The View from Japan
Torii gate



carp-shaped bannersHolidays

For Japanese, most holidays are simply days off (they may not even remember which holiday it is!), and they will take advantage of the free time to go on outings with their families or significant others. Naturally, traffic on some highways will be worse on such days, as will the crowds at many tourist destinations. On the other hand, traffic on other highways may be relatively sparse, because of the lack of commuters going to work. They are stuck on the main expressways and train lines going out of the city instead of into it.

When a national holiday falls on a Sunday, the following Monday is treated as a holiday.

January 1 — New Year’s Day

(ganjitsu, first day of the oshôgatsu season)

New Year’s in Japan is the most important holiday of the year, similar to Christmas in the West. In late December, and again in the first few days after January 1, the roads, train stations, and airports are crowded with people going to and from parents’ houses or tourist destinations. The first five days of January were once considered to be the New Year’s holidays, but in recent years many companies have begun returning to work on or before the fifth.

In the past, shopping streets were deserted on January 1, but since the late '90s, larger stores have been staying open. There will be a lot of congestion around Shinto shrines, where many Japanese go for hatsumodé, the year’s first (and, for most modern Japanese, only) visit to a shrine. If you don’t mind major crowds, you may want to visit a shrine yourself on New Year’s Day and observe Japanese traditions in action. Also, the Imperial Palace grounds are open to the public on January 2, with the Emperor appearing several times to wave to the people.

Second Monday of January — Coming-of-age Day

(Seijin no Hi; literally, Adults’ Day)

Seijin no Hi honors 20-year-olds—the age at which Japanese are legally adults, and may drink, smoke, and vote. Honorees are those who have turned 20 since April 1, or will by the next April 1. Twenty-year-olds can be seen on this day, the men in suits, the women in kimono, going to and from local ceremonies in their honor. (Until 2001, this holiday was always January 15.)

February 11 — National Foundation Day

(Kenkoku Kinenbi)

This is said to be the anniversary of the founding of Japan, when Emperor Jimmu ascended the throne in 660 B.C. Originally called Kigen-setsu (roughly, “the beginning of recorded history”), it was abolished under the U.S. postwar occupation, and reinstated with its new name in 1967.

March 20 or 21 — Vernal Equinox

(Shunbun no Hi)

Both equinoxes are important on the Buddhist calendar, being the center of weeklong observance known as higan. On the equinox day there is usually much traffic due to people visiting family grave sites, as well as the usual holiday traffic. If you visit Japanese friends around an equinox, you may be served ohagi, a ball of rice covered with azuki bean jam. Definitely not finger food; best eaten with chopsticks.

April 29 — Showa Day

(Shôwa no Hi)

This is the birthday of the late Showa Emperor (Hirohito). After he died in 1989, it was named Greenery Day to honor the emperor’s love of plants. However, in 2007 Greenery Day moved to May 4, and April 29 reverted to being named for the late Emperor.

May 3 — Constitution Day

(Kempô Kinenbi)

The second of the “Golden Week” holidays, commemorating the promulgation of Japan’s postwar constitution on this date in 1947.

May 4 —Greenery Day

Since 1985, May 4 had been a holiday simply because it fell between two holidays. But in 2007, it became Greenery Day.

May 5 — Children’s Day

(Kodomo no Hi)

Completing Golden Week is Children’s Day, which actually is celebrated only by homes with sons. (The March 3 Doll Festival (Hina Matsuri), celebrated by homes with daughters, is not a national holiday. Draw your own conclusions from that!) Outside such homes, you will see large wind socks, printed to look like fish, blowing in the breeze. These represent carp swimming upstream, a symbol of perseverence that is seen as a model for Japanese boys.

Third Monday of July — Ocean Day

(Umi no Hi)

Originally held on July 20, this holiday was introduced in 1996. Its main purpose is apparently to break the long drought of national holidays between Golden Week and Respect for the Aged Day. Perhaps the ocean was chosen as the focus because people are likely to go to the beach on this day, especially since the rainy season ends around then, and school summer vacations begin. It was changed to the third Monday of July in 2003.

July & August — The Feast of Lanterns


Obon is not a national holiday, but it is the focus of the summer vacation season. It is celebrated at various times in July and August in different parts of the country, though it is generally thought of as falling in mid-August. This is when transportation routes out of Tokyo and other large cities are jammed with people returning to their rural hometowns. Many people also use this time to travel abroad, which means jammed airports and astronomical ticket prices. Many companies close during that week, and downtown Tokyo is virtually deserted.

These months are filled with numerous local festivals, celebrating either Obon (when the spirits of dead ancestors are said to pay a visit to their living relatives) or Tanabata (the date — either July 7 or August 7 — when the stars Vega and Altair (the Weaver Princess and the Cowherd, according to Chinese legend) are allowed their only meeting during the year). These festivals mean local concentrations of traffic, and perhaps the temporary closure of streets to facilitate the revelry.

Third Monday of September — Respect for the Aged Day

(Keirô no Hi)

Intended to encourage respect for the elderly from younger citizens, this day seems especially important as we hear more and more about the “graying” of Japanese society. Previously held on September 15, it was changed to the third Monday in 2003.

September 23 or 24 — Autumnal Equinox

(Shûbun no Hi)

Celebrated in style similar to that of the Vernal Equinox, including crowded roads leading to cemeteries.

Second Monday of October — Health and Sports Day

(Taiiku no Hi)

When the Tokyo Olympics opened on October 10, 1964, it was an important rung on Japan’s ladder to becoming a respected member of the international community following the country’s defeat in World War II. Consequently, that date was designated as a yearly national holiday, promoting health and exercise. The observance changed to the second Monday of the month in 2001, making it the same as Columbus Day in the U.S.

November 3 — Culture Day

(Bunka no Hi)

This date was originally celebrated as the birthday of Emperor Meiji (reigned 1868-1912). Since 1948, Culture Day has been marked by the presentation by the Emperor of the Cultural Orders of Merit to outstanding artists and the like. Schools often hold “Culture Festivals” in early November.

November 23 — Labor Thanksgiving Day

(Kinrô Kansha no Hi)

Although now similar in focus to Labor Day in the U.S., this day was once a harvest thanksgiving festival known as Niiname-sai (“festival of the new harvest”). These days, of course, fewer and fewer Japanese earn their living working in the fields.

December 23 — The Emperor’s Birthday

(Tennô no Tanjôbi)

This is one of only two days during the year when a special section of the Imperial Palace garden is open to the public; the other is around New Year’s, usually January 2. There are many local festivals throughout the year. You can call the Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), which Ian L. McQueen, in A Budget Travel Guide to Japan (Kodansha, 1992), calls “the best single source for information on Japan.” Their Tourist Information Centers are located at Tokyo’s Narita Airport; in the Tokyo International Forum, near JR Yurakucho Station; and near Kyoto Station. They may be reached by phone at:

Tokyo 03-3201-3331

Teletourist (recorded info on Tokyo events) 03-3201-2911

Kyoto 075-371-5649

Nationwide tourist information

(toll-free) 0120-444-800

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Copyright 2004 This page last updated May 7, 2009 . E-mail Tim