji Period, people starting placing the higoi along with the magoi. Later on, the kogoi were added until it took on the form it does now; a set that represents a family.  

In the past, the koi-nobori was made only by hand. In the 1960s, synthetic fibers being more abundant allowed for mass production of koi-nobori with the designs printed on them. This allowed for the tradition to spread to a wider group of people. Nowadays, in addition to the koi-nobori that is displayed outdoors similar to the old days, there are types of koi-nobori that are printed on tenugui washcloths or smaller koi-nobori that can be used indoors for interior decoration; so there are various types of koi-nobori. And so, the koi-nobori continues to be an intimate part of the Japanese people’s lives from the past to present. 


Events to See the Koi-Nobori

Throughout Japan there are events that are associated with the koi-nobori. The below is only a small portion of such events but if you happen to be in the area when it is being held, why not stop by?

1. The Amazing Sight of Koi Swimming Gracefully Above the Clear Stream

“Koi-Nobori no Kawawatashi (The River Crossing of Koi-Nobori)” of Toonohe Region, Shimanto, Takaoka District, Kochi Prefecture
Source: Japan Congress Convention Bureau (Public Interest Incorporated Foundation)

Koi-nobori are hung on the opposing shores of the river so that in the “koi-nobori no kawa watashi”, the koi swim above the river. Today, this can be seen in various parts of the country, but in the Towa region of Kochi Prefecture, where this was born, it is a seasonal tradition that is practiced around April to May each year. Over 500 koi-nobori, gracefully swimming about the Shimanto River, which is one of Japan’s 3 Top Clear Streams, is quite a sight. 

Duration: Monday April 18th 2016 to Saturday May 21st
Place: Map

2. A Sight to See! The World’s Largest Jumbo Koi-Nobori

“Public Peace Festival” Kazo, Saitama Prefecture (C)加須市役所商業観光課

Kazo, a city that is the number one producer of koi-nobori in Japan holds the “Public Peace Festival” each year in May. During this festival, a huge koi-nobori of 100 meters in length and 350 kilograms in weight swims along the Tonegawa River. 

Duration: May 3rd 2016 (Public Holiday: Constitution Day) 10:00 to 15:00
Place: Map

3. The Amazing Number of Koi-Nobori Also Recognized as a Guinness World Record

“Koi-Nobori no Sato Matsuri” in Tatebayashi of Gunma Prefecture (C)舘林観光協会

Over 5,000 koi-nobori are raised and it is a record holder in the 2005 Guinness Book of World Records for the number of koi-nobori. It would be great to actually visit and be amazed by the sheer number.

Duration: Friday March 8th 2016 to Sunday May 8th


Pondering the Meanings of These Events through the Koi-Nobori

“Aoi (Blue) Koi-Nobori Project” of Higashi-matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture (C)提供:青い鯉のぼりプロジェクト

In addition to the above, there is one other event related to the koi-nobori that we would like you to know about. It is the “Aoi Koi-Nobori Project” that has been held in Miyagi Prefecture since 2011.

No one can forget the Great East Japan Earthquake that occurred on March 2011. A once-in-a-millennium crisis hit the Tohoku region and many people lost their lives as a result. This project was started by a high-school aged boy who lost his 5 year old brother in the earthquake. He raised his brother’s favorite blue koi-nobori in hopes of doing something for the “young children who lost their lives in the Great East Japan Earthquake”. The project was passed on from person to person and now blue koi-nobori from all over Japan are donated for this cause. Now, there are over 500 koi-nobori that swim in the skies of the Tohoku area. 

Duration: Friday March 11th 2016 to Thursday May 5th
Place: Map


Traditional events and practices that are held around us often have wishes or hopes dedicated to them. There has to be some worth in stopping to think about why the traditions are practiced, whey they continue to be practiced, the reason why they developed and why they are passed on. 

We would be happy if those of you who read this article give thought to such questions when you see the koi-nobori energetically swimming in the skies.

Related: Top 4 Japanese Koinobori Festivals

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About the author

I'm interested in general in all things related to culture and fine arts with a focus on movies, art, and design. I hope to introduce to many people all the different sides to Japan in regards to Japanese culture.

View all articles by KAWATA