I recently read the combined Issue 267/268 of the Journal of Shintō Studies, the academic journal of the Society of Shintō Studies, which I have mentioned before. This was a special issue, “A Religious Studies Perspective on Shintō”, and it contained a number of interesting articles. (I think I have mentioned before this journal has official English titles for all the articles, although the content is only in Japanese.)
The article I want to talk about today is “The Meaning of Shichi-go-san and the Impact of COVID” by Taguchi Yūko. (The journal actually says YūKo, but I am pretty sure that is a typo.) Dr Taguchi has been studying shichi-go-san since 2011, interviewing people to find out what they did, and when. As she notes, the pandemic provided a good opportunity to find out how important the ceremony was to people with children of the relevant age, and which aspects were the most important. The paper reports on what happened in 2020.
A little background is important here, because different countries dealt with COVID-19 in different ways. Japan had no legally enforceable lockdowns, because they are unconstitutional. In the latter part of 2020, businesses were generally open, but with limits on how many people could gather, and for how long. Because there were no legal requirements, those limits varied from one business to another. Thus, if you wanted to do shichi-go-san, you could — but it took a bit more organising than normal.
Dr Taguchi interviewed a dozen or so people who had done shichi-go-san, and gathered data from a range of sources to get an overall picture. In general, it seems that there was no significant reduction in the number of shichi-go-san ceremonies performed in 2020, in marked contrast to wedding ceremonies, but that there was a change in what people did. In 2011, 65% of people visited a jinja, had photographs taken at a studio, and had a celebratory meal. In 2020, although almost everyone went to a jinja, most people dropped the celebratory meal, and some people dropped the photographs entirely, while others hired a photographer to accompany them rather than going to a studio.
The interviews revealed that people really wanted to do it, in the right year, to celebrate the growth of their children. At that age, if you postpone by a year, the situation changes radically, and so people did not want to do that. (Incidentally, the custom of doing it by counted years, where you are born at the age of one and get one year older every January 1st, seems to have almost completely disappeared over the last decade, so people have, in fact, unconsciously postponed it by a year.) Their biggest regret over the limitations imposed by the pandemic was that they did not feel they could invite the grandparents.
This is revealing. First, the jinja visit does seem to be the most important part of the event, although the photographs are also a high priority. Further, these days a lot of people feel that the grandparents should also be part of it. That is a change, according to Dr Taguchi. Fifty years ago, it was normally just the parents.
The article also reports data gathered by a parents’ website over the last fifteen years or so, which, if I am reading it correctly, suggests that at least 80% of girls and 60% of boys have a shichi-go-san, with at least 40% of girls and 20% of boys having two (that assumes that no-one skips it entirely — if some do not have one at all, then a higher proportion have two). Five is the most popular age for boys, by a large margin, and three is noticeably more popular than seven for girls (about 60% of seven-year-old girls have it, as opposed to about 80% at three). There isn’t really a clear trend in the data, but there may be a slight increase in total numbers over the period, which was not interrupted at all in the 2021 data. (2012, the year after the Great East Japan Earthquake, had noticeably high numbers, and that was probably not a coincidence.)
So, this article suggests that shichi-go-san is a very important part of contemporary Japanese culture, and it takes more than a global pandemic to stop parents celebrating it. The jinja visit is almost an essential part of the ceremony — but, of course, Japanese people are not religious.