What are ‘koinobori,’ and why are they all over Japan this week?

Japan is covered in colorful carp kites this week. Here’s what you need to know about koinobori, a Japanese tradition that’s centuries old.

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A koinobori is a large funnel kite or wind sock shaped like a carp fish. Celebrations using koinobori in Japan date back to as early as the 1600s, during the mid-Edo era. The vibrant kites appear in late April and early May, centering around May 5th, Children’s Day in Japan.

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A brief history of koinobori

Koinobori translates roughly to “carp streamer,” with “koi” meaning carp and “nobori” meaning flag. According to Sugoii-Japan, the koinobori came about between 1603 and 1868. The Shogun, a group of elite military leaders, wanted to celebrate their male heirs by raising the koi flags.

The koi is pretty symbolic in Japanese culture. An old myth prevails that when the fish tried to swim upstream in the Koga River, it completed the impossible task and became a magical dragon. Thus, the fish represents courage and determination.

When locals caught wind of the Shogun’s practice, they began imitating the celebration.

Modern koinobori in Japan today

Since 1948, Japanese families have been flying koinobori on Children’s Day for all kids, not just boys. Nestled in Japan’s official Golden Week, Children’s Day is a national holiday to celebrate the health and growth of young people.

A koinobori set is traditionally displayed vertically on a flag pole by a family. The flags have evolved into personal expressions of art with unique details, but each koinobori’s color does have a special meaning.

According to Koinobori-Japan, the first flag is usually a colorful streamer with the family’s crest. The next and largest flag is black and represents the father, the second-largest is red and represents the mother, and the following flags represent the children, from eldest to youngest.

But these days, most families, especially in urban areas, don’t have enough space to hang their flags vertically. You can expect to see koinobori hanging horizontally nowadays, dangling on strings above buildings, rivers and valleys. Regardless of how they hang, these beautiful cultural motifs reflect Japan’s past, present and future by unifying people all over the country.

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