Shichi-go-san literally means seven-five-three and represents the ages of the kids being celebrated as they reach certain milestones. In modern days we tend to focus on physical milestones, for example: at three, children’s language development increases significantly; at five there’s a clear development of logical thinking; at seven many kids usually start (or have already begun) losing their baby teeth. But back in the day, milestones were based on predominantly cultural signifiers.
It’s because of this that boys and girls are celebrated at different ages:
Three Years Old (Boys & Girls)
Girls and boys’ hair was allowed to grow out. Until then, children’s hair would have been kept short. This event is called kamioki (髪置き), which means “to leave the hair” and let it grow out. (Traditionally, both boys and girls can have their first celebration at age three, but these days it’s more common for girls to go twice and boys only once.)
Five Years Old (Boys)
Back when kimono was the norm, this would be the age that boys would start wearing hakama, signifying their start into adulthood. Boys from samurai families would also start wearing haori (kimono jackets) with the family crest on it. This is called hakamagi (袴着), and literally, means “to wear hakama.”
Seven Years Old
Girls began wearing something close to a proper traditional kimono with an obi tie. Until then, they would have worn a cord around their waists or simply had strings attached to the kimono to keep it tied together. This is called obitoki (帯解き), meaning “to figure out the obi” and indicates girls’ transitioning into womanhood.
As children grow, they encounter so many changes and risk of illnesses, so at these ages it was a time for parents and families to thank the gods for letting their children overcome these. These days, it’s more of a coming of age celebration for families to show affection for each other and allow their kids to have a special day. They visit the shrine, pay a gratuity fee and plod home again. Many will take professional photos to commemorate the event.
Though there seems to be some debate as to when the custom first appeared, it’s believed it first started in the Heian period (794-1185) but was exclusively for members of the Imperial Family and surrounding nobility.
Others date the origins of the ceremony back to the Muromachi period (1336-1573). Back then, infant mortality was high and many people waited until their kids were three to four years of age to add them to the family registry. The ceremony showed gratitude for the child living this long and gave the family an opportunity to pray for future good health and long life.
By the Edo period (1603-1868) it spread through samurai society from the Kanto region to the rest of Japan for commoners. Once the Meiji Period (1868–1912) hit, Shichi-go-san took on a style similar to what we see today (minus some modern modifications, of course).
Photo Copyright: Johnny Times
Why Is It on November 15th?
Technically, families can visit a shrine for Shichi-go-san any time in November, but the main date is November 15. It’s common for families to go on other days partly because of scheduling issues, and most shrines will start accepting visitors from mid-October, and some even begin in September.
When the practice started in the Heian period, it was a different date — November 15 became the custom from the Edo period. This day was chosen because dog-lover Shogun Tsunayoshi Tokugawa (often nicknamed Oinusama or the dog shogun for his love of the animal) wanted to celebrate his son Tokumatsu on that day, and eventually others followed suit.
There are a number of reasons why he chose this day, and why it has remained the standard date to celebrate Shichi-go-san. It falls on a day called kishukunichi (鬼宿日), which literally means “the day the demons stay at home.” It’s supposedly a fortuitous day for celebrations that aren’t weddings.
Also, according to the traditional lunar calendar, November was the month in autumn to thank the gods for the year’s harvest. The 15th of the month would be a full moon, and so people thanked the gods for letting their kids “ripen with age” as well.
An added bonus, 15 is the sum of seven, five, and three — a perfect representation of the ages celebrated, and they are also all odd numbers, which are considered more auspicious in general.