Japan has thirteen public holidays (marked with ▲) and a lot of nation-wide as well as local festivals. Find a short description of the public holidays and the most common nation-wide festivals below.
In 1998 and in 2001 Japan amended its laws in order to to move a number of public holidays in Japan to Mondays, creating a three-day weekend for those who normally have a five-day work week. It is called the Happy Monday System (ハッピーマンデー制度 Happī Mandē Seido).
List of Japanese holidays
■ January 1: 元日 (Ganjitsu, New Year’s Day)
Marks the beginning of the New Year season (正月 shōgatsu). Usually, offices and shops are closed from December 29 to January 3. Nowadays, department stores and supermarkets are open during the o-shōgatsu holidays. Japanese celebrate the New Year holidays with their families, thus public transportation tends to be extremely crowded. Traditionally, people prepare o-setchi ryouri (お節料理), dishes that are only eaten during the New Year holidays.
■ 2nd Monday in January: 成人の日 (Seijin no hi, Adult’s Day) ▲
Coming of age ceremony for people who have turned 20 years old during the year. Cities and towns hold public celebrations to mark the age of maturity (20 in Japan). Young people dress up formally, and girls don colourful kimono to mark the day. Until 2000, it was held on January 15, but with the introduction of the “Happy Monday System” it was changed to the 2nd Monday of January.
■ February 3: 節分 (Setsubun, “Bean-Throwing Ceremony”)
Literally the the “seasonal divide”, spring setsubun is also called risshun (立春) and part of the Spring Festival (春祭 haru matsuri). Japanese perform a ritual called mamemaki (豆まき, “bean-throwing”), conducted at people’s homes or in temples and shrines in order to expel evil spirits and disease by throwing beans outside their house and exclaiming: 鬼は外! 福は内! (Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!), which translates as “Demons out, luck in!” The number of beans thrown (and subsequently eaten) usually corresponds to a person’s age.
■ February 11: 建国記念の日 (Kenkoku kinen no hi, Foundation Day) ▲
Established in 1966, it is meant to commemorate the national foundation of Japan and to foster patriotism in Japanese.
■ February 14: バレンタインデー (Valentine’s Day)
Introduced in Japan in 1936 and popularized in the 1950s, it is the day when Japanese women offer chocolate to men. Giri-choko (義理チョコ) is given by female employees to their male counterparts (giri 義理 meaning “obligation”), while tomo-choko (友チョコ) and honmei-choko (本命チョコ) is reserved for friends, respectively boyfriends and husbands. Men have to reciprocate twice or thrice (三倍返し, sanbai gaeshi, literally, “triple the return”) what they have received one moth later, on White Day.
■ March 3: ひな祭り (Hina matsuri, Doll Festival)
Dedicated to young girls, hina-ningyō (雛人形), wooden platforms with up to seven tiers covered in red carpets are decorated with dolls representing the emperor and the empress in Heian court attire, ladies-in-waiting, musicians, ministers, samurai and other figures. Hinamatsuri is celebrated until girls turn 20 years of age (unless they marry earlier) in order to ensure their fortune and well-being. The dolls are displayed from the end of February until the evening of March 3. It is commonly believed that failure to remove the dolls in time might result in the girls’ late marriage.
■ March 14: ホワイトデー (White Day)
Introduced in 1978, White Day is celebrated in Japan and South Korea. As only women give presents on Valentine’s Day, men should return the favour one month later. They are supposed to reciprocate two or threefold, but sometimes even expensive lingerie is given, which should not be mistaken for a lewd suggestion.
■ ~March 20: 春分の日 (Shunbun no hi, Vernal Equinox Day) ▲
Established in 1948 and dedicated to the “admiration of nature” and the “love of living things”.
■ March 21 and September 21: 彼岸 (Higan)
Buddhist holiday, on which memorial services for those passed away are held at temples during the seven days preceding the vernal and autumnal equinox. People visit their family graves during this period.
■ April 29 to May 5: ゴールデンウイーク (Golden Week)
Along with New Year and Obon, the Golden Week (usually abbreviated GW) is one of hte major holiday and vacation periods in Japan, as it includes four public holidays within a week (Shōwa Day 昭和の日, Constitution Day 憲法の日, Greenery Day みどりの日 and Children’s Day 子どもの日). Depending on the year, these will be fused with a weekend. As people either travel within Japan or abroad or just visit their families, all means of transportation as well as accommodation are fully booked, with prices and fees surging astronomically. It is best to avoid this period when planning to travel in Japan.
■ April 29: 昭和の日 (Shōwa Day) ▲
During Shōwa period (until 1989) April 29 was a public holiday, marking the Shōwa Tenno‘s birthday. After his death, the day was celebrated as “Greenery Day”. Finally, in 2007 “Greenery Day” was moved to May 4 and April 29 proclaimed Shōwa Day in honour of the late emperor.
■ May 3: 憲法記念日 (Kenpō kinenbi, Constitution Memorial Day) ▲
Established in 1948, it commemorates the Japanese constitution of 1947.
■ May 4: みどりの日 (Midori no hi, Greenery Day) ▲
Introduced in 1989, it was held on April 29 (the Shōwa Emperor's birthday)until the year 2007, when it was moved to May 4, in order to celebrate the blessings and the beauty of nature.
■ May 5: こどもの日 (Kodomo no hi, Children’s Day) ▲
Originally celebrated as Boys’ Day, just as March 3 is Girls’ Day, it has nowadays become Children’s Day and marks the last the of the Golden Week. Corresponding to the Dragon Boat Festival (端午の節句 tango no sekku), families with boys fly koi ((鯉, carp) streamers (鯉のぼり koinobori) and adorn their homes with miniature samurai utensils, such as helmets (兜 kabuto), armour (鎧 （よろい yoroi), swords (刀 katana), and bow and arrow (弓矢 （ゆみや yumiya).
■ July 7: 七夕祭り (Tanabata Matsuri, Star Festival)
According the a Chinese legend brought to Japan in 755, a princess and a shepherd fell in love, but were forbidden to meet, except for that day of the year (tanabata meaning the “evening of the seventh), when the two stars Kengyū (牽牛, shepherd) and Orihime (織姫, “Weaving Princess”) meet in the Milky Way (天の川 amanogawa, lit. “heavenly river”). On that day, children write poems or wishes on streamers of paper and attach them on special tanabata trees. In some areas of Japan, Tanabata is celebrated on August 7. The most famous festivals take place in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture and in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.
■ 3rd Monday of July: 海の日 (Umi no hi, Marine Day) ▲
First established in 1995, it commemorates the blessings of the oceans and its importance for Japan as a maritime nation.
■ August 11: 山の日 (Yama no Hi, Mountain Day)▲
Established in 2014 and first observed in 2016, Mountain Day is a public holiday consecrated to the appreciation of the mountains. As the obon holidays are not public holidays, many people will have an opportunity to take a few days off during the height of the summer.
■ August 13-16: お盆 (Obon, Lantern Festival)
Bon (盆) or obon (お盆) is a Buddhist festival to pay tribute to the ancestral spirits. During the obon days, the spirits of the ancestors return to earth, and lanterns are lit in front of houses to guide them to their families. Lanterns are then floated on rivers to indicate the way back to the underworld, although the practice has disappeared in the cities. In most parts of Japan, obon is held in the month of August (八月お盆 hachigatsu bon), while in the Kantō region (Tokyo, Yokohama) as well as in some parts of Tohoku it is held in July (七月お盆 shichigatsu obon). The obon holidays are one of the busiest vacation periods of the year.
■ 3rd Monday of September: 敬老の日 (Keirō no hi, Respect-for-the-Aged Day) ▲
Established in 1966 as a day to pay tribute to the elderly and hope for longevity. Originally celebrated on September 15, it was changed to the 3rd Monday of September in 2003.
■ September 23: 秋分の日 (Shūbun no hi, Autumnal Equinox Day) ▲
Established in 1948, it is a day to pay respect to those that have passed away.
■ 2nd Monday of October: 体育の日 (Taiiku no Hi, Health and Sports Day ▲
Originally held on October 10 in order to commemorate the beginning of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, it was changed to the 2nd Monday in October in the year 2000 in order to enjoy sports and observe a healthy lifestyle.
■ October 31: ハローウイーン (Halloween)
Another virulent cultural import from Western countries, Halloween is becoming more and more popular in Japan. It is usually celebrated in kindergartens and nightclubs, but children do not ask for treats.
■ November 3: 文化の日 (Bunka no Hi, Culture Day) ▲
Prior to 1948, November 3 commemorated the birthday of the Meiji Emperor (明治節 Meiji-setsu), since 1948 that holiday has been renamed to Culture Day to celebrate the new Japanese constitution as well as peace and freedom.
■ November 15: 七五三祭り (Shichi-Go-San, 7-5-3 Festival)
Shichigosan is the traditional rite of passage for boys aged 3 and 5 and girls aged 3 and 7 to be blessed at the local shinto shrine to extend thanks for their good health and pray for their future blessings. Children are dressed up in colourful kimonos.
■ November 23: 勤労感謝の日 (Kinrō kansha no hi, Labour Thanksgiving Day
Established in 1948, it celebrates labour and production, and is meant to thank one another.
■ December 23: 天皇誕生日 (Tennō Tanjōbi, The Emperor’s Birthday) ▲
The birthday of the reigning emperor has been a national holiday since 1868. Emperor Akihito’s birthday is celebrated on December 23.
■ December 24/25: クリスマス (Christmas)
Christmas is a popular celebration in Japan. Christmas decorations can be found in supermarkets and department as early as in October, and quite a few Japanese decorate their houses to get in a festive mood. It is common for (young) couples to go out and to exchange gifts, but Christmas is not a family affair as in Western countries. Quiet family gatherings are reserved for the New Year.