This week in Japan is known as “Golden Week” because of the string of national holidays contained within it. The Japanese have a different, more collective, take on vacations from work than Americans do. Americans have a certain number – often between 10 and 20 – vacation days and a few holidays over the year when the office is closed. In Japan it’s different: there are many national holidays where most companies are closed and individual workers take very few vacation days.
There are three times over the year when the country is quiet and companies are closed. The first is over the New Year, when most places are closed from January 1st through 4th every year. Second is Golden Week, which is just a series of well-place holidays and third is the third week of August, which is Obon, when Japanese are supposed to go back to their ancestral homes and celebrate their ancestors. There are other one-off days throughout the year, including a few days in September/October that are starting to be called “Silver Week” due to it’s similarity to Golden Week in the spring.
Specifically, Golden Week is made up of five holidays. The first is April 29th, which is Showa day, a day to honor the
Showa emperor – known to Americans as Emperor Hirohito, who was born on this day in 1901. Even though one might think the Japanese wouldn’t choose to celebrate the Emperor who brought the country into World War II, but the opposite is true. Under his reign, though there was the war, Hirohito brought Japan into the modern age with industrialization and militarization. He withstood the American changes to the constitution of the country and was the longest reigning emperor in Japan’s history with his rule from 1921 to 1989 when he died. The emperor’s birthday is always a holiday in Japan (the current emperor’s birthday is December 23rd) but after his death, the holiday became known as Showa day, celebrating the Showa period in history.
April 30th is not a holiday at all. Some people take it off to make a full week of Gold, and some do not.
The second holiday is May 3rd, and it celebrates Constitution Day. May 3rd is the day in 1949 when the new Japanese constitution was put into place after the war. It’s the only day of the year when the Diet (the Congressional building) is open to the public.
May 4th is Greenery day and is sort of like Earth Day. People are supposed to celebrate the earth and nature and all of its gifts. Some people go to the temples to worship accordingly.
May 5th is one of the more interesting holidays – Kodomo no hi – or Children’s Day. It’s when parents specifically celebrate boys (Girls’ day is in March, don’t worry) and go to temples to pray for the health of all children. There are more symbols and traditions for this holiday. All over the city of Tokyo right now, you can see brilliant flags in the shape of carp. Carp swim upstream, and represent strength, so they are the symbol of the holiday. There is one traditional food: mochi – pounded rice – stuffed with bean paste and wrapped in an oak leaf, also representing health and strength.
Those are the official meanings of the holidays. However, what they mean to pretty much all Japanese people is a rare time of the year that they can travel easily without taking days off from work. At this time of year the airports, busses, trains and everything are crowded beyond belief. Air travel prices spike out of this world. Public parks and tourist spots become overrun with people. I tend to stay in if possible!
It’s an interesting way to look at the concept of taking holidays – it’s more collective than Americans’ individual waysof looking at vacations. But that’s the Japanese spirit – anything worth doing is worth doing as a group!