O-Shogatsu: Japanese New Year

January 1

Countries all around the world celebrate New Year’s Day. But nowhere do they celebrate it like they do in Japan. Think Christmas on steroids, and you’re halfway there.

Shogatsu, named after the first month of the Japanese calendar, lasts three full days. It’s the biggest holiday of the year, barnone.

The Japanese hold special “bonekai” New Year’s parties, or “year-forgetting” parties. (These differ from American New Year’s parties where attendees hope to forget what they did at the party the next morning.)

At the end of the year, Japanese wish each other “Yoi otoshi o omukae kudasai!” which means “I wish you will have a good new year.” But if that’s too much you can just say “Yoi otoshi o!

Businesses close down for at least three days as well as schools. The rituals and activities associated with the festival however can carry on for over a week. Every “first” of the New Year must be handled with great care. It’s believed that the way in which events unfold the first time will be representative of how they will occur throughout the year—from the first sunrise (Hatsuhinode) to the first temple visit (Hatsumode), to the first tea ceremony (Hatsugama).

Japan used to celebrate its new year during the Chinese lunar new year in late January or early February, but the country adopted the Gregorian calendar during the Meiji Restoration of the 1870s. So the Shogatsu traditions are hundreds of years old even if the January 1 date is not.

Yoi otoshi o!

Shogatsu photos

Shichi-Go-San 7-5-3 Festival – Japan

November 15


Shichi-Go-San means 7-5-3.

The holiday celebrates the transition of Japanese boys and girls to the next stages of childhood. The tradition centers around five year-old boys, seven year-old girls, and three year-olds of both genders.

In olden days, Japanese babies’ heads were routinely shaven for the first two to three years of their life. At age three, children of warrior families (age two for children of the court) would observe kamioki, aka “leaving the hair”. On the fifteenth day of the eleventh lunar month, families prayed for a long life for the child; children would wear special wigs for the occasion. After kamioki, the child’s hair was allowed to grow out.

For the older children, five year-old boys and seven year-old girls continue a variation of the ancient himotoki tradition, in which children would tie their own belt, symbolizing their entrance into the next stage of childhood. These ceremonies are generally performed at a special shrine.

“In the early Edo period, these rites, known collectively as shichi-go-san, were the preserve of the court and warrior families. Later, they caught on amongst the wider urban population…It was not until the Meiji period, however, that it became a nation-wide phenomenon.”

Shinto, a Short History, by Teeuwen, Inoue, Breen, Ito

Shichi-Go-San Festival
Shichi-Go-San Festival

Bunka no Hi – Culture Day – Japan

November 3


In Japan, November 3 is Culture Day, or “Bunka no Hi“. The present incarnation dates only to 1948, but Bunka no Hi follows a much older tradition. November 3 was the birthday of the Meiji Emperor (1852-1912) which was celebrated by the whole nation during the Emperor’s reign. The Meiji Emperor is credited for, among other things, ushering Japan into the modern era.

November 3 is also the anniversary of the creation of the post-war Constitution in 1946.

On Bunka no Hi the government awards the Bunka Kunsho—Order of Culture Awards. These are the highest academic and cultural achievement awards in the nation.

Each region has its own ways of celebrating the holiday, but throughout Japan, many communities host parades on November 3. Participants wear the uniforms and dress of olden days and remember the traditions of a bygone era.

“Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going —
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.”

— Kozan Ichikyo

Photos and article of Bunka no Hi

Shuubun no hi

…when the night and day are equally divided, Buddha appears on earth for a week to save stray souls and lead them to Nirvana.”


…Thus, in Japan, the spring equinox (shunbun no hi) and the fall equinox (shuubun no hi) are known as O-higan. Days on which families visit and honor the graves of the departed. Ancestors are said to watch over the family like tutelary, guardian deities. That’s why the Japanese give thanks to their ancestors whenever they encounter success or prosperity. (But of course if you fail, it’s your own damn fault.)

Favorite foods are prepared for the departed, such as Ohagi (soft rice balls covered in sweetened bean jam), sushi, and vinegar rice & veggies. On the last day of the week, rice flour dumplings, special fruits and sweets are offered.

In Buddhism, O-higan is a time to focus on the 6 Perfections, or Pāramitā:

1. Dana – generosity

2. Sila – virtue

3. Ksanti – patience

4. Virya – effort

5. Dhyana – meditation (also ‘zen’)

6. Prajna – wisdom

The O-higan days have been celebrated in Japan since the 8th century. The name Higan literally means, “the other shore” and is short for Tohigan—to arrive at the other shore. Buddhists believe that the Pāramitā form the bridge that enable humans to cross over to the other shore, to Nirvana.

Chrysanthemum Day – Kiko no Sekku

September 9


“In no other country in any part of the world is the Chrysanthemum held with such esteem and reverence as in Japan…

“…the most popular fête in Japan is held on Chrysanthemum Day, which falls in the ninth month of the year. The people on that day throw petals of the flower into their “saki” before drinking, as they believe it portends good luck and happiness and has the power of dispelling evil.

“Not until the year 1789 was the first advent of the Chrysanthemum into Europe from the Far East authentically recorded. In that year a M. Blancard introduced three plants to his native town, Marseilles. These were regarded at the time as large-flowering Chamomiles, not Chrysanthemums.”

Book of the Chrysanthemum, by Percy S. Follwell, 1907

Today is the equivalent of China’s Double Ninth Festival, held on the 9th day of the 9th lunar month. In Japan, Chrysanthemum Day follows the Gregorian calendar, falling on September 9th. Also known as Kiko no Sekku, it is one of Japan’s sacred festivals, or matsuri.

In 2009, Japan had a rare chance to celebrate Triple Ninth—the ninth day of the ninth month of the ninth year of the century. 9-9-9 won’t happen again until 2109!

Obon – Japan

July or August
July 13-15 (Gregorian calendar)
15th day of 7th month (lunar calendar)

“In the time of Shaka; one of his fellows Mokuren saw the image of his dead mother suffering in hell. Mokuren was desperate to relieve her pain and asked Shaka for help. Shaka answered, “On 15th of July, provide a big feast for the past seven generations of dead.”‘— Japan 101

OK, Buddha may not have actually said “15th of July”, since he lived 300 years before Julius Caesar. But he did say “15th day of the seventh month.” Whether that’s according to the lunar or solar calendar depends on who you ask.

In the lunar calendar the Festival of Obon—the Japanese festival of the dead—tends to fall in August. But in Tokyo and the east of Japan, many temples observe Obon according to the solar calendar—on July 13th through the 15th. The result is that anywhere you look between mid-July and August there’s bound to be Obon festivities happening somewhere.

Obon is one of the most important holidays in the Japanese calendar, second only to New Year’s Day in most communities. Japanese usually return home to be with their families during the Obon season to carry on a tradition that has been celebrated for over 500 years in Japan.

Families enjoy time together, partake in Obon rituals and tidy up the graves of their ancestors.

Lantern floating ritual, 2004

One tradition is to release floating paper lanterns on the water on the last night of Obon, in order to guide the departed spirits to the after world.

Another is the age-old Bon Odori, or Bon Dance, which emulates the dance of joy and gratitude that Mokuren did when his mother was released from hell.

Obon is a shortened form of the word urabon’e, which means “hanging upside-down and suffering.” The purpose of Obon is relieve the suffering of the Urabon’e.

Greenery Day – Japan

May 4

A small cloud has fallen
The white mist hits the ground
My lungs comfort me with joy.

Green Day, by Green Day

Ok, the above’s not a Japanese haiku, nor is about today’s holiday. (It bears more in common with one that takes place on 4/20) But today is “Midori no Hi”—literally Green Day, or Greenery Day. Midori means Green—hence the green, melon-based liqueur—and Hi means Day.

Greenery Day (Midori no Hi) originated from the celebration of the birthday of the late Emperor Hirohito, who reigned for most of the 20th century. In Japan, he’s known as the “Showa” Emperor. Showa means harmony, or enlightened peace, or the “search for balance between two different, often opposing elements”. (It is also a Japanese glove company.)

In Japan, the reigning Emperor’s birthday is a national holiday; after the Showa Emperor died in 1989, the Japanese people wanted to continue celebrating his birthday (April 29). They chose the name Greenery Day after the late Emperor’s love of nature. Between 1989 and 2006, Greenery Day was celebrated on April 29.

Beginning in 2007, the Japanese government renamed April 29 “Showa no Hi” (Showa Day) to formally honor the late Emperor, and moved Greenery Day to May 4.

Why May 4?

May 4 was already a holiday (and no we’re not talking about Star Wars Day). May 4 falls between two major holidays, Constitution Day and Children’s Day. And in Japan, any day that falls between two holidays is a holiday itself. [My kind of country. –Ed.] Besides, Greenery Day sounds better than Generic National Holiday.

Falling in the middle of Spring, Greenery Day is a time to commune with nature and enjoy the outdoors.

Showa Day, Constitution Day, Greenery Day, and Children’s Day make up what’s known as Golden Week in Japan. (Technically, Showa Day is an independent holiday, not part of Golden Week, but we’re not technical here.) Golden Week is one of, if not the biggest week for travel in the Japanese calendar. It makes American Thanksgiving look like a Wednesday in February. So if you’re traveling in Japan this week, hopefully you made all your arrangements in the Bronze Age.

Midori no Hi — Transparent Language Japanese blog

Showa Day holiday — hoofin.wordpress.com

Constitution Day – Japan & Poland

May 3

May 3 is Constitution Day in two countries on opposite sides of the globe.

May 3 Constitution, by Jan Matejko, 1891

Poland’s most recent constitution dates only to 1997, but it stems from the Constitution of May 3, 1791, one of the oldest codified constitutions in the world. Only the Constitution of the United States is older. [The Constitution of San Marino dates to 1600, but apparently is not codified enough to compete with the big boys. — Ed.]

The 1997 Constitution was a response to Poland’s changing position in the world, from a one-party socialist state under the control of its powerful neighbor, the Soviet Union, to a multi-party independent state.

The Japanese Constitution was put into effect on May 3, 1947. Its creation dealt with Japan’s changing role in the world after World War II. The Constitution altered not only the government—a government in which the Emperor would have less say in matters of state—but also the Japanese way of life. The Constitution protects standard basic freedoms, such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion, but goes one step further. Article 19, for example, proclaims:

“Freedom of thought and conscience shall not be violated.”

One of the most long-reaching impacts of the Constitution is Article 9, which deals with the renunciation of warfare:

“Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

So you’re probably thinking, No military? I could go over there with a dinghy and a BB gun and take over the country!

You would be met with a surprisingly powerful defense force. Japan still maintains its ability to defend its homeland, and…

“By 1990 estimates of Japan’s defense budget were that it was either the third or fourth largest in the world and Japan’s SDF was a high technology fighting force.”

The Rule of Law in Japan — Carl F. Goodman

Japan’s Constitution Day falls right in the middle of “Golden Week”, a congruence of four holidays, beginning with Showa Day (April 29) and ending with Children’s Day (May 5).

Japan’s Commission on the Constitution — the Final Report, 1980