Japanese Carp Kites: History & Meaning

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever seen colorful kites shaped like a fish? Did you know that this fish has special meaning in Japanese culture? In this lesson explore the history and significance of Japanese carp kites.

What are Japanese Carp Kites?

Kites have a long history in Japan, where they've been used for thousands of years. The practice of flying kites originally came to Japan from another very old Asian culture, China.

Row of colorful carp kites flying in the breeze
image of carp kites

One special Japanese kite is the koinobori or carp kite. A carp is a fish, and the koinobori kite represents a colorful, ornamental freshwater carp called a koi. The flag is shaped like a fish with its open mouth attached to a pole and its tail fluttering free in the wind. The koi is revered in Japanese culture, where it's regarded as a symbol of strength, energy, and courage and you're likely to see them on display swimming in ponds in Japanese gardens. You may wonder how a fish can represent courage. Well, koi are vigorous and powerful. They can swim upstream in rivers, which isn't east to do because it requires the fish to fight the current.

Close up view of carp kites
Detail of carp kites

Traditionally, carp kites are flown from April through early May in honor of a major holiday called Kodomo no Hi or Children's Day, which takes place on May 5. Families fly the kites to symbolize the wish that their children grow into healthy, spirited adults.

But why fly a fish kite for a holiday?

History and Significance of Japanese Carp Kites

The history of carp kites goes back a very long time and, given the extreme age, the kites' origins are a bit murky. But one legend has that they date to the late 1200s and the age of aristocratic ruling warriors known as samurai. The samurai, decked out in full armor, supposedly flew the flags from poles as they went into battle. They also used the flags to celebrate great victories. Another historical connection comes from an earlier Japanese holiday called Tango No Sekku or Boy's Day. The carp kites were flown as part of Boy's Day to represent wishes that male children grow up strong and proud. In 1948, that holiday was widened to include all kids and the new holiday, Children's Day, was born.

Also, according to tradition, Japanese families flew carp kites and streamers on tall poles in front of their homes to mark a new baby's arrival. They colorful flags would attract the attention of the gods, who would see the kite flying and come to bless the child.

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