There’s a well-known Chinese legend that goes a little like this: once upon a time, a large school of carp fish decided to swim the Yellow River. Fighting against the current, the school swam together up the river, their bodies shimmering in the water and growing strong with the effort. When they reached the end of the river, the school saw that the water was flowing from a nearby waterfall. Dispirited and seeing no way to continue their journey, many of the carps let the current drag them back down the river. However, some carps refused to give up and tried to swim up the waterfall, fighting a current that had grown twice as strong with the pull of gravity. Leaping from the depths of the river, they fought to reach the top of the waterfall to no avail. To make things worse, the commotion had caught the attention of some local demons, who jeered at the carps and heightened the waterfall to their great amusement. Little by little, year by year, the remaining carps began to give up and drop down into the water until there was just one left fighting upstream. After a hundred years of jumping, the last remaining carp finally leaped to the top of the waterfall. Pleased with its perseverance and determination, the gods transformed it into a magnificent golden dragon.
The underlying message of this story reveals one of the most important values of the Japanese mentality: that it is through hard work and perseverance in the face of overwhelming obstacles that we tap into our true potential. It’s fitting, then, that carps have become a symbol for the energy and resilience of young people. Like carps fighting against the current, young people often find themselves lost in a world shaped by others, pushing forward in situations that feel out of their control. Though they cannot control the current, a child’s instinct to keep trying anyway is the virtue that builds character and, eventually, achievement. The key is to just keep swimming.
The carp’s natural grit has made it an auspicious animal in Japanese culture, which is why you’ll often see their image on everything from kimono prints to tattoo sleeves. Spend the first week of May in Japan, however, and you’re likely to see an army of paper carp windsocks hoisted as far as the eye can see, as families prepare to celebrate the annual Children’s Day Festival.
Held on May 5th, Children’s Day is a national holiday celebrating kids and the families that raise them. To celebrate, families hoist koinobori, a set of koi windsocks that represent each member of the family. A typical koinobori set for a family of four may consist of, from the top down, a large paper carp (painted black to represent the father of the family), a smaller red or pink carp to represent the mother, and smaller carps representing children, in blue, green, or purple depending on the chronological order of birth. By hoisting koinobori, a family offers a wish that their children may grow as resilient as the legendary carp.
Though it swims in a current beyond its control, the carp is born with the ability to fight through streams and cascades. Choosing perseverance over resignation is a lesson we are forced to keep learning, even after we reach adulthood. This approach does not gloss over hardship, acknowledging instead how truly difficult it can be to pursue your dreams. It’s our resilience in the face of failure that builds character, rather than the achievement itself.
To celebrate the Children’s Day festival, we’re hosting a koinobori woodblock crafting station at the concept store where you'll be able to make your very own wooden koinobori for free. From Saturday, May 5th (Children’s Day), to Sunday, May 13th (Mother’s Day), you can stop by the store to design your very own koinobori family from a handful of wooden blocks. All you need is a marker and your creativity. When you’re done, you can stack them in the koinobori style (dad first, mom second, and child at the bottom) at home.
WORDS BY MAGALI ROMAN