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Japan's Society Celebrations   






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).  

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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.

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