National and Public Holidays in Japan
The Japanese have a reputation, deservedly so, for not having many vacations. Many workers simply do not take their allotted vacation time for fear of losing their jobs.
However, in recent years the government has made an effort to increase the number of National Holidays, and these now number fifteen. In the list below, the National Holidays are marked *. The rule is that if a holiday falls on a Sunday, then the following Monday is taken off.
For the visitor and traveler, there are 3 holiday periods that that will have an impact on travel plans. During these three periods, prices tend to increase, sometimes dramatically, and flights, trains, and buses will need to be booked well in advance. The first is the New Year period, the second, Golden Week in April/May, and the third, O-Bon in August.
As well as these national holidays, each area has numerous local festivals or (matsuri).
Japanese flag - hinomaru - flown on a National Holiday
Coming of Age Day - Seijin-no-hi
This is the major Japanese holiday, and most of Japan closes down for a couple of days. It is considered auspicious to view the first sunrise of the year, so every area has a special spot, sometimes a mountain, sometimes a cliff, where people gather before dawn.
It is very much a family celebration, sharing traditional new year foods (osechi ryori), increasingly bought rather than made at home, and playing traditional games (more often than not of the Nintendo variety). Children and grandchildren receive gifts from relatives, typically cash.
* Second Monday in January. Seijin no hi - Coming of Age Day.
This day is for all the young men and women who are, or will become, 20 years of age that year. 20 is the legal age for voting, smoking, and drinking.
The local government puts on a ceremony at the town hall, following which the young people will move on to various ceremonies held at shrines. The young men mostly wear suits, but the young women will be wearing a special kimono bought (or rented) for the occasion. At night the primary activity is drinking - and drinking and drinking.
Seijin no hi is loosely based on pre-Meiji era coming-of-age rites; although in those days adulthood was reached at a much younger age, typically between 10 and 16 years old.
January 15 Tondo
Most communities hold a festival on this day where all the New Year decorations are piled onto a big bonfire and ritually burned. Children also place examples of their calligraphy in the fire. If the flames and smoke cause the paper to rise into the air, then the child will be blessed with a good calligraphic hand.
As well as tonjiru (pork stew) and other delicious foods, warmed sake is served from lengths of bamboo that have been heated in the fire.
This is the first day of spring according to the old lunar calendar used in pre-modern Japan and China. Setsubun ceremonies are held to drive away evil. The most common ritual nowadays is the throwing of roasted beans while shouting "Demons out! Good fortune in!" ("Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!"). Afterwards you pick up and eat as many beans as your age. Shrines and temples stage a variety of local ceremonies and festivities.
* Feb 11 Kenkoku kinenbi - National Foundation Day
According to the ancient myths, on this date in 660 B.C. the Japanese nation was founded the Meiji Constitution was proclaimed. Because of these connections to the system of emperor worship, the Occupation abolished Foundation Day, reinstated by the Japanese government in 1966. In most cities various groups take to the streets and demonstrate against the revival of the imperial system.
Feb 14 Valentine's Day
St Valentine's Day was launched by a chocolate manufacturer in 1958, with other chocolate companies following suit soon after.
On Valentine's Day, women give men chocolates - and not just to lovers or husbands, but to colleagues, friends, and relatives. There is even such a thing as "giri-choco", i.e. "duty chocolate", to be given to males whom it would be socially unwise to neglect.
There is no tradition of anonymous cards and gifts given to lovers. White Day (March 14) is the day for the men to reciprocate.
Though May 5th is technically Children's Day, in truth it is for boys, and the Dolls Festival is the day for girls. Read more on Hina Matsuri.
Mar 14 White Day
On this day men are supposed to give gifts to their female partners/acquaintances/colleagues/relatives/friends/ lovers - specifically those who gave them a Valentine's Day gift. "Triple return" (sanbai gaeshi) is said to be the rule, whereby the man returns a gift approximately three times the value of what he received in on Valentine's Day.
Begun in 1978 by the National Association of Confectionery Makers as 'Candy Day', apparently at the instigation of Ishimura Manseido, a confectionery manufacturer in Fukuoka City, it was relaunched as 'White Day' in 1980. White Day has never been as popular or as faithfully observed as Valentine's Day.
Mar 21 Shunbun no hi - Spring Equinox
The period around the spring equinox is known as ohigan, and is a time for remembering the dead and visiting family graves.
Golden Week consists of the series of the four national (i.e. asterisked) holidays below: Showa Day on April 29, Constitution Day on May 3, Green Day on May 4, and Children's Day on May 5.
For the majority of Japanese, this is their longest vacation of the year.
This is the start of Golden Week, one of the three major Japanese holiday periods.
The second of the Golden Week National Holidays celebrates the Constitution enacted in 1947.
As described above in Showa no Hi (Showa Day), starting in 2007, this holiday was moved from April 29 to May 4. No longer in commemoration of the Emperor Showa (i.e. Hirohito), it has, according to the Law on National Holidays, been established "in thanksgiving for the blessings of nature, and to cultivate a feeling of intimacy with nature, as well as generosity of spirit".
* May 5 Kodomo no hi - Children's Day
Though officially dedicated to children, this day is actually considered Boys' Day. In the weeks preceding, families with young boys erect a tall pole and fly carp streamers, or koinobori. The carp, swimming upstream, is a symbol of strength and endurance, and it is hoped that the boys will achieve these qualities.
No public holidays fall in June.
Based on an ancient Chinese love story, the Star Festival celebrates the stars Altair and Vega, coming together, no longer separated by the Milky Way. Some places celebrate in August, but most places use the lunar calendar which has it in July. In a way somewhat reminiscent of the Christmas tree, small bamboos are decorated with ornaments, talismans, and strips of paper upon which wishes are written.
* Third Monday in July Umi no hi - Ocean Day, or Sea Day, or Marine Day
This is a fairly recent national holiday. Aquariums and other water-related attractions put on special events and lots of water sports take place. Never missing an opportunity to espouse the Imperial cause, the government chose this date because it is the anniversary of the return by boat of the Meiji Emperor from a trip to Hokkaido.
O-Bon is a Buddhist festival honoring deceased ancestors. Though not a national holiday, most companies close down and it is the third of the peak travel seasons in Japan. During O-Bon the supposed spirits of deceased ancestors are said to return to their earthly home, so graves are washed and cleaned and offerings placed on them. At the end of the O-Bon period, communities hold the Bon Odori, a stylized communal dance accompanied by a drummer and a singer, (and, or course, copious amounts of alcohol.) There are several major festivals at O-Bon, notably the Daimonji Fires in the hills surrounding Kyoto.
Instituted in 1966, on this day town halls hold ceremonies of thanks for senior citizens.
* September 23 Shubun no hi - Autumn Equinox
This is the second ohigan period of the year when graves of ancestors are visited.
Instituted in 1966, this day marks the anniversary of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Not surprisingly, many sports events are held on this day.
Originally celebrated as the Meiji Emperors birthday, in 1946 this day's name was changed to Culture Day. The government, and the schools, award prizes for cultural achievement.
* November 23 Kinro kansha no hi - Labor Thanksgiving Day
Based on ancient harvest and thanksgiving festivals, in 1946 this day was officially dedicated to all workers.
The birthday of the current Emperor is always a national holiday. If the Emperor changes, so does the date of this national holiday. The Emperor gives a televised speech, and crowds of well-wishers visit the Imperial Palace for a glimpse of him.
December 25 Christmas
There are a small number of Christians in Japan who celebrate Christmas traditionally, but for most it is purely a commercial event. In fact, Christmas decorations in stores can go up as early as the end of October.
Of actually far greater significance to most Japanese is Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve has decidedly romantic associations in Japan (to the point of any Christian associations being completely obliterated) and women expect to be taken to a restaurant or love hotel by their boyfriend.
December 28 last day of work
Most companies shut down on this day and people travel to their ancestral hometown for preparations for the New Year.