most important holiday in Japan is Shogatsu, the
New Year. Most Japanese will write resolutions for
the year to come as well as follow the tradition of
thanking the gods who oversee the harvests and for
welcoming ancestral spirits who protect the family. There
are special days for celebration all throughout the year,
ranging from religious (Shinto, Buddhist, Christian) to
just fun without any special significance.
of the laid back celebrations include Hanami, which
is simply the viewing of the cherry blossoms and taking a
picnic to enjoy them. Another is the practice of Otoshidama,
where children (young and not so young) are given gifts of
money to spend. Some of the more serious
celebrations are those that involve the spirits of
ancestors, Haru no higan and bon are two
celebrations include those that take place in the night
during summer. Various localities will put on
magnificent firework displays that light the summer night
(hanabi taikai). On the other end of the
spectrum are parties to view the full moon (chushu no
meigetsu) during the ninth month of the lunar calendar
New Year's holidays (Shogatsu) are the most important of
all the annual celebrations. This holiday is traditionally
a time for thanking the gods (kami) who look over the
harvests as well as for welcoming the spirits of ancestors
who protect their families. To welcome these gods
and spirits, the Japanese have a tradition of hanging pine
branch and bamboo decorations on each sides of a house's
entrance and hanging straw rope decorations. At the
beginning of the year prayers are said for a rich and
bountiful harvest in the coming years and appreciation is
expressed to these spirits and gods. As with some
other countries, it is typically the time to make new
year's resolutions and plans for the upcoming year.
this time people get in touch with old friends,
acquaintances, and family by sending out greeting cards (nengajo).
In 1998, it was estimated that 4 billion cards were send
out during the New Year's holidays!
(First Visits of the Year to Shrines and Temples)
the New Year's holidays a family visit to a Shinto shrine
or Buddhist temple is usually on the agenda. This is
when the families pray for the safety of their family and
possessions as well as to pray for a rich harvest.
Japanese are traditionally to visit a shrine that is in a
"favorable direction" from the visitor's home.
Most people visit the Meiji Jingu Shrine during this time
(approximately 3.45 million in 1998) with the next largest
showing at the kawasaki Haishi Temple in Kanagawa
Prefecture (3.19 million).
(Present of Money for Children)
tradition is the giving of money to children (otoshidama)
from parents and relatives. For this reason, many
children look forward to the New Year's holidays!
The gift of money for junior and high school students in
recent years has been about 5,000 to 10,000 yen per gift.
This means that after all the relatives give money, it can
quickly add up to several tens of thousands of yen for
the popularity of electronic games and other modern
entertainment, the old tradition of flying kites or
spinning tops during the holidays has lost it's appeal.
Some other activities also included card games that test a
person's ability to recognize poems from Hundred Poems
by One Hundred Poets and a board game similar to
the lunar calendar in use before 1873, in which the
numbering of the months was about one and half months
behind that of the modern solar calendar, the coming of
spring was designated as the third or fourth day of the
second month. Some of the Setsubun observances that
were held on this day still take place on February 3 or 4,
even though this coincides with the coldest period of
winter. For example, there is the ritual of opening
the doors and windows of houses and expelling bad luck and
evil demons by tossing beans into the air while saying
"fuku wa uchi, oni wa soto" (fortune in and
demons out). It is also said that one will keep
healthy be eating on this day the number of beans
equivalent to one's age. This was originally an
observance that took place in the imperial court on the
last day of the lunar year to symbolize the sweeping away
of bad spirits and winter cold and gloom, as well as to
welcome the cheer of a new and bright spring.
is a festival devoted to the young girls in a family and
occurs on March 3rd. It is at this time that
families pray for the health and happiness of their
daughters. A collection of dolls is displayed on
this day with them wearing traditional court attire.
With the collection is an offering consisting of white
sake, diamond-shaped rice cakes and dry rice cake pellets
along with peach blossoms. Ancient beliefs about
ritual purification are behind the hina-matsuri
observance. It was believed, at one time, that a
person's misdeeds could be washed away and purified in
ritual taking place next to streams. Paper dolls
were later used in the rituals, and the dolls changed
during the Edo Period (1600-1868) to become the style that
is seen today.
Higan (Vernal Equinox Day)
observance of spring higan coincides with the period of
seven days centering on the spring equinox, around March
21. At this time, people visit family graves, pay
their respects to the souls of their ancestors, and ask
Buddhist priests to perform sutra-readings in their honor.
A similar observance known as autumn higan is held during
the one-week period centering on the autumnal equinox,
around September 23.
March or early April is the time when the cherry blossoms
in Japan begin to bloom. The Japanese like to have
picnics under the cherry trees, a tradition that has
occurred among commoners since the Edo period.
begin the new school year in April, so it can be a rather
stressful time. Since this time coincides with the
beginning of Japan's fiscal year, new employees typically
begin their new jobs now, too. Since there are many
holidays clustered together at the end of April and
beginning of May, many people take a week or ten days off
of work. As a result, this time is called
"Golden Week" for obvious reasons! It is a
time of beautiful weather and is usually spent traveling
to tourist destinations. Not surprisingly, this is a
time that is notorious for traffic jams on the expressways
and crowds in trains and airports.
day comes during Golden Week (see above) and falls on May
5. It is not actually "children's day" but
"boy's day" since it is typically a day set
aside to wish for healthy boys and their future success.
The day is filled with fun activities and special foods
like rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves.
Decorations usually consist of cloth streamers in the
shape of carp and dolls dressed like warriors.
the fifth month and especially the fifth day of that month
was felt to be filled with bad luck, this celebration was
developed as annual ritual purification. Now iris
leaves are placed in water for boys to bathe in since the
leaves are thought to have the ability to banish evil as
well as have medicinal properties.
annual observance of simmer is known as Tanabata, falling
on July 7. It is a day that commemorates a romantic
story, first handed down to Japan's imperial court via
China and Korea and then becoming popular among the common
people, about the once-a-year meeting on a bridge across
the Milky Way of the "cowherd star" and the
"weaving princess star." It was believed that
wishes made on this day would be fulfilled; in gardens and
other places people set up leaf-bearing bamboo stalks to
whose branches they attached strips of paper on which
their wishes were written.
Tanabata festivals are celebrated at numerous places
around Japan. Some of the best-known take place at
the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine in Kyoto, the Konpira Shrine in
Kagawa Prefecture, and in the cities of Hiratsuka in
Kanagawa Prefecture and Takaoka in Toyama Prefecture.
Also well know is the Sendai Tanabata festival in Miyagi
Prefecture, which takes place a month later on August 7,
closer to the time of year when Tanabata was earllier
observed by the lunar calendar.
the evenings fireworks are seen throughout Japan, and are
spectacular as it is said that Japan's firework technology
is the world's best. Since the Edo period, firework
technology has been handed down from generation to
generation until today the displays are controlled by
computers as this enhances their precision and visual
effects. An annual event since the Edo period,
Tokyo's fireworks are displayed along the Sumida River.
is an annual event is considered to be a time of welcoming
and consoling the souls of ancestors. This event was
traditionally observed in the middle of the seventh month
on the lunar calendar, now it is mostly observed between
July 13 and 15 (although some regions celebrate between
August 13 and 15). The ancestors' spirits are
believed to visit the home of their descendents at this
time and are greeted with welcoming fires. As this
event draws to a close, seeing off fires are lit as their
ancestors return to the spirit world. This is
another time when people take off work, especially since
many don't work near their native areas, and the result is
more traffic congestion (as with Golden Week).
the lunar calendar, the full moon appearing around the
middle of the ninth month was called the mid-autumn moon
and it became a custom to arrange moon-viewing parties to
appreciate its particular beauty. This was
originally a custom practiced in China, which spread to
Japan in the Heian period (794-1185). Houses were
decorated with eulalia grass and dumplings were made and
offered to the moon together with samples of crops from
the autumn harvest.
and five year old boys and girls three and seven years of
age are brought to Shinto shrines on November 15 to pray
for their safety and health. Tradition has had the
boys wear Japanese half-coats (haori) with divided skirts
(hakama), while the girls wore a kimono, this is becoming
a thing of the past as children are showing up in dress
clothes (suits, dresses). In order to make known
prayers for long life, candies called chitose-ame are
bought. In the home, the celebration meal consists
of rice boiled with red beans and a sea bream (saltwater
fish) prepared with both the head and tail intact.
appreciation for hard work or the pretense of forgetting
difficulties or even just to have a good time, parties
occur after the arrival of December. Young, old,
student, employee, it doesn't matter because this is an
all inclusive occasion for fun and partying usually at the
cost of the attendee. On occasion a company will pay
for the costs incurred at parties for employees. The
parties are usually held in pubs and restaurants and are
known as bonenkai.
and non-Christians alike celebrate Christmas, albeit with
probably different focuses. Decorated trees,
Christmas cakes and the exchange of gifts are some of the
activities that take place. Children, of course,
love this time of year for the presents and the idea of
Santa Claus bringing them while they sleep.
temples starting ringing their bells 108 times just before
midnight on December 31st as part of an observance called
joya no kane. 108 is symbolic of the purification of
108 earthly desires (bonno), then a new year is begun with
the observance of Shogatsu.