What Holidays Are Celebrated Only In Japan?

by Justin Sevakis,

T. Brown asks:

So many animes cover holidays like Christmas, Valentine's day, and White day, but at there any other holidays that are celebrated that are specifically Eastern or Japanese?

It's true that Western holidays tend to get most of the dramatic treatment in anime and manga. However, Japan and Asia do have several holidays that we don't, and a few interesting variants on ones that sound familiar, but are quite different things over there.

Unlike China, Japan does celebrate and observe the Gregorian Calendar New Year's Day (Ganjitsu). However, the celebration that ensues is more like our Christmas than our night of binge drinking, dumb hats, noisemakers and countdowns. New Year's Eve (Omisoka) is a quiet affair, where people gather at people's homes to eat celebratory soba or udon (Asian traditions tend to conflate long noodles with longevity and passing time) before heading to a shrine at midnight, a first-night tradition known as Hatsumode. Shinto shrines hand out amazake (a sweet fermented rice drink), while Buddhist temples strike a large bell 108 times, one time for each earthly desire believed to cause human suffering.

Japan uses New Year's Week as a time to take a trip to visit family, take a break, and watch music performance specials on TV. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which was introduced by German prisoners-of-war during World War I, has become the unofficial theme song of the holiday. Traditional games are played, money is given to children in special decorative envelopes, people send stacks and stacks of postcards (which are ALL delivered on New Year's Day), and traditional new year's foods are eaten. It's perhaps the biggest holiday of the year.

The 2nd monday of January, which was the 11th this year, is Seijin no Hi, or Coming-of-age Day. While it is a legal holiday, it's really a day of celebration only for 20-year-olds, who attend formal ceremonies held by their local city office. (20 is legally adult age in Japan.) Speeches are given, and swag is distributed. Due to a combination of disruptive behavior and an increasing number of 20-year-olds deciding to sit out the occasion, this holiday is in decline.

On February 11 is National Foundation Day (Kenkoku Kinen no Hi), which was originally called Empire Day and was a celebration of the emperor, with huge parades and festivals. Needless to say, after WWII this day was renamed and is still fairly controversial, so aside from putting up a flag, people don't do much for it anymore.

While romance anime fans know that on Valentines Day, guys get chocolates from girls, on White Day (March 14), the guys have to reciprocate the favor. This tradition is well-mined material for anime, so I'll leave it to our forum commenters to recommend some depictions.

On the vernal equinox (Shunbun no Hi), most Japanese get the day off. As it's the first day of spring, many people use it for spring cleaning, looking after their ancestral grave sites, or pray for good luck (particularly those working in agriculture). This was originally a Shinto holiday called Shunki Koreisai, but it was repackaged after Japan's new post-war constitution separated church and state.

Golden Week, which runs from April 29 through May 5, is a parade of holidays that add up to some nice vacation time all across Japan. Beginning with Showa Day on April 29 (birthday of the late Showa Emperor Hirohito), and then continuing on May 3 with Constitution Memorial Day, Greenery Day on May 4, and Children's Day on May 5, Golden Week pretty much shuts down Japan. Most companies take the week as a paid holiday, a lot of people travel, and anime takes a week off for TV specials.

Most of those holidays are not otherwise noteworthy, but Children's Day is pretty interesting. Originally separated into Boys' Day and Girls' Day (the latter of which was on March 3), families fly carp-shaped flags called Koi no Bori -- one carp for each person in the family -- after an old Chinese legend that tells of a carp swimming up stream to become a dragon. Other decorations include the traditional Japanese military helmet, the kabuto, as well as a doll of the legendary Kintaro the Golden Boy (a popular folk hero of superhuman strength who became a retainer to a samurai after, as a child, catching the powerful oni named Shuten-doji that haunted Mount Oe... Boy, I don't see any anime references here, do you??). Mochi in kashiwa leaves are served, as well as sweet rice paste. Celebration of this holiday goes back centuries.

Hina-matsuri, or what was Girls' Day, is still celebrated by some. It's basically known for its multi-tiered display of traditional dolls and traditional food and drink. The order of the dolls and their placement is extremely important, and varies from region to region.

The third Monday of July is Marine Day (Umi no Hi), which is a day of gratitude for the ocean. Many people take a beach trip on this day. Prior to 1996 this was called Marine Memorial Day, which was a relic of WWII. A series of reforms (including one called the Happy Monday System, which pushed holidays to Mondays to create three-day weekends) turned it into what it is today.

On or around July 7 is a festival called Tanabata, or the Star Festival. People often celebrate by writing a wish (sometimes as poetry) on small pieces of paper called tanzaku, and hanging them on bamboo along with other decorations. The bamboo is usually set on fire or floated down a river after the festival. Many areas in Japan have their own customs as well.

Obon (or just "Bon") is a 3-day festival held in mid-August. When, exactly, changes by region: Eastern Japan (including Tokyo) celebrates around July 15th (which coincides with a related Buddhist festival called Chugen). Most of the rest of Japan celebrates around August 15th, while a few sticklers celebrate exactly on its original time: the 15th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar (which changes every year). These days are not official holidays in Japan, but most people get the days off. Obon is a Buddhist-Confucian holiday of ancestral celebration, when you're supposed to visit and clean your family's graves, but far more fun is the festival, which has been a tradition for over 500 years. You may have seen depictions of Obon in anime and wondered why there was so much ghost iconography. This is why. Many areas around the world with major Japanese populations have Obon festivals as well. (A new official holiday called Mountain Day on August 11, timed to coincide with Obon, was instituted in 2014, suggesting people use the day to get acquainted with their local mountain areas.)

September 19 is Respect-for-the-Aged Day (Keiro no Hi), originally called Toshiyori no Hi (Old Folks' Day). For most people this is just a day off. The government gives commemorative silver sake cups to Japanese who reach 100 years old. As more and more Japanese people are reaching this age (29,357 in 2014!), this has started to become a very expensive tradition; the government has already decreased the size of the cup and is now considering changing the gift to something else.

The first day of Autumn (Shubun no Hi, September 22 or 23) is a day to honor the dead, which grew out of a festival called Shuki Korei-sai. It became an official holiday in 1948.

The second Monday of October is Heath and Sports Day (Taiiku no Hi). Originally celebrated on October 10 to commemorate the start of the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, many schools and businesses use this day to hold their annual field day events. It was pushed to its current date as part of the Happy Monday System reforms, but it's important to note that this time of year usually enjoys nice weather in Japan.

November 3 is Culture Day, or Bunka no Hi, which was first held in 1948 to celebrate the signing of the post-war constitution. Intended to highlight human intellectual endeavor and cooperation, this is the day where most schools have their culture festivals. Other evens include art exhibits and parades.

November 15 is Shichi-Go-San (literally 7-5-3), which is not a legal holiday, but a festival where kids aged seven, five and three visit shrines to pray for their healthy growth.

November 23 is Labor Thanksgiving Day (Kinro Kansha no Hi), which is a day of thanks for those who work hard, particularly in agriculture and public service. Elementary kids often give drawings as thanks to local police boxes and stations. The holiday grew out of a harvest festival. Most labor unions celebrate their own labor day on May 1, however.

The Emperor's Birthday (Tenno Tanjobi) is on December 23 every year, for current Emperor Akihito. Emperor birthdays have to be set by the National Diet whenever a new emperor is crowned, and are usually commemorated with a public ceremony. But more importantly, everybody gets the day off.

Additionally, there are a ton of festivals, both local and national, which often vary their dates according to the lunar calendar or the weather. I've been to Hanami, the cherry blossom festival, in Tokyo, and it was quite a fun time. People camp out on blankets in parks, and walk under a seemingly never-ending canopy of cherry blossoms, which are often lit from beneath. There are also a million food stalls, which are the best things ever.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap. Please note that he does not take question submissions via Twitter.

discuss this in the forum (13 posts) |
bookmark/share with:

Answerman homepage / archives