Shichi-Go-San,or Shichigosan, which means “Seven-Five-Three”, is the name for the traditional Japanese ceremonies performed to mark the maturation of young children. The name comes from the ages at which the ceremonies are performed: three years old for both boys and girls, again at five years for boys, and at seven years for girls. The origins of the ceremony go back about a thousand years, when each stage referred to one change from children’s clothes to adults’. At three, parents stopped shaving the child’s head and let the hair grow, while at five boys first wore hakama, the trouser skirts like the ones I’m wearing in the pictures. At seven, girls started wearing adult kimono, with a proper belt rather than a single cord. These ceremonies are still very occasionally performed in something close to their original form, but this seems to be limited to families that have traditions going back that far.
These days, the ceremony takes the form of everyone getting dressed up and going to a shrine (usually) or temple for a blessing. The star of the show almost always wears Japanese dress, and it’s not at all uncommon for the mother to do so as well. It is, however, very unusual for the father to do so, so a lot of people stopped to look as we walked from our flat to Shirahata Hachiman Daijin for the ceremony. In this form, the ceremonies date back at least three centuries, as they are described in very similar terms in the Onna ChÅhÅki, a book written in 1692. These days, it is becoming more common for parents to just have a photograph taken with their child, and not actually bother with the shrine visit. It’s even less common for the whole extended family to attend, but I think it’s a good idea. However, in November the major shrines are still very busy with small children having their Shichi-Go-San, so if you want to see a lot of really cute Japanese children in traditional dress, it’s a good time to visit a shrine. The timing of the ceremony, incidentally, is said to derive from the date on which it was performed for the son of one of the Tokugawa shoguns, so holding it in November does not have as long a history as the ceremony itself.
The ages at which the ceremony is performed were traditionally measured Japanese style, in which you count every calendar year in which you have been alive. So, if you are born at four minutes to midnight on December 31st, you are two before you are five minutes old. However, the advice from the shrines, and the people who rent out the kimonos (no, you don’t buy them), is that, for the first one, you should probably wait for the full age. For a child born late in the year you might do it just before the third birthday, but two-and-a-bit is too young. This was certainly true in our case; a year ago Mayuki would not really have been able to cope with the ceremony, but this year she did very well.
As you can see from the pictures, Mayuki is wearing a sort of jacket over her kimono. This is standard for three-year-old girls, because they can’t wear a proper kimono with an obi. Instead, the kimono just ties shut, and the jacket hides the fact that there is no obi, as well as being in a contrasting colour. This makes it much easier and quicker to dress the child, which is a good thing. She’d sat in the chair for an hour having her hair done, so I think her patience might have been running out, and getting me, Yuriko, and Yuriko’s mother all dressed in our kimonos took quite long enough.
Once you arrive at the shrine, you have to fill in a form giving your address and the child’s name, along with his or her age. In our case, at Shirahata-san, this is largely redundant, because they know who we are, but if you’re one of thirty groups being done at once at a big shrine, it’s quite essential. The names and addresses are incorporated into the norito, the prayer to the kami, so that the kami knows who the priest is talking about. When Mayuki saw me filling in the form, she wanted to do it as well, so we gave her one, and she carefully filled it in. Obviously, she can’t really write yet, but she was filling it in with small letter-like bits, in the spaces, rather than scribbling all over it. This required great concentration.
There are several advantages to doing the ceremony at a local shrine, one of which is not having to take a three-year-old long distances in a kimono. Another, and to my mind more important, one is that at most local shrines the priests will do one family at a time, rather than half a dozen at once. Of course, if you do it a local shrine you attend frequently, they might even give you permission to have photographs taken during the ceremony, which is a little unusual. As I mentioned before, we didn’t do this ourselves; we hired one of Yuriko’s friends, who is a professional photographer, instead.
The ceremony starts with the priest banging a taiko, a Japanese drum, to draw the kami’s attention and announce that the ceremony is starting. This generally happens while all the attendees are finding their seats. For this ceremony, Mayuki sat in the centre, with me to her right and Yuriko to her left, and then my parents on my side and Yuriko’s on hers.
After the drum, and a greeting from the priest, the next element is the purification, or harae. First, the priest recites the harae norito while kneeling in front of the harae-gushi, or ÅŒnusa, which is also called a purification wand. This normally consists of a large number of strips of white paper on a wooden handle. When he has completed the norito, he performs the normal two bow-two clap-one bow ceremony, then takes the harae-gushi and waves it first over the inner shrine, then over the offerings, and then finally over the people gathered for the ceremony. While you are being purified, you are supposed to bow your heads, and even Mayuki did it.
Next, the priest goes deeper into the haiden, or worship hall, and kneels to recite the main norito. At a Shichi-Go-San, this is a prayer of thanks for the child’s safe development so far, and a request that she will continue to be healthy, and grow up strong, happy, and prosperous. On this sort of occasion there are standard noritos, and by the end of November the priests must be very good at reciting them. They probably even do it in their sleep.
Finally, the child, with her parents, goes to pay her respects to the kami. The three of us climbed up onto the platform in the worship hall, and knelt on a mat, in the centre, facing in towards the honden, or sanctuary. The priest then explained what to do: “First, bow twice to say hello to the kami. Then, clap your hands twice to get his attention. Finally, bow once more to say thank you.” Mayuki has been to the shrine quite a few times, and we do the same thing in front of the kamidana (household shrine) when we do “thank you things”, so she had no problem following the directions, and then going back to her seat.
It’s very important to note that we did not enter the honden, the sanctuary, to perform the ceremony. In the photograph above, you can see a mirror, and behind that two lanterns in front of a bamboo curtain, with another two lanterns behind the curtain. The sanctuary is behind the curtain, beyond the lanterns. The priest might enter it once per year to clean it, but otherwise no-one ever goes in. This has occasionally led to surprising historical discoveries in older shrines.
After the ceremony, Mayuki was given a pack of traditional candy, which is much like a stick of rock, and given a choice of o-mamori, or amulet. There were amulets in three colours, all with Hello Kitty on, and Mayuki decided that she liked the blue one. Then the priest gave us the traditional bottle of sake and packet of bonito flakes, and the whole thing was over. Afterwards, the shrine family let us take a lot of photographs in the worship hall, the garden behind the shrine, and, finally, in the shrine precincts, in front of the shrine. Since I can’t put all of them up, I’ve chosen one of the family group ones taken in front of the shrine.
By this time, Mayuki was getting tired, and we went on taking photographs for a little bit too long, so that she started complaining and crying, and fell asleep on my shoulder on the way home. As I said at the beginning, she participated in the ceremony very well, and had very nearly enough endurance to cope with all the photographs we wanted to take. That would not have been the case a year ago, so we made the right choice for the timing. We might, however, do the next one on the traditional Japanese age.