National holidays in Japan are the saving grace that ever so slightly balances the rigorous work culture! Japanese national holidays are there to provide some much needed time off as well as serve as perfect times for fun festivities to join in on!
Japanese National Holidays are a wonderful way to get the full cultural experience of Japan for both foreigners and for locals alike. Many of the festivals and events you find here are full of tradition that ranges anywhere between 4-1000 years old. They usually tell a story or give you some insight and experiences in Japan. Of course, it should go without saying that they are best experienced in person.
The following will be a list of all the Japanese holidays in 2021 complete with details, locations, and other fun activities that you can participate in on these days. It is good to keep in mind that on national holidays most, if not all, banks and government offices in Japan are closed. So make sure if you have any visa-related issues to resolve them on non-national holiday dates.
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New Years Day (Shōgatsu)
To kick off the list of Japanese national holidays in 2021 we will start with New Years Day! Like many countries, New Years Day is arguably one of the most important holidays in Japan and is usually celebrated from December 31st to January 1st.
Where ever you are in Japan one thing that you will likely end up doing is a count down to New Year's Day. Every year people gather to count down in designated areas or in front of their televisions at home and do a final count down to the New Year and share drinks while celebrating. If you are looking to Join a count down event, some of the larger wards such as Yokohama and Shibuya hold giant count down events with huge screens. Most years you can expect to be shoulder to shoulder with everyone in the packed crowd. However, with the 2020 pandemic making things a bit uncertain, you can expect some count down events to put systems in place that limit the contact and number of people or cancel altogether.
As far as cultural activities go, visit a Japanese temple for the authentic New Year's Day in Japan. Hatsunode is a tradition for Japanese families where they visit a temple on the first day of the year to pray for, wealth, health, and safety. Usually, at the temples, you would line up to pay some money and ring a large bell then bow while praying. The bigger and more famous temples can be extremely busy at times so keep this in mind when you choose where to go.
Coming of age day (Seijin no hi)
In Japan, people are considered to be adults once they turn 20. Each year on the second Monday of January, Japanese people who turn 20 between April 2nd of the previous year and April first of the current year will get together and celebrate their first step into adulthood.
Many of those who participate in the festivities of the coming of age day will return to their home town and attend a ceremony that takes place in the city hall or school gym of those becoming adults with presents and speeches from public officials given to them. Afterward, it is common to meet up with friends from their high school and go to Izakayas (Japanese style bars) to celebrate by drinking as a big group. Traditional attire to be worn by those celebrating this day is a Furisode (Kimono with long hanging sleeves) for women and a dark kimono or suit for men.
Although you probably won't be participating in the festivities first hand seeing all the young adults in full traditional attire is definitely a nice sight to see on your night out!
Foundation day (Kenkoku Kinen no Hi)
This is a Japanese national holiday that has deep roots in its very beginnings. National Foundation day is a celebration of the mythological foundation of Japan and is on the new year's day based on the lunisolar calendar. The legend goes that on this day the first emperor of Japan, Emperor Jimmu, took to the throne and founded the nation. Foundation day is a bit of a controversial holiday as it does also have some history with promoting nationalism in Japan. However, these days the holiday is simply a day off, there are no widespread celebrations or practices, just keep in mind that most if not all banks and government offices will be closed so if you have paperwork or other errands related to either to run, it would be best to choose a different day!
Emperor's Birthday (Tennō tanjōbi)
This one is pretty self-explanatory, it's the current emperor's birthday so you get a day off! With the start of the Reiwa period and the emperor changing to Naruhito, the day is February the 23rd. There is a public ceremony in the imperial palace and the doors which are normally closed to the public open up. This is definitely something worth checking out as it is one of the only times that the inside of the palace can be viewed (the only other being January 2nd when there is a new year's celebration). During the ceremony, people wave Japanese flags and cheer while the Emperor greets the public from a balcony in the palace.
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Vernal Equinox Day (Shunbun no Hi)
Shunbun no Hi or Vernal Equinox Day, takes place every year on the March Equinox which tends to be the 20th or 21st of March. On the march equinox, night and day are equally long in addition to marking the end of winter and start of spring for many. Many Japanese people will celebrate this day by visiting the graves of their ancestors/loved one's to clean them and leave offerings. Another tradition that is widely practiced is doing a full clean of the house to represent a fresh start as well as setting goals and starting new activities, similar to how people in most western countries make resolutions on New Year's Day.
From April 29th to Early may, there are a number of consecutive Japanese national holidays called Golden Week. Due to the Japanese work culture, many people don't usually get longer breaks like this very often so most people will take this opportunity to go on a trip or at least get out of the house as much as possible. You can expect anywhere that you are thinking of going to be quite crowded so keep that in mind when you make your plans for this week. If you want to go out of the prefecture you are staying, make sure to book that hotel in advance as they do fill up quite quickly! The days you will have off in 2021 are April 29th and then from May 3rd to May 5th (creating a 5 day weekend from May 1st to the 5th). The following will explain what each day off represents.
Shōwa day (Shōwa no Hi)
Showa day is another Japanese National Holiday that revolves around the imperial family. April 29th was the birthday Emperor Hirohito, who reigned during the Showa period from 1926 until his death in 1989. This is another day that doesn't have anything going on in terms of celebration but the extra day off never hurts!
Constitution day (Kenpō Kinenbi)
In 1945, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan surrendered, finally ending the horror that was World War 2. After the surrender, Japan worked with the United States to create a new constitution. This new constitution brought japan into a new era of peace, with a liberal democracy being introduced and the right to start war going out the window. This constitution fully came into effect on May 3rd, 1947 and has been a national holiday since. Constitution day is a time for people to reflect on the history of Japan, and for those history buffs out there the national diet building opens up to the public for tours as well!
Greenery day (Midori no hi)
Greenery day is another Japanese national holiday that simply helps extend the golden week break. Still, many people use greenery day to appreciate nature and be mindful of the environment. With the day off and nature in mind, it's a great day to go to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden or one of Japan's other wonderful parks!
Children's day (kodomo no hi)
You've probably noticed that throughout Golden Week many Koi fish (carp) flags of all colors have been flying from houses, schools and other buildings or businesses. That's because on May 5th is children's day, a holiday that has been celebrated even in ancient Japan, definitely one of the older Japanese national holidays on this list! Those fish-shaped flags that you have seen swimming around in the air are part of a tradition called koi nobori, translated to literally mean "carp banner/flag", based on the myth that carps would become dragons and fly to heaven once they have swum upstream. Each flag will usually represent a member of one's family with the largest one at the top being the head of the household and ascending down to the youngest member of the family. A lot of Japanese families will also display a Kabuto (Ancient Japanese helmet for armor) in their house as well. Traditionally, people will eat chimaki (sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves) and a sweet snack called Kashiwa mochi (smooth sticky rice with red bean paste inside, wrapped in sweet oak leaf) on this Japanese national holiday.
Sea day/Marine day (Umi no hi)
Every year on the third Monday of July is Sea day in Japan. Similar to how Greenery day is used to appreciate and celebrate nature, sea day is one that people usually use to appreciate the sea and all that it provides. Due to its timing being in summer right when the rainy season ends, many people will use this day to go to the beach and enjoy ocean activities such as fishing, swimming, surfing, or diving.
One beach activity that is pretty unique to Japan is known as suika wari. Translated to English, suika wari simply means "watermelon breaking" and it is just that! In suika wari, a person is blindfolded and spins while holding a bat or other long stick to the ground. They then will try to hit and break the watermelon that is placed on a plastic sheet on the sand. Once the watermelon has broken open it's time for everyone to dig in!
Mountain day (Yama no hi)
Mountain day is one of the much newer Japanese National Holidays on this list with the first mountain day taking place in 2016. As the name suggests, mountain day is all about appreciating the mountains of Japan as well as giving you an extra day off of work each year. Due to how new the holiday is, there are no official ways to celebrate this day, but it is definitely recommended that you get out and try hiking one of the many wonderful mountains here in Japan.
Respect for the aged day (Keiro no hi)
Japan is a country with a relatively high percentage of elderly citizens compared to other countries in the world so it is fitting for Japan to have a day dedicated to honoring them. During Respect for the aged day you'll see a lot of special programming and variety shows on TV revolving around the topic. Most Japanese people will visit their grandparents and other elderly loved one's to join them for a meal, give a gift, and simply spend time together.
Even if you don't have grandparents or elderly friends and family members in Japan it is always good to give back to the community! Some groups and companies will volunteer and distribute bento boxes, daily goods, and other small snacks or gifts to the elderly in their communities. It's definitely a great opportunity to get a better look into Japanese culture and hear stories from the past as well. If this is something that you want to do, definitely check out organizations like Keiro for volunteer work.
Autumnal Equinox day (Shūbun no Hi)
Autumnal Equinox day takes place annually in the third week of September, usually on the 22nd or 23rd. This is the date of the southward equinox and is usually seen as the end of summer as well as the beginning of Autumn. To celebrate, many families gather on this Japanese National Holiday and visit the graves of their ancestors to clean them and leave small gifts. A lot of people will also go to temples and shrines to pay tribute on this day as it does have a connection to the Shinto religion. But simply enjoying the great weather that Autumn has to offer to enjoy outdoor activities is how most people like to celebrate this day off. It's a great time to go to the park for a picnic or throw down on the grill!
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Sports day (Supōtsu no hi)
Definitely one of the more fun-filled Japanese national holidays on this list, Sports day is just that, a day created to celebrate sports and being active! Many schools and communities around Japan will hold an "undoukai" which means sports meet. During an undoukai, all the participants are split up into two teams, the red and white team, signified by a colored hat or headband, and compete against each other for points in different events. The events of undoukai are mostly based on those from the Olympics such as long jumping, track and field, and relay races. There are also some team-based or unique events such as "tamaire", a game where you throw balls into a basket as a team in an attempt to get the most amount of balls in the basket, or tug of war. One activity that has received some attention online is "kumitaisou", where participants stack themselves to create shapes such as pyramids!
If you work as an ALT (assistant language teacher) you will most likely get to observe the festival up close, watching over and possibly helping out one of the teams. Some companies and sharehouses such as Oakhouse will also hold undoukais for their employees and customers as well, it's definitely worth joining in if you get the chance!
Culture Day (Bunka no hi)
Another post-war celebration, culture day was a Japanese national holiday created to honor the birthday of Emperor Meiji as well as commemorate the announcement of the new Japanese constitution that would be created after Japan's surrender in World War 2. These days Culture day is used to promote the arts and history of Japan. Many festivals, exhibits, and other cultural events are scheduled for this day so you'll have quite a few options to choose from depending on where in Japan you live. One particularly interesting place to be is Hakone, located right outside of Tokyo in the Kanagawa prefecture, each year the Hakone Daimyō Gyōretsu or Hakone feudal lord's parade takes place. You'll get to see all types of traditional armor, costumes, and clothing from the Edo period of Japan.
If you happen to be a higher education student or researcher in Japan you can expect to see new findings presented by universities as well. So for those academics out there, this may end up being a big day for you!
Labor Thanksgiving day (Kinrō Kansha no Hi)
The final Japanese national holiday on this list is one that can be traced back to the ancient times of Japan. It was a day that the hard work of the laborers and farmers were appreciated and acknowledged as well as dedicating the yield of the harvest to the gods and emperors. These days this holiday is used to appreciate all workers, especially those in public service, and bring attention to topics like human rights and the environment.
There are many events all around Japan on this day, mostly local matsuris or festivals to celebrate the day. Children will often write letters to public workers such as firefighters or police to thank them for their service. If you are working in a company they may even hold an event to thank you and your coworkers for all the hard work and dedication while they go over the accomplishments of the past year.
Those would be all the Japanese National holidays you can expect to see this year. From those with deep roots in tradition to those that have more modern values, you have probably seen that Japan is a place with quite the roster of holidays. Be sure to mark the days and check out all that each holiday has to offer, after all the best way to use these days off is to get the full Japan experience!
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