If ever one day perfectly encapsulated the reasons I’ve lived in Japan for 15 years, this was it. From kindness, to kimonos, kids, and ancient culture, these images tell the story of why I love living in Japan.
When you take a look around different lists of the most popular global tourist destinations, Japan almost always ranks pretty highly, and for good reason. World-class skiing in the north, tropical beaches in the south, volcanoes, bears, monkeys, mythical mountains, and thousands of years of tradition mean that there’s literally something for every kind of tourist. But having lived here for a third of my life and taken permanent residency, there are smaller things that permeate everyday life and customs that fascinate me more than the obvious, illustrious icons that draw others in.
Last week, my eldest daughter celebrated becoming three years old. Every child (boy and girl) in Japan does this. It’s called "shichi, go, san" or literally, in English, "seven, five, three," and is celebrated as a thank you to the gods for allowing your child to reach three years old and to ask for future goodwill. The girls do it again at seven and the boys again at five. It’s a very important event and as such, formal dress is required. That means kimonos for the girls and mothers, hakamas for the little boys, and suits for the fathers. So, I want to share some photos from this special day and use them to explain some nuances of Japanese culture you might not be aware of, and which show sublimely exactly why I love this country and its culture.
So, to the big day. In this first image here, you can see my wife walking alongside a helpful, old man, whom we politely refer to as “ojisan.” But there’s more to this than a simple juxtaposition of traditional and modern fashion. What’s interesting and heartwarming here is that "ojisan" volunteered to walk our pram and two daughters to the shrine for us. We had taken refuge in a shop he was staffing, because the rain was pelting down and we didn’t want to go the shrine in such a downpour. In passing conversation, my wife told him about my broken ribs that I was sporting (and still am). No sooner had she said that he insisted on walking the pram to the shrine. My wife refused, as is Japanese custom, but he insisted. As he is older, my wife deferred and respected his decision. So, he braved the rain and started pushing the pram, allowing me to take photos from behind.
This is a perfect example of the willingness in Japanese culture to put other people or the group before yourself. Many Westerners mistake this for a lack of individuality. This is not quite true. It’s simply that in Japan, you almost always put others first, whether it’s in a traffic jam, a group decision, giving (and showing) someone directions, or in any other form of help. If you ask 100 random people to offer a single word to describe the Japanese, “polite” will almost certainly be towards the top of the list. There’s a reason for that: it's ingrained in them from a young age to be helpful when and if they can.
This is further exemplified perfectly by the blue jacket that “ojisan” is wearing in these images. When he volunteered to push the pram, there was one big problem: he didn’t have an umbrella. Immediately upon hearing that, my wife insisted he use my raincoat. After all, I was walking behind with my umbrella and camera, so I didn’t need it. So we had “ojisan,” who we’d met 5 minutes prior, pushing my daughters to the shrine in the rain, wearing my raincoat my wife had insisted he wear to keep dry. And then, the entire time we walked, my wife tried as best she could to cover him with her umbrella as much as possible, despite having to walk in her "zori" sandals. I had to marvel at this as I stayed behind and tried to capture this beautiful cultural exchange.
As you can see from these images, he walked us down the street, over the windswept, rain-lashed bridge, across the sand and under the shrine gate, and into the shrine itself and never asked or hinted for a penny. At the end of it all, he gave us a simple bow, posed for a picture, asked us to take care, and returned on his own. Outstanding! In the days following, we all realized he'd kept my raincoat when he returned to his shop. We had planned to return the following week, but within 72 hours, "ojisan" had returned the jacket to my college and left a little thank you note with it. I'm still shaking my head at the kindness and thoughtfulness.
Once inside the shrine, the celebrations for my daughter began. Unfortunately, you're not allowed to take photos within the inner shrine itself (not visible here), nor of the ceremony where the Shinto Priest (in our case, Priestess) does the blessing. To be honest, there's no time to do so anyway for a parent, because there are a lot of small rituals you need to do and a lot of standing up, sitting down, and bowing to do. Plus, I had to nurse my youngest daughter on my knee. Sometimes, I like keeping certain things private.
After the official ceremony was done, we went back out into the shrine grounds and bought some "ema" to write on. They are little wooden blocks that you write dreams on and hang in the shrine. You can see them in this photo below. But what I want you to pay more attention to is the color of my wife's kimono and my daughter's kimono. The colors are deliberate and are another great example of the thought that goes into Japanese culture and its efforts to think of others first as often as possible.
You can see here that my daughter's kimono is a bright, dazzling red and my wife's is a more understated creamy, lightish color. That's because the day is to celebrate the daughter, and therefore, the mother's kimono must not be so bright or vivid that it takes any attention away from the daughter. It's all about the daughter on this traditional day, and her kimono and appearance must reflect that. I never knew this until I saw lots of other mothers wearing rather plain (though beautiful) kimonos and asked my wife about it. Without hesitation, she explained the reasoning. I love that there's almost always a reason for the cultural customs in Japan and most people know about them when you ask.
In summing up, this was my first "shichi, go, san" celebration, but I have three more to come. This day showed me so many parts of Japanese culture that I have grown to love and admire over the years and use to assuage any doubts about calling this country my home. It's not perfect, but I do love the respect and loyalty to tradition it has and the respect and help that people show to each other.
Do you have any similar experiences in Japan you'd like to share or of other countries that have equally impressed you? I'd love to hear about them in the comments below.