If you are new to living or studying in Japan, you might be surprised at how many random days you have off. They mostly seem to fall on Mondays, and you can’t really figure out why you have off. (Not that you’re complaining.)
Japan has a lot of these public holidays – sixteen of them, in fact. They’ve become a large part of the values of Japanese society and are a good place to start if you’re looking at Japanese culture. Here are 10 public holidays with a brief background of how they came to be and why they are celebrated today.
1. Coming of Age Day (second Monday in January)
Coming of Age Day, or seijin no hi, is very important in Japan. It was established in 1948 and celebrates everyone who turns 20, or the age of maturity in Japan, between April 1st of the previous year and March 31st of the current year (the Japanese fiscal year). This is a big day for those participating, as everyone dresses up in fancy kimono and gathers for local celebrations.
2. Children’s Day (May 5)
Children’s Day, which used to be Boys’ Day, is meant for the country to pray for the happiness and health of all children. If a household has a boy in their home, they can fly koinobori, or carp streamers, from long poles near their house. Children’s Day is the end of Golden Week, which is a period in the spring that consists of several public holidays in a row and is a popular time for vacationing.
3. Marine Day (third Monday of July)
This holiday is for – you guessed it – the oceans. It is meant to pay homage not only to the seas that surround Japan, but also to the fact that Japan is a maritime nation.
4. Mountain Day (August 11)
Mountain Day is the newest public holiday and came to be in May of 2014. It was created to be a partner to Marine Day: if you’re celebrating the ocean, why not also celebrate the mountains?
5. Respect for the Aged Day (third Monday of September)
Another holiday that is aptly named, Respect for the Aged Day used to be called Old Folks’ Day and is celebrated as a reminder to be nice to the elderly. (So call your grandparents.)
6. Health and Sports Day (second Monday of October)
This holiday used to be held on October 10 to commemorate the first day of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics but has since been changed.
As Health and Sports Day is a day to promote sports and physical and mental health, many schools and businesses choose this day to hold their annual Field Day (運動会 Undō-kai?), or sports day. This typically consists of a range of physical events ranging from more traditional track-and-field events such as the 100 metres or 4 x 100 metres relay to more uncommon events such as the tug of war and the Mock Cavalry Battle (騎馬戦 Kiba-sen?).
Most communities and schools across Japan celebrate Sports Day with a sports festival which is similar to a mini Olympics. These festivals include many of the traditional track and field events, such as 4 x 100m relay, 100m sprinting, and long jump, as well as many other events. Some of the events include: ball toss, tug-o-war, rugby-ball dribbling races, sack races, and so on. Another common event is often simply called the “exciting relay”, which is an obstacle course relay including any number of different challenges: Three-legged races, making a stretcher with a blanket and bamboo poles and then carrying an “injured” teammate, laundry hanging, crawling on hands and knees under a net, and doing cartwheels across a mat.
7. Culture Day (November 3)
Culture Day was first held in 1948, to commemorate the announcement of the post-war Japanese constitution on November 3, 1946.
November 3 was first celebrated as a national holiday in 1868, when it was called Tenchō-setsu (天長節?), a holiday held in honor of the birthday of the reigning emperor—at that time, the Meiji Emperor. (See also The Emperor’s Birthday.) With the death of the Meiji Emperor in 1912, November 3 ceased to be a holiday until 1927, when his birthday was given its own specific holiday, known as Meiji-setsu (明治節?). As Meiji-setsu was discontinued with the announcement of Culture Day in 1948, some see Culture Day as a continuation of this tradition as well—a mere renaming of Meiji-setsu—although they are ostensibly unrelated.
Culture Day is celebrated especially to promote arts endeavors and Japanese traditions, such as festivals. Schools often hold their own culture festivals around this day, showcasing art and drama projects that they created themselves.
8. The Emperor’s Birthday (December 23)
The birthday of the current emperor, Emperor Akihito, is December 23.
9. Autumnal Equinox Day (around September 23)
Autumnal Equinox Day is meant to be used as a time to remember those who have passed. Although it has roots in Shintoism, it was declared a non-religious holiday in order to follow the separation of church and state outlined by Japan’s postwar constitution.
10. Showa Day (April 29)
Showa Day marks the beginning of Golden Week.
It honors the birthday of the Shōwa Emperor (Hirohito), the reigning emperor from 1926 to 1989. The purpose of the holiday is to encourage public reflection on the turbulent 63 years of Hirohito’s reign.
Coincidentally, Showa day happens in the same date that in 1946 the Allies’ International Military Tribunal for the Far East condemned key officials of theImperial Hirohito government during World War II to death, including former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.