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celebrate.jpg (21057 bytes)The 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.  

Some 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 examples.  

Spectacular 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 (Tsukimi).  


Shogatsu (New Year)

The 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.

During 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!

Hatsumode (First Visits of the Year to Shrines and Temples)

During 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).

Otoshidama (Present of Money for Children)

Another 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 these students.

New Year Games

With 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 backgammon.



According 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.

Hina-matsuri (Doll Festival)

This 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.

Haru no Higan (Vernal Equinox Day)

The tradition 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.

Hanami (Cherry-Blossom Viewing)

Late 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. 

Golden Week

Students 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.

Children's Day

This 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.

Since 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.



The first 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.

Today, 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.


Firework Displays

In 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.


Bon 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).


Tsukimi (Moon Viewing)

According to 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.


Three 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. 


Bonenkai (Year-End Parties)

In 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.


Christians 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.

New Year's Eve

Buddhist 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.


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