Kites, bringers of good luck

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prof Naoyuki Ogawa

Updated on Dec 26 2015

  In Japan, there will be big sports events like the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020. We will introduce some sports that either have their roots in Japan, or were introduced to Japan and have gained popularity.

~「凧あげ」~ Kite flying

Kite flying, a seasonal event in Japan


           Kites are made with paper or cloth attached to a frame and they are raised using the force of the wind. Kite flying is done not only in Japan but around the world, and it has even developed into a sport with competitions held internationally.

           Kites are described in the Wamyosho (a dictionary compiled in the Heian Period) as shiroushi or shien, both meaning “bird made of paper”. It is thought that kites had been introduced from China by that time.

           Today, kite flying is a New Year’s tradition in Japan. It was extremely popular in the Edo Period throughout the year. However, the kite flying season differed region to region. In Osaka in the spring, records show that even adults took part in flying kites, along with drinking, on the day of Hatsu-uma (First Horse Day in February) in Osaka. In Nagasaki, kites were often flown from March to April. Around the Toyohashi area (modern-day Aichi Prefecture), children of samurai families enjoyed it from the end of March until May 6. In Oga (modern Akita Prefecture), kites were flown during the Bon Festival in August. Kites were flown in different places at different times of the year, but it gradually became associated with New Year’s traditions from the Meiji Period.


Kites, bringers of good luck


           Although the season in the Edo Period differed regionally, this also shows that it had a strong link with days of seasonal changes, such as New Year’s Day, Hatsu-uma in February, the Flower Festival (the Buddha’s Birthday Festival) on April 8, the Boy’s Festival on May 5, and the Bon Festival in August.

           Kite flying on the Boy’s Festival Day is called Hatsu-dako (the first kite), and a large kite was made to celebrate a baby boy’s first Boy’s Festival. Family members saw the kite hovering valiantly at a great height as representing their children’s happy growth. A kite festival held in Sagamihara (Kanagawa Prefecture) is famous for having the largest kites in Japan. There was a custom in which parents wrote their first son’s name on a large kite and asked young men in the area to fly them to celebrate their first Boy’s Festival on May 5. Developed from this custom, people started to fly large kites about 4-5 meters square at the kite festival to celebrate children’s first Boy Festival and wish for success in life. Similar customs can also seen in Shizuoka and Ehime Prefecture, showing that the custom of flying kites on the Boy’s Festival Day seemed to be popular throughout Japan.

           There is also a kite called iwai-dako (congratulatory kite), a pair of kites representing a tsuru (crane) and kame (tortoise), symbols of longevity. Since kites go “up” into the air, they are regarded as bringers of good luck.

           A Shinto ritual called Youkako Festival is held on January 8 in Saku-shima Island (Aichi Prefecture) in which two men in the midst of their unlucky year shoot down an octagonal kite with the word oni (ogre) written on it, wishing for good health. Also, tako-ichi (kite fair) is held on the day of the horse in February at Oji-inari-jinja Shrine in Tokyo. It is said that originally people in the Edo Period bought Yakko-dako (kite with a picture of a man) as a ward against fires. In the Edo Period, as fires often spread widely due to the wind, people bought these kites as charms against fire because kites soar into the sky overcoming the wind. There are also other events held on the horse day in February to pray for preventing fires in the Tohoku region.

Kites earn many names, their own character


            According to the Wakan-sansai-zue, an encyclopedia compiled in the Edo period and published in 1721, kites were called ika-nobori (flying squid) in the early Edo Period, becoming ika (squid) later, but also called tako (octopus) in the Kanto region.

           Kites are still called Takobata in the Shimokita region (Aomori Prefecture), hata and tenbata in the eastern Tohoku region, ika and ika-nobori in the Nigata, Hokuriku, Kinki, eastern Chugoku and Shikoku Setouchi seacoast areas, yozu in the western Chugoku region, takobata, takabata, hata, tatsu and so on in the northern Kyushu area, yochu, or yocho in the northern Nagasaki, Hirato, Goto-retto Islands and Iki areas, kabituzu in Miyako-jima Island, bikitama in the Yaeyama Islands (both in Okinawa Prefecture), and tako in areas outside of these.

           Kites are still popular all over Japan. In fact, the Chinese character representing kite 凧 was created in Japan. It is said to represent a cloth filled with wind. Kites, loved by people in Japan for generations, have a rich and interesting history.

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