Annual Events in Japan
Although the word matsuri is always translated as 'festival', some festivals and holidays are more correctly included in the nenchu gyoji or annual events originally observed by the Imperial court. These observances are mostly of Chinese or Buddhist origin but as most Japanese don't really consider their religious significance, they also don't distinguish them from matsuri. The dates of some holidays, such as Adult's Day in January, have been moved to a fixed Monday in order to have guaranteed three-day weekends. The government made some changes in 2000 in an effort to stimulate the sluggish economy. Some of the more important days are: New Year's Day, Adult's Day (Seijin no Hi), Doll Festival (Hina Matsuri) on March 3rd, Golden Week in May, Bon Festival (Obon) on July 13-15th (August in some areas) and New Year's Eve . The birthday of the current emperor is always a national holiday, as is the birthday of the late Emperor Showa.
The first sunrise of the New Year appears behind Mt. Fuji. Symbolism overload!
In recent years, Christmas has become a big - at least in the commercial sense - event in Japan. Japanese families and colleagues will gather together, take pictures and celebrate the commercial holiday. But the New Year and Obon in summer are the biggest events in the annual calendar. Families are expected to gather at the family home - no matter how scattered the members may be - to honour their ancestors.
Boy in traditional matsuri costume
Hundreds of Koinobori fill the sky in May
Mother and daughter at Shichi-go-san
Toward the end of the year, homes will be decorated with kadomatsu (bamboo and pine decorations) and whatever animal symbolizes the coming year in the traditional zodiac and people will send hundreds of postcards to friends and family. The cards often include a lottery number, a big money spinner for the post office.
On the night of New Year's Eve or the next day, people visit their local shrine or temple (in Tokyo, the number of visitors to Meiji Shrine around New Year alone is in the millions). There are usually no wild New Year countdown celebrations, but at temples across the country a bell is struck 108 times. The number symbolizes the Buddhist belief that there are 108 human sins or worldly desires and the rining of the bell - 107 times before midnight and once after - will rid them of their sins of the previous year.
For a break from cooking over the holidays, elaborate "osechi-ryori" dishes are bought or prepared for New Year and they contain all sorts of foods thought to be auspicious, such as mochi and kazunoko.
Seijin no Hi celebrates people coming of age at 20. On the second Monday of January (until 2000, it was January 15th), 20-year olds dress up and visit a shrine or attend a municipal ceremony to honour their reaching adulthood. It is a good opportunity to see hordes of young people in their finest traditional dress. Many young men wear kimono too but the majority tend to go for suits these days. Recent years have seen the day often marred by rowdy behavior and a general lack of respect for the formal aspects of the day.
Setsubun on February 3rd or 4th marks the beginning of spring. The word literally means "the spliting of the seasons". People throw beans at someone wearing a mask and representing a demon and chant 'Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi' or 'Out with the demons, in with good luck!' Often celebrities visit major shrines to throw out beans and other goodies to large crowds.
The focal point for the Hina Matsuri or Doll Festival is a display of dolls representing the emperor, empress and their court in formal dress. Most homes with young girls will have a display, from simple dolls and cards to elaborate setups costing hundreds of thousands of yen. Children's Day is actually a celebration for boys, corresponding to the Doll Festival for girls. Warrior dolls or mock samurai armor are displyed and koinobori or carp streamers are flown by families with boys (the carp is considered a symbol of success). On both days a special meal is eaten. Children's Day falls during the Golden Week holiday, which along with New Year and Obon is one of the busiest holiday periods throughout the country, with millions of Japanese also traveling abroad. .
At Obon, the souls of the dead are said to return and so people visit and clean the family grave and light a path to the house. Although Obon is traditionally in July, most people take their annual summer 'Obon' vacation in August, making it the busiest and most expensive holiday season.
7-5-3 Festival (Shichi-go-san) on November 15th, 7 and 3-year old girls and 5-year old boys (Shichi-go-san is Japanese for the numbers 7, 5 and 3) are dressed up in their best kimono - although these days suits are more common for the boys - and brought to the shrine to pray for their future. Originally, this ritual was based on the fact that Japanese believe certain ages to be prone to bad luck. Children were not considered fully formed until age seven. This event is also one of several times a year when photo studios make their biggest profits as parents and grandparents splash out lots of money for family albums.
The full list of national holidays is as follows:
- January 1 - New Year's Day (Ganjitsu)
- The second Monday in January - Adult's Day (Seijin-no hi)
- February 11 - National Founding Day (Kenkoku Kinen-no hi)
- March 20 or 21 - Vernal Equinox (Shunbun-no hi)
- April 29 - Showa Day (Showa-no hi)
- May 3 - Constitution Memorial Day (Kenpou Kinenbi)
- May 4 - Greenery Day (Midori-no hi)
- May 5 - Children's Day (Kodomo-no hi)
- The third Monday in July - Marine Day or Ocean Day (Umi-no hi)
- August 11 - Mountain Day (Yama-no hi)
- The third Monday in September - Respect-for-the-Aged Day (Keirou-no hi)
- September 23 or 24 - Autumnal Equinox (Shuubun-no hi)
- The second Monday in October - Health/Sports Day (Taiiku-no hi)
- November 3 - Culture Day (Bunka-no hi)
- November 23 - Labor Thanksgiving Day (Kinrou Kansha-no hi)
- December 23 - Emperor's Birthday (Tennou Tanjoubi)
When a national holiday falls on Sunday, the next Monday becomes a holiday.