This coming Saturday the festival of Niiname-sai will be held.
If you want to know what that is, the last person I would recommend asking is your Japanese friend: odds are she won’t have the foggiest idea what you’re talking about. Don’t believe me? Then go ahead and ask. I’ll wait.
What, back so soon? Didn’t know, did she?
Niiname-sai (新嘗祭, also pronounced Jinjō-sai—lit. Celebration of First Taste) is a Shintō harvest festival that takes place at the Imperial palace and shrines throughout the country on the 23rd and 24th of November.
According to the Encyclopedia of Shintō, “The Emperor arranges an offering of sake, rice porridge, and steamed rice (made from the newly harvested rice) served in special vessels crafted from woven beech leaves (kashiwa) and presented to the kami on a special reed mat (kegomo). Following this evening meal (yūmike), the emperor purifies himself in seclusion (kessai) for the night and, after changing robes (koromogae), prepares the morning offering of food for the kami.”
The rite is called Daijō Sai (大嘗祭) when the emperor performs the rite for the first time after ascending the throne.
Legend has it that Niinamesai first took place during the reign of the Jimmu (660 to 585 BCE), but in all probability began during the Yayoi Period (13,000 - 400 BCE) when irrigated, wet-rice cultivation was introduced from the Yangtze region in southern China via the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa).
Today, the 23rd of November is better known as the national holiday Labor Thanksgiving Day (勤労感謝の日, Kinrō Kansha no Hi). Established in 1948, Labor Thanksgiving Day is a day on which, we are told, Japanese “celebrate production and give thanks to their fellow citizens”. In reality, they do little more than blow both the day and their hard-earned money mesmerized by pachinko machines.