Whatever corner of the world, we all have national holidays. They can allude to a country’s culture (a Respect for the Aged Day? Why?) or contrast its differences compared to others (Vietnam celebrating new years in February? How come?).
There are a total of 16 public in Japan, though in 2019, this number will be 15 with the abdication of Emperor Akihito. No more Emperor Akihito, no more Emperor Akihito’s birthday! Public holidays in Japan can range from the typical New Year’s and National Foundation Day, to the more specific Coming of Age Day and, as hinted to above, the Emperor’s Birthday. Here you will find a guide to Japanese public holidays: their names, their origin, and fun facts!
Let’s go down the list!
New Year’s Day
Of the public holidays in Japan, New Year’s Day is pretty self-explanatory by name, though culturally very unique. 元日(Ganjitsu, “New Year’s Day”) itself kicks off 正月 (Shougatsu, “New Year’s Season”), which is generally the first 3 days of the year. It’s Japan’s most important holiday season, a bit different than the more casual western party hats, silly sunglasses, confetti and big dropping balls.
During this time, Japanese people eat a special combination of お節料理 (Osechi-Ryouri, food served during the New Year’s Holidays) consisting of sweet, sour, and dried foods that can keep without refrigeration. This goes back to the days before households had fridges and stores closed for the holidays. These foods, though very region specific, consist of popular dishes like rice cakes, fried foods, omelettes, and fish cakes.
Most all Japanese head to a shrine on New Year’s Day to pray for the new year, especially after getting up bright and early to see the first sunrise of the year. People climb mountains for hours in the night to sit and prepare for this sunrise, and it’s an activity I highly recommend to anyone visiting Japan during the New Year holidays.
Then there’s the Japanese custom of writing 年賀状 (Nengajou, New Year’s Day postcards) by hand to each and every close family and friend, wishing them a happy new year and letting them know everyone is happy and well (and alive). Children also receive お年玉 (Otoshidama, New Year’s gift), money wrapped in envelopes from their parents or grandparents.
It’s an enchanting time to be in Japan. Everything seems to shut down commercially, people slip back into their family lives, and the country hums on a humble, spiritual vibe.
Coming of Age Day
成人の日 (Seijin no Hi, “Coming of Age Day”) is on the second Monday of January. It’s a celebration to congratulate those who have reached the age of 20—the age of adulthood in Japan. At local and prefectural offices, young adults gather for speeches in coming of age ceremonies, with women donning 振袖 (Furisode, long-sleeved kimono) and men in 袴 (Hakama, men’s formal skirt)—though nowadays men tend to wear a western styled suit. After the formal parts are over, friends group up and have a night out on the town. Oh to be a young adult!
National Foundation Day
On February 11th, the country celebrates 建国記念の日 (Kenkoku Kinen no Hi, “National Foundation Day”), which is the mythological foundation of Japan on February 11, 660BC. On this supposed day, Emperor Jimmu came to the throne on the first day of the first month of what was the lunar calendar at the time. Although it’s a reflection on Japanese citizenship and pride, there’s never much nationalistic expression or public patriotism. This is due to its history with the surrender of Japan after World War II. February 11 was the day General Douglas MacArthur approved the new model constitution in 1946, and so the holiday became stripped of most of its references to the Emperor.
Vernal Equinox Day
Usually somewhere between March 19-22 based on astronomical measurements, 春分の日 (Shunbun no Hi, “Vernal Equinox Day”) started out as a Shintoist related event called 春季皇霊祭 (Shunki Koureisai). It now celebrates the spring equinox, when daylight and night hours are the same. It’s the official change of the seasons, just as the 秋分の日 (Shuubun no Hi, “Autumnal Equinox Day”) stands for the changing into Autumn. The Vernal Equinox is usually a time to visit loved ones’ graves, pay homage to ancestors, and renew their lives by cleaning their homes. People take the day off work to spend time with their families and take in the coming of the spring season after a tough winter. Many people still visit ancestral graves and sweep debris, and this custom is just as important in the Autumnal Equinox.
Held on April 29, 昭和の日 (Shouwa no Hi, “Showa Day”) is a holiday in honor of the birthday of Emperor Shouwa Hirohito, reigning emperor from 1926 to 1989. The meaning of this holiday is to reflect on the turbulent 63 years of the Shouwa era, a time consisting of Japanese invasions of foreign countries, attempted coup d’états, totalitarianism, World War II, and the rocket rise of the Japanese post-war economic miracle.
It also kicks off the all important ゴールデンウイーク (Goruden Wiiku, “Golden Week”), the busiest time of the year for travel in Japan. This week is the mother of all public holidays in Japan. Showa Day, Constitution Memorial Day, Greenery Day, and Children’s Day—depending on the year—can all line up to form an ultimate holiday week (or more!) for busy Japanese salarymen, and some companies even close down completely. It’s busy, it’s an expensive time to fly, but it’s warm and it’s fun!
Constitution Memorial Day
憲法記念日 (Kenpou Kinenbi, “Constitution Memorial Day”), on May 3rd, celebrates the creation of the 1947 new constitution of post-World War II Japan.
緑の日 (Midori no Hi, “Greenery Day”) is officially a day to commune with nature. It was meant to acknowledge Emperor Shouwa’s admiration for plants without mentioning his name in the holiday, as the wartime emperor can be controversial. In practice though, it’s another day that forms the ever-loved Golden Week.
子供の日 (Kodomo no Hi, “Children’s Day”) wraps up Golden Week, taking place on May 5. Meant to celebrate children as well as their fathers and mothers, on this day you’ll find carp fish-shaped flags hung on poles over their homes. A black carp above represents the father, red for the mother, and additional carps below for the children. Carps are part of a Chinese legend about a carp swimming upstream to become a dragon and thus flying up to heaven.
Held on the third Monday of July, 海の日 (Umi no Hi, “Marine Day”) is a celebration of the ocean and its bounty. As an island nation, the ocean always has and always will be a very important part of Japanese culture. It’s woven into its ancient symbols, making itself known in day to day conversations, and an enormous part of the country’s economy.
It also usually comes around the end of the rainy season, which makes it even more a reason for people to get out and take advantage of the summer sun by having a day on the beach. When I lived on Tanegashima, the day would often bring out kids and adults alike for a big beach cleanup day.
Just like Marine Day, 山の日 (Yama no Hi, “Mountain Day”) is a public holiday to be with the mountains and appreciate the blessings it brings. Since 2016, every August 11 has been Mountain Day. Along with its endless coastlines and connection to the ocean, Japan’s rugged mountains deserve just as much admiration and respect.
Respect for the Aged Day
敬老の日 (Keirou no Hi, “Respect for the Aged Day”) is on the third Monday of September because of the Happy Monday System. This system moved a number of public holidays in Japan to Mondays in order to allow for more three day weekends for those who work a five-day week. In honor of elderly citizens, Respect for the Aged Day is a nice glimpse into how the Japanese respect their elders. The news talk about the elderly population and the oldest in the country, and small local festivals abound.
In 1963, the number of those who reached age 100 was 153, and in 2014, the number was 29,357. The Japanese Government originally gave silver sake cups to those who reached the triple digits, but the cost increase of the number of cups is now making the government think twice about how to go about congratulating their oldest!
Held annually on the second Monday of October, 体育の日 (Taiiku no Hi, “Health-Sports Day”) is in commemoration of the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The government encourages sports and an active lifestyle.
Japanese schools hold their annual 運動会 (Undou-kai, “Sports Day”) on this day, an enormous event for every school in which students participate in physical events, ranging from track-and-field, to tug-of-war and local regional games. Teachers challenge students in relays, parents join goofy races carrying their kids or juggling sports equipment, and the entire day turns into an outdoor festival. It’s quite an event to see!
文化の日 (Bunka no Hi, “Culture Day”) is held every November 3rd to promote culture and academics. Art exhibitions are held and awards given to artists and scholars. Originally a holiday for Emperor Meiji’s birthday, it was eventually changed to what it stands for now.
Labor Thanksgiving Day
勤労感謝の日 (Kinrou Kansha no Hi, “Labor Thanksgiving Day”) is on November 23, as a day for giving thanks to one another for hard work and productivity. Its roots come from an ancient harvest festival, where the Emperor would dedicate the year’s harvest to the gods.
The Emperor’s Birthday
天皇誕生日 (Tennou Tanjoubi, “The Emperor’s Birthday”) is on December 23, as per the current emperor. Emperor Akihito will retire on April 30th, 2019, which means that the holiday won’t be observed until the new emperor ascends the throne.
This is one of two occasions that the public may enter the inner grounds of the Imperial Palace. On this day, the Emperor and Empress, as well as members of the imperial family, wave hello to the congratulatory crowds from the palace balcony. What a way to celebrate a birthday, huh?
On top of its real holidays, Japan has pun-filled “holidays” that take advantage of the way the language works: a non-phonetic writing style containing multiple pronunciations of the same character, due to its roots in Chinese characters intertwined with its own native pronunciations. In other words, it means tons of room for knee-slapping, groan inducing puns. Though nobody gets a day off for these days, they can come with bonuses!
Every month on the 29th, for example, is 肉の日 (Niku no Hi, “Meat day”). Why, you ask? In Japanese, the number two is pronounced “ni,” and the number nine “kyuu” or “ku.” Put that together and you get ni-ku, or the word for meat. Get it? Ha! Browse the supermarkets on this day and you’ll often find meat on sale for great prices! On 11/22 couples can sometimes find special deals due to 11 looking like “ii” meaning “good,” and 22 pronounced as “fufu,” meaning couple. The puns are endless, and some are quite a stretch, but it’s a fun way to see how the language works.
And that’s it for our Guide to Japanese public holidays! It may seem like there are quite a lot of public holidays in Japan, but for as hard as they work, every single one is well deserved. Perhaps even more are needed! Come over and enjoy a holiday or two of your own in Japan, but keep a look out for Golden Week. If you’re wondering why ticket prices are so expensive, this could be the reason! Contact us today to know the best way to enjoy life in Japan for you!