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The Secret Behind Japanese Holidays


   Every year around this time, I have the same conversation with my students:


   “Last weekend we had a national holiday,” I begin. “What’s the name of the holiday?”


   “Saturday was a national holiday,” I say again. “What was the holiday?”


   “Ugh! C’mon, is Saturday a national holiday? Think!”

   “It is too a holiday.”

   “Arrg. Not that kind of holiday. A national holiday, you know. like The Emperor’s Birthday and Children’s Day.”

   One of the student calls out: “I know! Culture Day!”

   “No. Culture Day is November third,” I say. “Saturday, November twenty-third. What was the holiday? Anyone? Anyone?"

  Bueller . . .? Bueller . . .?

   “Oh! I know!”

   “Ayano, what was it?”

   “Labor Thanksgiving Day.”

   “That’s right! Now what is Labor Thanksgiving Day? Anyone? Anyone?”

   Another student suggests that it is a day we give thanks to our parents for working hard.

   “Well, maybe, but there’s more to it than that. Did any of you do anything special on Saturday for Labor Thanksgiving Day?”

   Crickets again.

   I go around the room, asking students what they did on Saturday. Some worked at their part-time jobs, others loafed about at home. A few went shopping.

   “If you’re not going to do anything special, why have a national holiday?” I ask. “On national holidays, I always try at least to wear my Rising Sun skivvies.”

   When half of them laughs, the other half that has been dozing comes to life. Now that I’ve got their attention I ask why Labor Thanksgiving fell on a Saturday? “Why not move the day to Monday like so many other holidays have? Why is the date fixed?”

   They don’t know, so I have to explain that Labor Thanksgiving Day is actually a harvest festival called Niinamesai, which is a Shintō rite performed by the Emperor. 

   “Have any of you heard of Niinamesai?”

   Of course no one has.

   “Are you Japanese?” I ask with feigned disbelief, eliciting embarrassed laughter.

   I then ask them how many national holidays there are.








   “That’s right.” With their help, I write the names of the holidays on the board with their date. Later, I tell them to pay attention to the ten holidays which have fixed dates: Foundation Day (Feb. 11), Shōwa Day (Apr. 29), Culture Day (Nov. 3) and so on. “What do these days have in common?”


   “Anyone? Anyone?”

   No one volunteers even a guess. They really have no idea what I’m getting at. None.

   “All of the holidays with fixed dates are related to the Emperor,” I explain. “Ten of your fifteen national holidays are related to the Emperor.” You’d think they would know this already, but for the vast majority of them this is a revelation.


   1. New Year’s Day (Jan. 1) was until 1947 a national holiday on which the imperial worship ceremony called Shihō Hai (四方拝) was held.

   2. Foundation Day (Feb. 11) was known as Kigen-setsu (紀元節) until 1947, a holiday commemorating the day on which, legend has it, Emperor Jimmu acceded the throne in 660 BCE. Incidentally, the Mitsubishi A6 fighter aircraft was also known as the "Zero" because the year it went into service was the Imperial year 2600 (1940).

   3. Vernal Equinox (Mar. 20 or 21), an imperial ancestor worship festival called Shunki Kōrei Sai (春季皇霊祭)

   4. Shōwa Day, the birthday of Hirohito who has been called "Emperor Shōwa" (昭和天皇, Shōwa Tennō) since his death.

   5. Greenery Day (May 4). This is the former name for Hirohito’s birthday. In 2007, Greenery Day was moved to May 4 and April 29 was renamed Shōwa Day.

   6. Autumnal Equinox (Sep. 23 or 22). Like the spring equinox, this was an imperial ancestor worship festival called Shūki Kōrei Sai (秋季皇霊祭)

   7. Culture Day (Nov.3). While this day commemorates the 1946 announcement of the new Constitution, it is actually Emperor Meiji’s birthday.

   8. Labor Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 23), again, is an imperial harvest festival called Niiname Sai (新嘗祭). See previous post.

   9. The present Emperor’s Birthday (Dec. 23).

   As for the tenth, that is Marine Day (Third Monday of July). This used to be held on July 20th and commemorated the day that Emperor Meiji returned to Yokohama from a trip around the Tōhoku region of Japan aboard a shipped called the Meiji Maru.


   “Why do you know this,” a student asks me.

   “Why don’t you?” I ask back.

   “We’re not interested in . . .”

   “This has nothing to do with being interested or not. I’m not all that interested in Japanese holidays myself, but I am curious.”


   “Yes, curious! You have a national holiday called ‘Marine Day’, doesn’t that make you wonder why there isn’t a ‘Mountain Day’? Or, doesn’t it strike you as odd that you have all these national holidays on which you don’t do anything in particular? Why again have a national holiday? Or take the equinoxes: why are these national holidays, but o-Bon is not? O-Bon is a much more important holiday for ordinary people, but it’s not a holiday.†” 

   Curiosity. Inquisitiveness. Healthy skepticism. These are things that are sorely lacking in Japanese schools today.


†There are other reasons for this. For one, the timing of o-Bon can vary from region to region. In some areas it is celebrated on the 15th of July. O-Bon according to the old lunar calendar occurs in September. Also, as of 2016, "Mountain Day" is officially a thing in Japan. Ask and you shall receive. If only they would be kind enough to add my birthday in June to the list of national holidays . . . 

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