Holiday Traditions in Japan

Hey all.  So I know I am way behind in posting due to the madness of the holidays and seeing family and all, but I’m going to pretend its still before Christmas because I thought it would be interesting to find out how the Japanese celebrate the holidays that are so enjoyed here in America.  So wait, I know what you’re thinking. There were no colonists coming to the “new world” and mixing with indigenous peoples in Japan?  And aside from the 1-2% of the population that are Christian, most of the people don’t religiously believe in Christ either.  So it got me to wondering how that effects the holiday celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas?  Well, I researched and was pretty excited by what I found.

“Thanksgiving” in Japan

The Japanese send out lanterns in rememberance of past ancestors.

The Japanese send out lanterns in rememberance of past ancestors.

Although there is no direct holiday that mirrors Thanksgiving in Japan, except for a holiday called “Labor Day” that comes around the same time, there is a holiday that’s very similar in terms of how it’s celebrated.  It’s called “Obon” or the ghost festival, a week in the summer (usually mid-August) where all Japanese go back to their hometowns, be with their families, and visit graves of loved ones past.  In Japan during this period, they visit graves to clean them up and pray. Also, they think their ancestors will come back to their houses. This might sound a little scary to people who are not familiar with this belief, but this way of thinking is just conventional in Japan.  All companies religiously give their workers obon holidays.

Obviously Americans don’t always celebrate Thanksgiving in their hometowns, it’s more about wherever their family is. Most Americans also don’t visit graves on Thanksgiving, at least none that I know.  But the way that Obon is perceived in Japan is quite similar. The Japanese look forward to this holiday all year, and religiously take it off from work. (Doesn’t this sound like your co-workers?) Even if Japanese have to work during Obon, they’re allowed to take a few days off in late August to make up for it. If they don’t return home for Obon, they might get shunned by their families. Just imagine if American families shunned their relatives for not joining the Thanksgiving feast!

Christmas in Japan

Being that most Japanese are Buddhist and Shinto, Christmas takes on a very different meaning in Japan. The streets are still decorated with Christmas lights and images of Santa Claus. Christmas music still plays incessantly everywhere you go. And, the shops and department stores still have great sales. But unlike in America and other Western countries, Christmas has little of the religious meaning we associate with the holiday and doesn’t center around the family. Instead, it’s just (a highly commercialized) cool thing to do.  It’s also seen as the night to party with friends in comparison to New Year’s which is seen as a night for family; quite the opposite of America.

Couples take the time for each other.  Proposals are popular and romance abounds.
Couples take the time for each other. Proposals are popular and romance abounds.
City Lights in Tokyo

City Lights in Tokyo

Most Japanese will tell you that Christmas in Japan is for couples. This is the one time of year that couples will exchange gifts, enjoy a meal together and stroll through the brilliant Christmas displays. Not even on Valentine’s day does this happen in Japan (more on that at another time). But thanks to some suave marketing, families and friends now participate in the holiday in some way, and there are now a few truly Japanese traditions that have sprung up around Christmas Japan.

Lines of people waiting to pick up KFC orders.

Lines of people waiting to pick up KFC orders.

Most Christmas Cakes are vanilla and strawberry (kinda like strawberry shortcake).  They are most often decorated and festive.

Most Christmas Cakes are vanilla and strawberry (kinda like strawberry shortcake). They are most often decorated and festive.

As for Christmas dinner, somewhere along the way it became a popular notion that Westerners had a Christmas ‘chicken’ feast, instead of turkey or ham. Capitalizing on this idea, KFC advertises a special holiday dinner with a bucket of fried chicken and all the trimmings. Families can pre-order their meals, and on Christmas Eve, you can see lines of people of at the KFC waiting to pick up their buckets.   Another ‘only in Japan’ experience is Christmas Cake. Found in department stores and bakeries right up until Dec 25th, this simple cake vanilla or chocolate cake is heavily covered in cream frosting and decorated with Santas, holly and other miniatures. It’s considered essential for celebrating Christmas. Again, families will pre-order and/or wait in long lines to bring one home.

New Years in Japan

new-year-in-japan_1388113603

New Year (shogatsu or oshogatsu) is the most important holiday in Japan. Most businesses shut down from January 1 to January 3, and families typically gather to spend the days together.  Years are traditionally viewed as completely separate, with each new year providing a fresh start. Consequently, all duties are supposed to be completed by the end of the year, while bonenkai parties (“year forgetting parties”) are held with the purpose of leaving the old year’s worries and troubles behind.  Homes and entrance gates are decorated with ornaments made of pine, bamboo and plum trees, and clothes and houses are cleaned.

Traditional assortment platters served for New Years

Traditional assortment platters served for New Years

Many people love going to shrines on New Years Eve and aiding the ringing of the temple bells at midnight.

Many people love going to shrines on New Years Eve and aiding the ringing of the temple bells at midnight.

On New Year’s eve, toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodles), symbolizing longevity, are served. A more recent custom is watching the music show “kohaku uta gassen”, a highly popular television program featuring many of Japan’s most famous J-pop and enka singers in spectacular performances.  January 1 is a very auspicious day, best started by viewing the new year’s first sunrise (hatsu-hinode), and traditionally believed to be representative for the whole year that has just commenced. Therefore, the day is supposed be full of joy and free of stress and anger, while everything should be clean and no work should be done.

It is a tradition to visit a shrine during New Years. The most popular temples and shrines, such as Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine, attracts several million people during the three days. The most impressive are such visits at the actual turn of the year, when large temple bells are rung at midnight.

If you want a more detailed description of New Years festivities go to

http://japancultures.blogspot.com/2010/11/festive-new-year-in-japan.html

Hope you enjoyed the brief look into holidays in Nihon, and I can’t wait to see what Elder G did over his holidays there.

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