Friday, January 3, 2014

Memories of Japan: Major Holidays and Festivals Part I

19 and 20-year-olds celebrataing Coming of Age Day.
Today is Friday, January 3, 2014.

A couple of the holidays now celebrated in Japan were instituted after I left, but the vast majority are the same.  Some are celebrated with a great deal of fanfare, while others pass with very little notice for most people. 

I've already talked about Christmas, which is not native to Japan, and the big New Year's Eve and New Year's Day celebrations.  New Year's Eve is not a national holiday, but January 1 is.  Here are a few other special days in Japan.


Coming of Age Day (Seijin no Hi): Second Monday in January

Once in a while a girl opts for a fur
wrap that is not white.

There have been "coming of age" ceremonies in Japan since at least 714 A.D., when a young prince put on new robes and adopted a new hairstyle to mark his passage into adulthood.  The modern national holiday was begun in 1948, celebrated each year on January 15 for young people who had already reached the age of 20, which is the legal age of majority in Japan for voting, drinking and smoking.  (Driving is allowed at age 18, but families of young drivers have to have a special sticker on the family car until they are 20.  Very few kids own their own cars in Japan.)  In the year 2000, the Japanese took a page out of the American holiday playbook, and instituted something they call the Happy Monday System (ハッピーマンデー制度 Happī Mandē Seido).  This holiday, as well as three others, were moved to a Monday, in order to create a three-day weekend for workers and students.  Nowadays, kids who turn 20 in the current year are allowed to celebrate, so many of the celebrants are actually still 19.  Young women wear their finest formal kimono, often their first kimono made of silk, and for some young women, their only kimono.  Young men wear suits and ties, and less often, formal men's kimono in black and gray.  They attend ceremonies marking the occasion at their local town halls.  It is estimated that less than half of the kids who are eligible to celebrate actually do so, nowadays.

Lots of hair color in evidence, here.
Lots of pictures are taken, and in an earlier age, kids used to stand around solemnly for the photo shoot.  Now, however, it seems de rigeur to pose for the camera with "cool" faces and body gestures, or flashing a victory sign. Notice that more kids - boys, even, are using henna rinse in their hair to give it a brown color.  Kids this age never used to color their hair.  Not all Japanese have blue-black hair, you understand; there's a variation, but not this much.  


Male archers
At Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, there is a unique ceremony that takes place behind the main shrine.  It is an
archery ritual known as Momote Shiki, performed for the good fortune of all those who are becoming new adults. Archers wear a style of formal kimono that samurai once wore in olden times. As you can see, the archers remove the left sleeve from the kimono and tie it to their side, so that it will not interfere with their shooting.  The ones in the picture are all male, but there are female archers, too.    Female archers do not reveal their shoulders and chest; instead, they put their arm through a specially designed hole on the sleeves of female kimono then tie up the sleeve. Each group of 10 archers shoots two arrows apiece at a central target.  Fifty archers participate, for a total of 100 arrows
Female archers
shot.  Before the archers begin, a Shinto priest shoots a Kabura-ya, a special red-colored arrow with an turnip-shaped head. The arrow makes a whistling noise as speeds to the target, which is believed to drive away evil from all four directions. The emphasis of this ritual, and Japanese archery in general, is not on striking the target accurately, but rather on the spiritual state of mind that the archer achieves and maintains throughout the whole ceremony. (Balance is sought between spirit and the bow when the mind is empty but does not dwell on emptiness.)  After the ritual, the archers get to have some sake, served by priests. 


Priests preparing sake for the archers
 
Some of the guys wear suits, others wear kimono with hakama


The girls never look very comfortable in their kimono.

More victory signs.  Note the trendy haircuts.



Beginning of Spring (Setsubun): February 3 or 4

Not to be confused with the vernal equinox, Setsubun is a festival, rather than a national holiday.  The name of the holiday translates to "seasonal division."  The date is decided according to the Japanese lunar calendar.  At shrines and temples nationwide, the holiday spent doing various rituals to chase away evil spirits at the beginning of spring. 

Nowadays the most common ritual is mamemaki (豆撒き) the throwing of roasted soybeans around one's home, and at temples and shrines.  At home, this ritual is supposed to be performed by the head of the household. The beans are either thrown out the door, or one member of the family wears an oni (devil) mask and the beans are thown (not very hard) at that person, who runs out the door.  Then the door is slammed shut.  When you throw the beans, you shout, "Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!"  (Evil spirits out, good fortune in!)  Afterwards, you pick up, wash, and eat the number of beans that corresponds to your age. (Alternately, you can just eat some beans that haven't been thrown around.)  If you think it's barbaric to throw things at people, remember that in the West, we throw rice at a bridal couple.  Just saying.


National Foundation Day (Kenkoku Kinembi or Kenkoku Kinen no Hi): February 11

Revelers carry a portable shrine through the streets of
Tokyo.  Neighborhood shrines do this all over Japan.
The guys carrying the shrine are wearing happi coats.
Photo credit: Nippon News
According to the most ancient historical record, the Nihon Shoki, the very first emperor of Japan, Emperor Jimmu, was crowned in 660 B.C.  This commemorative holiday was originally celebrated on the lunar new year (the date of which changes with the years.)  Emperor Meiji declared it a national holiday in 1872.  Japan switched to the Gregorian calendar the following year, so when the holiday came around, people seemed to think it was just the lunar new year, but ignored the commemoration of the founding of Japan.  The government decided to \switch the holiday to February 11 of 1873, to avoid this issue.  There is no way to figure out why this particular date was chosen. 

Shintō priests conducting a ceremony in Tokyo.
Photo credit: Nippon News
In its original form, it was called "Empire Day," and it is thought that Emperor Meiji, who had just taken back control of the country for the imperial family from the shōgun, wanted to bolster the legitimacy of the imperial family as rulers of Japan.  Emperor Meiji publicly linked his rule with that of the mythical Emperor Jimmu, thus identifying himself as a direct descendant of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, from whom the islands of Japan were supposedly born. (It is amazing to be in country so old that its earliest history is shrouded in myth.  Early Western history is shrouded in myth, too, but it's harder to trace any one myth to the establishment of any one country in Europe, for example.) 

Because this holiday was so reliant on Shintō and because it reinforced the Japanese imperial family, the holiday was abolished by the American occupation forces in Japan after World War II.  Strangely enough, however, February 11 was the date that General MacArthur approved the draft version of the modern Japanese constitution in 1946.  

Twenty years later, in 1966, the holiday was re-established, this time called National Foundation Day.  Japanese national flags are raised and people are encouraged to reflect on what it means to be Japanese, but the Japanese don't generally make overt expressions of nationalism or patriotism, so the holiday passes virtually unnoticed, except for the fact that banks and government offices are closed. 


Valentine's Day (Barentain): February 14

Photo credit: Keizo Shimamoto
This isn't a national holiday in Japan any more than it is in the West, but in some ways it's beginning to be taken a lot more seriously in Japan than it is here in the United States.  There's a bit more of a cultural component to the holiday in Europe and the U.S., but in Japan, it is strictly a victory for marketing in the same sense that Valentine's Day has become a "Hallmark holiday" over here.  As you might expect, there's a twist in Japan, though: only girls are obligated to give the gifts, and the gifts are mainly chocolates.  Why?  Because the chocolate makers saw an opportunity to boost sales to women, who are supposedly too shy to put their feelings into words.  Nowadays, chocolate companies sell more than half their annual inventory the week before Valentine's Day!  

A note of caution, however: just because a Japanese girl gives you chocolates on Valentine's Day, don't assume she has romantic feelings for you.  In fact, if you are her boss or one of her o-workers, or maybe a friend who has done her a favor, she might be giving you giri-choko.   Giri is the Japanese word for a debt of obligation, a concept I've already explained in reference to year-end gifts.  Choko is just a short form for the word "chocolates," which is rendered as  chokorēto in Japanese.  (The letter "e" takes a long-a sound.)  If you're really her love-interest, her present is called honmei-choko "chocolates of love."  See my comments on White Day, below. That's when the guys are supposed to reciprocate. 

Doll's Festival (Hina-matsuri): March 3 


Hina kazari display
This holiday used to be called Girls' Festival.  Seven-step platforms covered with a red material are used to display sets of ornamental dolls representing the Emperor, Empress, their attendants, and musicians, all wearing Heian Period (794 to 1185) court dress.  The display is called hina kazari.   

When the holiday was first established, people believed that the dolls were capable of containing bad spirits.  Straw dolls were sent down the river to the sea, taking the bad spirits with them.  At one shrine in Kyoto, they still float straw dolls down the river for just that purpose, but most people have stopped the practice of floating straw dolls, because fishermen have complained that they are catching the straw dolls in their nets.  The temple takes the dolls out in boats and then brings the boats back later to burn the dolls after the spectators are gone.  

Great illustration taken from an
article in Kansai Time Out, March
1982, by Diane Dursten.  Click
to enlarge.
In pre-World War II days, the dolls at the top were merely thought of as a court noble and his consort, but the government sought to  use the display to inspire patriotism, so they came to represent the Emperor and Empress.  Since the doll display is fairly expensive, a display has come to represent how wealthy the family is, especially when they have all the extra little accessories that go along with the dolls.  Nowadays, the poorer people use dolls made of plastic, while richer families display expensive handmade dolls. 

Families display the dolls in February and take them down right after Hina-matsuri.  If they take them down after March 4, however, the daughter(s) of the family will marry late, according to superstition.  The step platforms are displayed in front of a gold folding screen. in the most important room of the house.  The placement of the dolls other than the Emperor and Empress vary slightly from region to region, and some of the displays have five steps, instead of seven. 
 
Individual doll
Although the dolls are no longer floated down the river, when they are old and tattered, they are taken to the Hokyo-ji Temple in Kyoto, where they can be burned to allow the spirits "trapped in human form" to be released.  The temple has some dolls that were brought there by real princesses over the years when they were sent to enter the Buddhist convent.  One doll is said to roam the halls of the temple at night to protect it from fire.  

When my husband and I lived with his sister, there was no display, because his sister's child was a boy.  


 

White Day (ワイトデー, Howaito Dē): March 15


White Day is another marketing miracle dreamed up by marketers in the National Confectionery Industry Association, who decided in 1978 that they needed to boost sales with a new holiday.  (Keep in mind that I arrived in 1977, so I saw the very beginnings of this, but, of course, I was married, so I didn't participate.)  Originally it was called Marshmallow Day.  People liked the holiday, but not the marshmallows, so the focus was taken off marshmallows and transferred to candy.  Those of you who recall the New Year's Eve TV show called the Red and White Song Contest will understand perfectly why the color white was kept.  (The women's team is red, which is the color of Valentine's Day, while the men's team is white, which is the color of... White Day, get it?  Not terribly original, but originality isn't the point, here.  It's sales.)   


White chocolate is a gift of choice, but cookies, jewelry, and even white lingerie are offered for sale, as are marshmallows.  In case the guys don't "get it," the expression sanbai gaeshi (三倍返し triple the return) is generally recited.  In other words, the return gift should be two to three times the cost of the Valentine's gift.  To me, this sounds suspiciously like the work of the marketing guys.  

Some say that white candy indicates simple platonic friendship status.  Chocolate candy also just says, "I like you."  Cookies, however indicate that you have feelings for the person.  I don't know where they are getting this; somebody made it all up.  Other gift ideas for someone you really  like are flowers, pretty candles, a cute teddy bear with a heart on it, perfume or body mist, or a card written especially for her.  


Nowadays, both Valentine's Day and White day are popular with the younger set, and even some young marrieds are participating, but White Day has never been very popular, overall.  Most of the men who participate give presents to two or three girls, not just one.  As with year-end and midsummer gift giving, Valentine's Day and White Day gifts are all pre-packaged and ready to go, so all a guy has to do is estimate the cost of the girl's gift, triple it, and choose something in that price range.   :-)

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