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NATIONAL HOLIDAYS

National holidays trace roots to China, ancients, harvests

by Akemi Nakamura

Golden Week is approaching, covering four national holidays from late April to early May.

Thousands of people will take a weeklong vacation, many of them unaware of the nature of the holidays.

Following are questions and answers about Japan’s holidays:

How many national holidays are there?

There are 15 national holidays authorized under the Law Concerning National Holidays, which was enacted in 1948 and revised several times since.

The law stipulates that when a national holiday falls on a Sunday, the nearest subsequent nonholiday weekday becomes a substitute holiday.

This year, for example, May 4 — Greenery Day — is a Sunday, so May 6 becomes a day off because May 5 is Children’s Day, another national holiday.

How does Japan compare with other countries in number of national holidays?

It is difficult to compare.

Many countries have less than 10 national holidays during which people nationwide do not have to go to work or school, according to Isao Tokoro, a professor of legal cultural history at Kyoto Sangyo University who has studied national holidays for years.

However, some countries have religious and regional holidays in addition to national holidays, he said.

Who decides the national holidays in Japan and how?

Lawmakers propose creation of new national holidays and their names, which are discussed in the Diet and voted on.

There is no standard for picking a date, but lawmakers are expected to choose one the public will support, a Cabinet Office official said.

The newest national holiday, Marine Day, the third Monday of July, was created in 1996.

What is the history of national holidays?

Japanese have held rice-harvest festivals since ancient times, as well as the Go-sekku five seasonal festivals introduced from China in the early eighth century, professor Tokoro said. The Chinese festivals are Jan. 7, March 3, May 5, July 7 and Sept. 9, marking changes in the seasons.

The government legally created national holidays during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). In 1873, when Japan introduced the solar calendar, 10 national holidays were designated, based on Shinto-related rituals practiced by the Imperial family as well as traditional festivals conducted by the public nationwide, according to Tokoro.

Nov. 3, the birthday of Emperor Meiji, became a national holiday. It is now Culture Day.

In 1948, nine national holidays were created by law. Six were added later.

At the time, many traditional Meiji Era holidays were retained. But the names of Shinto-related holidays were changed under pressure by Occupation authorities, and due to the separation of government and religion under the postwar Constitution, according to Tokoro. For instance, the Nov. 23 holiday was changed from Niiname-sai, or Harvest Festival, to Labor Thanksgiving Day.

Are there any national holidays that have been maintained since ancient times?

Yes. May 5 was one of the Go-sekku five festivals that originated from China, when people held events to drive away bad air in the beginning of the rainy season under the lunar calendar.

In the Edo Period (1603-1868), it evolved into a day to pray for boys’ healthy growth as people came to set up armor, display warrior dolls and put up carp streamers. In 1948, the date was legally designated as Children’s Day.

Has there been any controversy over deciding national holidays?

There were arguments over Feb. 11, National Foundation Day. The date was first set up as the national holiday Kigen-setsu in 1873 to commemorate the accession of Emperor Jimmu, described as the legendary first emperor in “Nihon Shoki” (“Chronicles of Japan”)” and “Kojiki” (“Records of Ancient Matters”), both compiled in the early eighth century.

But after World War II, the Occupation did not allow the government to keep it as a national holiday because of its ultranationalist trappings linked to prewar militarism, according to Tokoro.

After the Occupation ended in 1952, lawmakers tried to revive the holiday but failed for more than 10 years because critics argued the date is associated with prewar Japan and proposed different dates, he said.

A government advisory panel of scholars proposed in 1966 that Feb. 11 would be the most suitable date to commemorate the nation’s founding because Japanese had done so for more than 70 years since the Meiji Era. Feb. 11 that year was reinstated as National Foundation Day.

Have the dates of national holidays changed during the postwar period?

“Happy Mondays” were introduced several years ago by moving four national holidays from specific dates to the second or third Mondays of the same months.

For example, Health-Sports Day, created in 1966, used to fall on Oct. 10, the opening day of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. But it was changed in 2000 to the second Monday of October. In the same year, Coming-of-Age Day was also moved from Jan. 15 to the second Monday of January.

In 2003, Marine Day was moved from July 20 and Respect-for-the-Aged Day from Sept. 15 to the third Mondays of the same months.

Lawmakers wanted to create more three-day weekends in hopes that they would encourage people to go out and spend more.

Have the names of national holidays changed in recent years?

April 29 had been a national holiday marking the birthday of Emperor Showa. When he died in 1989, it was renamed Greenery Day.

To remember the Showa Era, during which the nation experienced war, militarism and later democracy, lawmakers proposed calling it Showa Day, which took effect in 2007.

At the same time, Greenery Day was moved to May 4.

Are there any breaks other than national holidays?

Many people traditionally take a break during the Bon period in mid-August and the late-December to early-January New Year’s holidays.

Bon, a Buddhist tradition to pray for the spirits of the deceased, was introduced from China in the seventh century and has been observed ever since.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk