Koinobori: symbols of strength, courage, and perseverance

I was recently talking to a friend about Japanese baseball teams and, as Americans, we were both puzzled by Hiroshima’s mascot of carp.  It seemed to us a bit…well, floppy.  Neither of us could fathom why a baseball team would choose a slippery, silvery, floppy fish as its symbol.

Then we put on our cultural thinking caps and soon realized that to most Japanese the carp are symbols of strength, courage, and perseverance.  Wild carp in Japan’s rivers seem to seek out fast flowing waters and even leap up waterfalls like salmon in season.  An ancient Chinese legend, transplanted to Japan, tells that carp that successfully make their way upstream eventually become dragons. This transformation is associated with good luck and success, and so the association has transplanted itself to the carp themselves.  They are strong creatures, clearly not afraid of challenges and successful in meeting those challenges; just the sort of imagery a baseball team would want in a mascot.

The role of carp in cultural imagery in Japan goes far beyond just the Hiroshima Carps baseball team.  Better known are the carp flags–in Japanese, koinobori.  These, too, are symbols of strength, courage and perseverance, particularly regarded as useful inspiration in the development of boys to men.  When the wind catches koinobori, they move like carp swimming upstream.

This time of year in Japan, koinobori are to be seen everywhere.  They are traditionally associated with boy’s day, historically celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month.  Although this day was chosen in 1948 for a public holiday known as Children’s Day, the historical symbols and associations of boy’s day have remained.  Especially koinobori.

Particularly in rural households, the koinobori are flown from a tall pole topped with a pair of pinwheels that twist with the direction of the wind.  Usually at the top is a kind of windsock with brightly colored streamers.  Below that is the largest carp flag (usually black), symbolizing the father of the household.  Below this flag is a slightly smaller one (usually red), symbolizing the mother, and below that are additional flags for each male child in the household, usually each a different size and color.  Modern families often include a carp flag for each child in the house, irrespective of the child’s gender.

It is rarer to see large koinobori in the cities, unless they are on schoolyards.  But small versions proliferate as decorations everywhere.  In the lower lefthand corner below is a large display in the corner of a fence hiding a large construction site.  Sets of small koinobori are on sale in department stores, and even convenience stores.  Families often display them at home or hang them out apartment balconies.

Another popular way to display large koinobori these days is en masse, particularly strung across waterways, making the “swimming upstream” imagery even stronger.  Usually entire communities cooperate to create these displays.  On sunny days, the fluttering koinobori are even reflected in the water, making them truly appear to be swimming.  Such displays can be seen across many of Tokyo’s suburban canals and waterways, but in the countryside the displays often span wide rivers, to dramatic effect.

These days, koinobori are made of nylon and the carp pattern is stamped on, often with a bit of gold coloring on the scales to make them glitter like a fish in a stream.  There is also a wider variety of color choices available.

In earlier times, koinobori were made of cotton and died with traditional natural dies, particularly blues and reds.  It is rare to see examples of these today, although I recently found some on display in an office complex, together with samples of the tall banners that often accompany koinobori.

Whether koinobori fluttering in the breeze really do inspire children to try harder to achieve success in their lives is a matter for speculation. But there is no question they are a sight to behold, perhaps even awe-inspiring in their own way.  They are one of the many joys of springtime in Japan.

© 2018 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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