Saturday, January 4, 2014

Memories of Japan: Major Holidays and Festivals Part II

Today is Saturday, January 4, 2014.

Vernal Equinox Day (Shunbun no Hi): March 20 or 21

Japan is the only country I know where the first day of spring is a public holiday.  It was officially declared a holiday in 1948.  Before that time, it was known as Shunki kōreisai ( 春季皇霊祭 or "Spring Worship"), a Shintō holiday that focused on paying respects to past emperors and other members of the imperial family.  (The equinoxes were also times of ancestor worship in China.)  The modern holiday is a non-religious celebration, in line with the separation of church and state as mandated by Japan's postwar constitution. 

Although the holiday itself is non-religious, Japanese people privately visit the graves of their ancestors, anyway.  The seven-day period that starts three days before the vernal equinox and ends three days after is known as higan.  A similar seven-day period occurs around the autumnal equinox.  Two other times when Japanese visit graves are New Year's and the o-bon festival in midsummer.  Just as we do on Memorial Day in the United States, people the family grave, clean it and put flowers on the graves.  They also burn incense to console ancestral spirits. 

In talking with people, I realized that most Japanese don't actually "worship" their ancestors as much as they just talk to them and tell them what's been going on in the family.  People that I talked to didn't believe that their ancestors had any particular power.  

 Shōwa Day (Shōwa no Hi):  April 29

This holiday was known as Tennō Tanjōbi (The Emperor's Birthday) when Emperor Hirohito was alive, and people flocked to the Imperial Palace, to wave to the Emperor, who stood with other members of the Imperial Family to greet the public.  (I explained the way this holiday is celebrated in a previous post.)  The current Emperor's birthday is now celebrated on December 23, but the Japanese government decided to keep the April 29 date as a holiday because, as you will see below, there are several other holidays close to this one, which are known altogether as "Golden Week."  Since they don't celebrate any other emperor's birthday, it seems obvious that they simply wanted to keep Golden Week intact.  As I explained earlier, Emperor Hirohito is now known by his posthumous era name, Shōwa.  

In the years after Shōwa's death, April 29 was known as Greenery Day, but in 2005 it was changed to honor the former emperor, and Greenery Day was moved to May 4, which is also part of Golden Week.  

Shōwa in Chinese characters
The stated purpose of the holiday is to encourage public reflection on the 63 years of Hirohito's reign as emperor, rather than glorifying the emperor, himself.  (The term Shōwa refers to the years of his reign as well as the man, himself.)  Events during his reign include the end of Taishō Democracy, an attempted coup d'état in 1932 staged by the Imperial Navy, another attempted coup d'état in 1936 by the Imperial Army (There were over 60 incidents of political violence during Hirohito's reign.), the rise of fascism in Japan by an ultra-nationalist prime minister in 1940, World War II, the post-war occupation, and Japan's remarkable rise as an industrial and economic power.   

May Day: May 1

This holiday is known as International Workers' Day or Labor Day in more than 80 countries around the world.  Unlike other countries, though, Japan has not designated it an official holiday.  However, since it is in the middle of Golden Week, many workers either get the day off or take it as "paid leave."  As in other countries, labor unions do organize street rallies in the big cities and other union gatherings elsewhere, but most people just use it as a vacation day.  

Constitution Day (Kenpo Kinenbi): May 3

Workers rally on May Day.
The constitution being honored on this day is the post-war constitution, which came into effect on May 3, 1947.  It replaced the Meiji Constitution, which took power out of the hands of shoguns and gave it back to the imperial family.  The modern constitution declares that sovereignty rests with the people, making Japan officially a democracy.  It states that the Emperor is "the symbol of the state and the unity of the people" who has no "powers related to government." It also gives the people basic human rights and renounces war. 

There are ceremonies held around the country, with lectures on the role of the constitution.  I have no idea how many people attend these.  The day didn't appear to have much siginificance for most people.  The governing body of Japan is called the Diet, which consist of an upper house and a lower house.  The Diet building is opened to visitors on this day.  Normally, ordinary people are not allowed to enter.

Greenery Day (Midori no Hi):  May 4

As explained above, Greenery Day was celebrated on April 29 after Emperor Shōwa's death, to honor the former emperor's love of nature.  When April 29 was named Shōwa Day in 2005, Greenery Day was moved to May 4.  The point of this national holiday is twofold: to set aside a day to appreciate nature and to fill out the Golden Week holiday lineup.  As we do on Arbor Day, the Japanese plant  trees on this day.


Children's Day (Kodomo no Hi): May 5

This family has three children.
This national holiday used to be known as Boys' Day (and the Doll's Day used to be Girls' Day).  This day was made a national holiday in 1948 to honor children and celebrate their happiness. Originally, it was called Tango no Sekku, celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar.  When Japan switched to the Gregorian calendar, they just moved the date to the fifth day of the fifth month, Gregorian.  It is said to have been established during the reign of Empress Suiko (593-628 A.D).  It marked the beginning of the summer and the rainy season in Japan.  (More about the rainy season in another post.)

All over Japan, families fly carp-shaped windsock streamers called koinobori.  The banners are graduated in size, representing the father (black carp), mother (red carp), and  children in order of age (usually blue, green or orange).  When the carp streamers are blowing in the wind, it looks like they are swimming upstream.  Carp represent courage and strength because of their ability to swim up a waterfall.  One year I was traveling between Osaka and Tokyo on the Bullet Train and was treated to the sight of koinobori flying in small towns and on farms all along the route.  

Golden Week 

Since May Day is not a national holiday, it's not listed here.
This is a series of four national holidays all in one seven-day period in late April and early May.  Lots of people get these days off, and if the last holiday of the series occurs on a Sunday, then the following Monday is also a holiday.  (This happened last year.)  In 2014, Golden week will begin on a Tuesday and end on a Monday.  The following Tuesday (May 6) is expected to be a heavy travel date for people returning home from vacations.  The only other extended holidays for the Japanese are New Year's Days and the o-bon festival in late summer. 

Star Festival (Tanabata): July 7

This is a festival rather than a national holiday.  The original festival was celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and since August 7 is actually closer to the lunar date, some areas don't celebrate Tanabata until August 7.  The festival comes from China, and traces its origins to a Chinese legend that the Cowherd Star (Altair) and Weaver Star (Vega), lovers separated by the Milky Way, who are allowed to meet just once a year - on the seventh day of the seventh month.  The legend is mentioned in the Man'yōshū, the oldest collection of Japanese poetry in existence.

Here's the legend:   

Orihime, the Weaving Princess, was the daughter of Tentei, the Sky King.  She wove beautiful clothes by the bank of the Amanogawa ("heavenly river"), also known as the Milky Way.  Her father loved her cloth, so she worked hard every day to weave it for him.   Orihime was sad, however, because she worked so hard every day that she would never have time to meet and fall in love with anyone. 

Concerned, the Sky King arranged for her to meet Kikoboshi, the Cowherd Star, who lived and worked on the other side of the river.  When the two met, they fell instantly in love, and quickly married.  

After she was married, Orihime no longer wove cloth for the Sky King, which made him angry.  To add insult to injury, Orihime's husband allowed his cows to wander all over Heaven.  The Sky King separated the two lovers on either side of the river and forbade them to meet.  Orihime was so sad that she cried all the time.  Her tears moved her father so much that he relented and allowed the couple to meet once a  year on the seventh day of the seventh month if Orihime would work hard at her weaving.  

Unfortunately, there was no bridge across the river, so they couldn't meet.  A flock of magpies promised the tearful Orihime that they would make a bridge with their outstretched wings.  Superstition has it that if it rains on Tanabata, the magpies cannot come, and the lovers must wait until another year to meet.

Altair and Deneb don't actually move toward each other, but many Japanese will swear up and down that they do.  If you stare at the night sky long enough, you almost start to believe it.  Altair and Deneb are part of the "Summer Triangle" in the night sky of the northern hemisphere, along with Vega.  

On this day people dress up in summer kimono called yukata and write wishes on brightly-colored pieces of paper, which they tie to bamboo "wish" trees.  

Ocean Day/Marine Day (Umi no Hi): third Monday in July

This holiday was established in 1941 as "Marine Memorial Day" to honor Emperor Meiji's 1876 voyage on the Meiji-maru around Hokkaidō, Japan's northern island. (Maru is to the names of marine craft in Japan what U.S.S. is to craft in the United States or H.M.S. in Great Britain.)  It did not become a national holiday until 1995.  Emperor Hirohito, by the way, was a marine biologist, and his son, the current Emperor is also interested in marine biology.  Hirohito was Emperor Meiji's grandson.

The purpose of the holiday is to give thanks for the ocean's bounty and to consider its importance to Japan as an island nation.  Since this is a modern holiday, there are no traditional activities.  Many people like to take a beach holiday on this day.  All Japan's national aquariums organize special events, such as water sports competitions, water shows, and other cultural activities related to the sea.  People who live on the coast of Japan light paper lanterns on the beach at night. :-)

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