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Shichigosan Across the Generations

It has been a while since I posted about the articles in issue 269 of the Journal of Shinto Studies, but there are still a couple I want to write about, and one of them is about Shichigosan, so this seems like a good time to cover it — November is still the peak of Shichigosan season, even if it has become rather extended.

The article, “On Shifts in the Celebration and Meaning of Shichigosan: An Examination from the Perspectives of Grandmother, Mother, and Child” by Taguchi Yūko, has a very informative title.

Although Shichigosan, or something very close to it, has been celebrated for centuries, the details have changed. Anthropological records from the 1920s and 1930s reveal a very different celebration from the current one, and this article reports on research carried out in 2020 to look at changes in the postwar period. To do this, Taguchi interviewed a dozen women over sixty about their own Shichigosan (mostly in the late 1950s), their children’s Shichigosan (in the 1970s and 1980s), and their grandchildren’s (after 2000). They were born all over Japan, but all live in Tokyo now, and all but one lived in Tokyo when they celebrated their children’s Shichigosan. (That in itself reflects an important trend in Japanese society.) They were asked to talk freely about the celebrations, about what made an impression, what was important, and how they celebrated.

An analysis of what they said picked out four words that were important: “photograph”, “jinja”, “kimono”, and “celebration”.

“Photograph” became more important over time, and from the 90s the interviewees started mentioning photo studios offering package deals, with kimono rental and makeup as well as the actual photography. Those women who first became aware of this kind of service with their grandchildren’s Shichigosan regarded it as convenient, but had some suspicions of it.

From their children’s generation, the relationship between “jinja” and “photographs” became stronger. In particular, it was common for the children to visit the jinja for a ceremony in the kimono that they rented for the photographs at the studio, and the group photograph of the whole family, including grandparents, was often taken at the jinja. Although some people think that the photo studio will become more important, and the jinja drop out of the picture, there was no evidence of that in the interview responses — the visit to the jinja remained important for everyone. Indeed, further evidence of that can be seen in the extension of the “Shichigosan season”, which was commented on in a recent editorial in Jinja Shinpō (November 6th). Jinja are now performing the rituals from summer, in some cases. One reason for this is the need to book a slot at the photo studio, but that can be flipped: people still visit a jinja, even if their photo appointment is in August.

Another interesting point is that there was a period in which families tended to visit famous jinja, but the current trend is to go to local jinja. With only twelve interviewees, it is difficult to generalise, but the fact that the trend was visible may be significant.

“Kimono” was also important. When the women had their own Shichigosan, they were in environments where older women wore kimono every day, and in some cases a celebratory kimono was worn by two or three generations of the family. That is clearly changing, and with the rise of kimono rental, the kimono is becoming part of the ceremony, like the photograph and the jinja, rather than something with connections to everyday life.

Finally, “celebration” also showed a change. In their own and their children’s cases, the celebration of Shichigosan had involved a lot of relatives and neighbours, including joint celebrations with local children of the same age. By their grandchildren’s time, however, families were more scattered, and links to neighbours were weaker, so this sort of celebration became less common. This is something that is also lamented in Jinja Shinpō, because Shichigosan was originally about the child becoming part of the local community.

Shichigosan is still a very strong custom in contemporary Japanese society, and I do not expect it to disappear, or lose its connection to jinja, in my lifetime. However, I am sure that it will continue to change — although I have no idea how.

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4 thoughts on “Shichigosan Across the Generations”

    1. That doesn’t surprise me. I suspect a lot of priests would not do it, however.

      (Side note: Japan’s birthrate is not “plummeting”. It has been roughly stable, at between 1.25 and 1.5, for about thirty years. That’s still too low to sustain the population, of course, and it is back down to the 2005 minimum, possibly as a pandemic effect. South Korea’s birthrate is “plummeting” — it’s currently at 0.78.)

  1. I assume the purpose of Shichigosan is to update the Kami on your child’s growth? Then it should always be the Ujigami Jinja, not just some popular one. Right?

    1. The official position in the Shinto community is that Shichigosan was originally about presenting the child to the Ujigami and recognising them as part of the community, so it was a community celebration rather than a private family one. I am not sure to what extent that is true as a matter of historical fact, but the current standard opinion is that Shichigosan should be at the Ujigami Jijnja.

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