A couple of weeks ago, a Japanese friend invited me and the kids to a carp painting event at Asian Trade Centre at Osaka port.
What is ‘Carp painting’ you might wonder (or not!). Well, the Japanese are not known for their animal rights, but luckily carp painting is not an activity where you make a real carp look like the face of a Russian porn star. Instead, in late April and early May, the Japanese paint fabric or paper windsocks (which are in the shape of a fish), known as koinobori (or carp streamer) and hang them up outside their homes or in public places for Children’s Day. See photos above and below.
Children’s Day is a public holiday at the end of Golden week – a glorious run of several public holidays in a row in early May, which is one of the few leisure time-related highlights of the year for Japanese salarymen and women who have very little holiday relative to their European counterparts.
Children’s Day is also knows as ‘Boys’ Day’. There is also an annual ‘Girls’ Day’ celebrated in March but this (a) is not referred to as Children’s Day and (b) is not a public holiday, which to me implies that girls are not as important as boys (or even that girls are not children!). This kind of gender inequality would probably create an unprecedented outcry from feminists and maybe also from non-feminists (perhaps hoping for an extra public holiday) in more gender-equal countries. But not in Japan.
Furthermore, I think it is notable that the symbol for Boys’ Day is the carp. My Japanese friends told me that it represents strength, perseverance and ultimately success in the difficult task they have in swimming upstream (but do carps swim upstream? -I thought it was salmons!). In any case, carps represent energy, power and spirited character.
What about Girls’ Day? Well, the tradition on Girls Day is to send dolls down the river to the sea in order to take bad spirits away with them. What this has got to do with girls, I don’t know. But Girls’ day doesn’t appear to have an association with perseverance, strength and success in the same way that Boys’ Day does. And as a mother of a girl and a boy, I kind of have a problem with this distinction.
Anyway, regardless of my overall disagreement with the concepts associated with Boys’ and Girls’ days, we went along to the carp painting event (I am not a hard core feminist who would necessarily boycott children’s cultural events based on their dubious gender equality but do like to make a point here and there – as you may have gathered!).
The event was well organised and like so many children’s events in Japan it was free!
All children were given a fabric carp, crayons, pencils and paint and freedom to express their creative side.
This is great because neither my husband nor I are artistic or creative, neither of us can draw and neither of us enjoy drawing or any type of arts and crafts stuff. In fact, neither of my sisters, my parents nor any of my grandparents are/were good drawers. I believe this is also the case for my husband’s sisters, parents and grandparents, but to avoid any awkward moments with the in-laws should they read this blog post I will not make any assertive statements regarding their drawing abilities here. But I think I am right in assuming that genetically our children are extremely far removed from Picasso’s or van Gogh’s creative genes.
And because my husband and I, I suppose the word is: dislike arts and crafts, sometimes I feel that our children’s pastime activities revolve too much around things like sports, chess, Lego, jigsaw puzzles, reading, card games or board games like Monopoly, Scrabble, Articulate and lack activities in which empty toilet rolls or used ice lolly sticks are skilfully re-formed into Godzillas or robots. Luckily, the kids’ school and many of their au pairs have been more keen to create new uses for used toilet papers and lolly sticks than my husband and I.
At the carp painting event, I tried to help my 4-year old daughter a little bit with her carp, but I noticed that she actually did a better job without me. When it comes to drawing, I suppose I’m actually a bit of a Picasso – only without the intention to depict an ear on someone’s forehead. So, I concentrated on pouring some extra paint in their little paint bowls, alerting the staff when the first side of the carp was painted (so that they could take it away and dry the paint with a blow dryer so that the bottom side of the carp could also be painted) and wiping paint off of my children’s hands, cheeks, hair and clothes.
When the carps were ready, the child had to write their name, age and the ‘title’ of their creation on a piece of paper. Somewhat inappropriately my daughter wanted to name her carp as ‘catfish’. Maybe in a modern Western female style, she was sending a passive-aggressive message with her catfish, given that as opposed to the energetic and strong carps, catfish are big mouthed, sluggish beings, whose huge head and heavy bones drag them to the seabed. Now there’s some symbolism for Japanese men to think about.
But guess what! A couple of days ago my friend sent me an email to tell me that my daughter’s carp had won a prize! It had been selected as one of the 10 best koinobori amongst all 200, and that the event organizers would home deliver a small prize and award. I’m sure they had considered age as a handicap, and also marked streamers down if they thought that an eager artistic adult had helped the child with their koinobori, after all some of the koinobori there were spectacular, but I was over the moon that my 4-year old’s slightly abstract carp (or catfish) was acknowledged in this way! See some of the winning koinobori below.
Furthermore, I will take this as a symbol of my daughter persevering, showing strength and succeeding regardless of the fact that, genetically, all odds are against her becoming the next Picasso.