Today, I went to my local jinja to pay my respects, and the precincts were positively overflowing with families in suits and small children in kimono. It’s Shichi-Go-San (7-5-3) season.
Shichi-Go-San is a rite-of-passage festival for children, held at age 3 for both boys and girls, and again at age 5 for boys, and age 7 for girls, hence the name. Traditionally, these ages were Japanese “counted years” ages, in which you count every calendar year in which you have been alive. Thus, you are born at age 1, because you have been alive in one year, and become 2 on the following January 1st. This age is therefore always one or two years higher than your actual age. All of the age-related Shinto ceremonies are traditionally linked to this age, but these days many people do them according to “full years” age, where you are born at age 0, and become 1 year old on your birthday the following year. This is particularly the case for the first of the Shichi-Go-San ceremonies, because one or two-year-old children would not be up to it.
These days, a family celebrates Shichi-Go-San by renting a very fancy kimono for their child, then taking the whole family to a jinja, where the priests perform a standard ceremony, giving thanks for the child’s good health so far, and praying that it might continue into the future. The children typically receive a small gift from the jinja, which normally includes “chitose amë”, “thousand-year sweets”, which is very similar to a stick of rock. Families may visit their local jinja for this ceremony, or go to a large and famous one. In either case, you do not normally need to make a reservation if you are going on a weekend or national holiday during the season, and you can expect to share the ceremony with a number of other families; otherwise it would be impossible for the jinja to get through everyone. My daughter had both of her ceremonies on a weekday, so that we could book and have a slightly less crowded environment.
The tradition has its roots in the Heian period, around a thousand years ago, but at that period only the nobility followed the tradition, and it has been thoroughly transformed. A similar form, linked to the 15th day of the 11th month, was already popular at the end of the seventeenth century, although at that point the three ages did not all have the ceremonies on the same date.
As mentioned above, the traditional date for Shichi-Go-San in November 15th, and the number of families visiting jinja for the ceremony peaks around then. However, in urban areas, the ceremonies spread out for a month or more to either side, and even back into September. One reason for this is that the shops that rent out the children’s kimono give a discount for rental outside the season; another is that the jinja just get really crowded.
Data from ten years ago suggest that about a quarter of Japanese people go to Shichi-Go-San. I suspect that this is out of date, in the low direction; my (limited) conversations with priests suggest that numbers have been going up over the last few years. This is far more than the number who would describe themselves as “Shinto”. So, why do they do it?
A major reason is surely that the children look extremely cute in their kimono, and you get some lovely photographs. Indeed, the screen on my smartphone is still a photograph from my daughter’s seven-year-old ceremony. It is a nice traditional celebration
Is there more to it than that? In some cases, almost certainly. I’ve been asked to talk about why people ask for ceremonies at jinja, and what sorts of ceremonies, in the essays I am writing for my Patreon, so if you are interested in learning more, please check that out.