The stories behind public holidays in Japan

Japanese women in kimonos attend a ceremony celebrating Coming of Age Day at an amusement park in Tokyo on January 13, 2014. The  Coming of Age Day is one of four holidays in Japan that was moved to a Monday to create a three-day weekend an
Japanese women in kimonos attend a ceremony celebrating Coming of Age Day at an amusement park in Tokyo on January 13, 2014. The  Coming of Age Day is one of four holidays in Japan that was moved to a Monday to create a three-day weekend and to boost the Japanese economy. - PHOTO: REUTERS

Singapore and Japan both look very Western on the surface and also share many Asian roots. Yet the two countries have only one public holiday in common - January 1, or New Year's Day.

The rest of Japan's public holidays are nothing like what we have in Singapore and so take some getting used to.

For instance, on March 21, the Japanese celebrate Vernal Equinox Day.

On this day, the hours of daylight and night are equal, an event used to signify the change of the seasons from Winter to Spring since daylight hours grow longer after this day.

Autumnal Equinox Day on September 23 marks a similar change from Summer to Autumn with daylight hours becoming shorter after this day.

During this time, a period known as Ohigan in Japanese, many people pay visits to their family graves to sweep the gravestones clean and to leave offerings of food or flowers for the deceased.

But how do these two public holidays come to be associated with the Japanese custom of grave visits?

The answer lies in developments in Japan after the end of World War Two.

Many of Japan's public holidays (they were more appropriately known as "festival days" in the past) were originally linked to age-old customs or rituals with strong religious overtones that were often conducted by members of royalty.

But during the US-led post-war Occupation of Japan, it was decided to strip these festival days of their religious trappings and turn them into non-religious public holidays, in line with the separation of state and religion in the country's new Constitution.

The 1948 law that laid down these public holidays said they were set aside for the people to "celebrate, give thanks, or to remember, so that they can cultivate beautiful customs, a better society and a richer lifestyle".

Before the War, the two equinoxes in March and September - the actual dates vary every year - were originally set aside for the imperial ceremony of ancestral worship.

After the two days were transformed into public holidays after the War, imperial ancestral worship was quietly forgotten.

To take another example, Labour Thanksgiving Day on Nov 23 was originally the Niiname-sai, an ancient Shinto ritual to celebrate the autumn harvest.

These days, Labour Thanksgiving Day commemorates labour and production.

The Niiname-sai, a ritual shrouded in mystery, is however said to be still conducted annually today in a shrine behind the secrecy of palace walls and presided over by none other than the Emperor himself.

Meanwhile, Marine Day in July has rather dubious claims to being a national holiday.

It was first designated in 1941 to commemorate the Meiji Emperor's 1876 voyage in an iron steamship named after him.

Marine Day only became a national holiday on July 20, 1996 after someone pointed out that there was no public holiday in the whole of that month.

The Japanese, however, do not regard public holidays as sacred and immovable.

To create more three-day weekends and help boost the economy under what was called the "Happy Monday" policy, four public holidays were uprooted and moved to Mondays.

Marine Day, for instance, now falls on the third Monday in July, while Respect for the Aged Day, which was first started on Sep 15, 1966 to honour Japan's senior citizens, now falls on the third Monday in September.

Even Sports Day, which originally marked the day of the opening ceremony of the 1964 Summer Olympics hosted by Tokyo, was moved to the second Monday slot in October.

The fourth and last public holiday to be similarly moved is Coming of Age Day, which now falls on the second Monday in January.

In Western societies, private celebrations are common when a person reaches adulthood, usually at the age of 21.

In Japan, young people become adults legally when they reach the age of 20, giving them not only the right to vote, but also the right to smoke and drink.

Celebrating the coming of age of an entire cohort on a national basis demonstrates the importance that the Japanese place on their younger generation.

This holiday was started in 1948 to remind young people of their responsibilities toward rebuilding the nation which was then in ruins after the war.

It was a time when resources were scarce, most of all, human resources.

The coming-of-age ritual in Japan, however, goes back some centuries.

In some parts of Japan in ancient times, a young person who showed himself capable of chopping 60 kg of firewood a day and then walking 12 km to hawk his wares was considered a full-fledged adult.

Although Japan is rightly or wrongly known as a nation of workaholics, it in fact has the most number of public holidays - 15 - among developed countries.

This is a godsend for the Japanese as the work culture here is such that most of them find it impossible to consume their full entitlement of paid leave every year.

To partly make up for that, many Japanese workers are able to enjoy ungazetted holidays every year, typically a week or so in mid-August during the so-called Obon holiday, and the year-end New Year break that stretches from Dec 28 to around Jan 3.

Japanese public holidays for 2014:

Jan 1 - New Year's Day
Jan 13 - Coming of Age Day
Feb 11 - National Foundation Day
Mar 21 - Vernal Equinox Day
Apr 29 - Showa no Hi
May 3 - Constitution Memorial Day
May 4 - Greenery Day
May 5 - Children's Day
May 6 - substitute holiday for Greenery Day
Jul 21 - Day of the Sea
Sep 15 - Respect for the Aged Day
Sep 23 - Autumnal Equinox Day
Oct 13 - Sports Day
Nov 3 - Culture Day
Nov 23 - Labour Thanksgiving Day
Nov 24 - Substitute holiday
Dec 23 - Birthday of the Emperor

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