Learned #18: Shichi-go-san

A Quick Look at a Bit of Japanese Culture

The saleslady loves my kid. They’re having a great time trying on dresses and shoes and talking about poses and how cute my daughter is going to look in the photographs; my wife is witness to all this and utterly charmed by it. She chimes in with enthusiastic phrases like “don’t forget this” and “let’s try this one, too!”

Meanwhile, my wallet and I sit in silent commiseration over how much thinner the poor thing is going to be when this is all said and done.

We are, as a family, getting my kid’s picture done as part of participating in the Japanese custom of shichi-go-san. We’re a bit early, but like a lot of time-honored traditions, the closer you get to the actual day, the more expensive everything gets. You know, like buying Christmas presents on Christmas Eve or chocolates on February 13th…

But, come November, when it’s actually time to celebrate shichi-go-san, we’ll be all the more ready to go to the shrine without having to worry about any of the accompanying commercialization. I think.

In this issue:

  • What We’re Learning: 7 / 5 / 3

  • What We’re Reading: Gödel, Escher, Bach

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Numbers, yo.

Let’s get to it.

Photo by Paul Wong on Unsplash

What We’re Learning:

Seven - five - three

Let’s start with the very basics: In Japan, a coming-of-age celebration known as Shichi-go-san is held on November 15th. Children of ages 7 (shichi), 5 (go), and 3 (san) are dressed up in special outfits and taken to a local shrine for traditional blessings. The kids get also get candy! And then, many, many pictures are taken.

The celebration is held on November 15th because if you add three, five, and seven together and you get 15, a lucky number in Japanese…mythology? Numerology? I’m not actually sure. Neither is my Japanese wife. We just know it’s lucky…

From Wikipedia:

Shichi-Go-San is said to have originated in the Heian period amongst court nobles who would celebrate the passage of their children into middle childhood. The ages 3, 5 and 7 are consistent with East Asian numerology, which holds that odd numbers are lucky. The practice was set to the fifteenth of the month during the Kamakura period.

Ah, so it is numerology…to continue, also from Wikipedia:

Over time, this tradition passed to the samurai class who added a number of rituals. Children—who up until the age of three were required by custom to have shaven heads—were allowed to grow out their hair. Boys of age five could wear hakama for the first time, while girls of age seven replaced the simple cords they used to tie their kimono with the traditional obi.

These days, kids dress a little differently but the occasion of shichi-go-san is still seen as a chance to celebrate the children growing older and of becoming kids (rather than toddlers or babies). To that end, we adults end up spending a lot of money and it is this aspect of the celebration that makes me compare shichi-go-san to over-commercialized Western holidays.

After all, shichi-go-san began as asking for protection for children. Back in a time when infant and child mortality rates were much, much higher, taking your child to the shrine seemed the best, if not only, way to ensure their continued good health. And yet these days, while we still travel to the shrine and still ask for blessings, it seems we have to spend a lot of money on the way there.

Back in the photo studio, we choose a package that lets her dress up in a costume-kimono as well as a “grown-up” dress. My wallet cries a little but my kid looks so damned cute that its protests are ignored.

The kimono my daughter wears is not a “real” kimono in that it has fewer layers, the obi (belt) is a simple cardboard form wrapped in cloth rather than three yards of stretched and folded fabric, and the accompanying kinchaku (purse) can’t be opened. But it looks real and my kid really enjoys wearing it and posing with a matching parasol.

Next up is a “cocktail” dress in bright pink with ruffles and lace that makes my kid look like just a little bit like Kaely in that one episode of Firefly where she goes to the ball. This dress is also a cocktail piece with more zippers and fewer layers than a real dress, but it looks cute, so we go with it.

The photographer walks my kid through a few poses and we end up with a total of six photos for the low, low price of only $400 USD. My wallet cries itself to sleep for days.

And that’s the end of our shichi-go-san celebration, at least until November. Once fall rolls around, we’ll take my daughter to our local shrine and get a blessing for her. And also some candy. The candy is called chitose and represents long life. The price for this excursion shouldn’t be too bad. After all, the shrine is close by and the candy and other souvenirs are relatively cheap (usually around the $5 per item price-point).

The only real cost here will be either renting or buying another kimono or dress for the shrine visit. And I have no idea yet what kind of prices we’re looking at there. Frankly, I’m too afraid to ask.

Now, obviously, none of this *needs* to happen. We could skip the photo. We can dress my kid in her regular clothes to go to the shrine. We don’t have to buy any souvenirs*. But if we did, would it still be shichi-go-san? I’d like to say yes, but I’m honestly not sure.

It’s academic for my family at this point as we have done the photo and will be going to the shrine and then doing it all again in a few years when my daughter is seven. And I’ll be right there forking over cash over the ever-increasingly shrill protests of my wallet because my kid just looks so damn cute in those photos and because I want every blessing for her I can imagine and then some. And we’ll keep celebrating Christmas and Valentine’s and Easter and every other holiday that used to mean more than it does now, even if my wallet is not happy about it.


*I keep using the word souvenir but it’s not entirely accurate. Japanese people buy charms and trinkets for themselves and gifts for others under the umbrella term “omiyage”. So, in this case, when I say souvenir, what I mean is the candy we’ll buy for my daughter, a charm for her (and possibly new ones for my wife and myself), and possibly some snacks or gifts for her classmates. Mo’ money, mo’ souvenirs?

What We’re Reading:

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

by Douglas R. Hofstadter

This book has been on my “to-read” shelf for so long I had to brush off a half-inch of dust just to dig it out for this blurb. I mean, it won a Pulitzer in 1980 and has long been hailed as a triumph of modern mathematics. But, it’s a book about math.

The idea is that…I don’t know. Here’s Wikipedia:

Through illustration and analysis, the book discusses how self-reference and formal rules allow systems to acquire meaning despite being made of "meaningless" elements. It also discusses what it means to communicate, how knowledge can be represented and stored, the methods and limitations of symbolic representation, and even the fundamental notion of "meaning" itself.

What I can say is that I became interested in the book after joining a bunch of sites and forums while learning the basics of programming. It was, and has continued to be, recommended by experienced programmers to anyone interested in machine intelligence, art, and logic and how they tie in together.

I have all those interests and I’m curious to see how a book called “a metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll” (from the publisher, via Wikipedia) actually reads. So, I’m trying it again. We’ll see how this goes.


Elsewhere:

joeldavidneff.net | joeldavidneff at gmail | @smileytoad | @joeldneff | coffee

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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Seven

Five

Three

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.