Japanese holidays and observance times differ greatly from those in America. Japanese holidays are structured around the lifestyle of Japan, and the ancient practices of the Shinto and Buddhist religions as opposed to the Judeo-Christian holidays that have shaped American cultural holidays and observances. The government established public holidays in Japan in the Public Holiday Law in 1948.
The most important holiday in Japan is the beginning of the year from January 1-3. January 1 is the designated national holiday for the New Year called “shogatsu” and national businesses and government buildings are closed through January 3. Following this, the second Monday of January observes a “coming of age” holiday. This is a time when men and women who are 20 years old celebrate their coming of age, and it is a national holiday. The age of 20 is considered to be the age of ‘majority.’ Cities and towns across Japan celebrate this milestone in the young person’s life with celebrations and festivals.
The beginning of spring, known as “setsubun” is recognized at shrines and temples, but is not really considered a national holiday. The festival, held at the beginning of February, marks the beginning of spring according to the Japanese lunar calendar. For a long time, not only did this holiday recognize the beginning of spring, but it was also seen as a time for the Japanese people to drive out evil spirits. In earlier times, people would hang up dried fish, and chant with drums in order to drive out the evil spirits. Now, while this custom is rarely practiced, Japanese people do perform a similar ritual of throwing around roasted beans and shouting away at the evil spirits.
National Foundation Day, a national holiday, has always been known as a celebration of the first emperor’s birthday. Early records indicate that February 11 was the day that the first Japanese emperor was crowned in 660 BC. It was established as a national holiday in 1966, and is meant to be held as a time of reflection on the pride of the nation and love of country.
A holiday, albeit not a national holiday, that Japan has in common with the West, is Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day is held on February 14th, however one of the biggest differences between Japan’s celebration, and those in the West, is that women typically give chocolates to the men! Men are not expected to make any gestures, or exchange any gifts with the women. Instead, they are to return the favor one month later on White Day, one month later on March 14th.
Another spring time holiday is the Doll Festival or Girls’ Holiday. It is celebrated in early March, and it is custom for families with daughters to wish the girls a long, successful life. Earlier traditions associated with this holiday included rituals involving dolls where ‘bad luck’ was transferred to the dolls and then the dolls were left in a river, in order to remove the bad luck. This holiday, called Hina Matsuri, usually includes drinking sake and eating chirashi sushi.
Sometime around March 20th, Japanese people celebrate the vernal equinox. This is a national holiday as well. But one of the most grand national holidays is Showa Day, held on April 29th. This national holiday is the birthday of the former Japanese emperor Showa, and it celebrates the Showa period. Showa Day is part of Golden Week, which is a seven day period in which four national holidays fall.
The beginning of the Golden Week is Showa Day on April 29. On May 3, the Constitution Memorial Day is held. This commemorates the day that Japan’s postwar constitution took effect. Greenery Day is held on May 4 (this used to be held on April 29th) and is now celebrated as a day of reflection on nature, and the blessings that nature provides. The fourth and final holiday of Golden Week is Children’s Day, established in 1948. This holiday celebrates children and provides well wishes for their future. This is the festival during which Japanese families fly dragon or koi kites in honor of the boys in the family (similar to the girls’ festival in March).
Golden Week is one of the three busiest holiday time period during the year in Japan. Airports, train depots, subways and hotels are all busy and near full capacity during Golden Week. The Japanese government works to manipulate the holiday time periods and weekends in order to maximize the national celebration and minimize the traffic and commuter issues associated with such a large scale national celebration.
Some of the other national holidays throughout the year include Marine Day, a day of gratitude for the ocean and marine life. The nation recognizes and celebrates the prosperity of its maritime nature. Respect-for-the-aged Day is held on the Third Monday in September. Also a national holiday, this day was originally set aside in 1966, as a day to respect the elderly of the nation. The Japanese celebrate the Autumn Equinox on or around September 23rd. This holiday recognizes ancestry and the dead. At the beginning of this past decade, Japan implemented a system of “Happy Mondays.” If a holiday falls on a Sunday, the government designed the holiday to be celebrated on a Monday so that citizens would have a long weekend.
The last two holidays of the year, are a “Labour Thanksgiving,” celebrated on the 23rd of November. This holiday was also established in 1948, and is designed to recognize labor and production. Before this holiday was created as a national holiday, it used to be celebrated as a harvest festival.
Finally, the birthday of the reigning emperor has been a national holiday in Japan since 1868. Celebrated on December 23rd, this holiday recognizes the birth of former Emperor Akihito in 1933. If the emperor changes then the birthday of that emperor is celebrated as a national holiday. This holiday, called “tenno no tanjobi” means Emperor’s Birthday. (Although Christmas is not recognized as a national holiday, more and more Japanese people are celebrating Christmas).