Holidays Unique to Japan:
Seijin no Hi (Coming of Age Day)
While you can vote, gamble and smoke at age 18 and drink at 21, the age of adulthood at which a person can do all of these things in Japan is 20.
On the second Monday in January, everyone across the nation who turned or will turn 20 in the current school year (which begins in April and ends the next March in Japan) is invited to commemorate their adulthood by attending celebrations at local city offices and dressing up formally, women in furisode (a formal kimono for unmarried women with long sleeves) and men in dark kimono with hakama (waist-high oversized trousers).
Afterward, these new adults often go out drinking with one another publicly for the first time. (Even those still-19-year-olds who turn 20 after Seijin no Hi but before the end of the school year in March are considered legally adults at this time.)
Hina Matsuri (Doll’s Festival, a.k.a. “Girls’ Day”)
Every March 3rd, families with young daughters arrange a display of ornamental dolls (hina-ningyou) among peach blossoms to wish their daughters good fortune. The holiday has it origins in the ancient belief that dolls have the power to house evil spirits and keep them from haunting their daughters.
All that’s required for the festival are two dolls, an odairi-sama (emperor) and an ohina-sama (empress), but these doll sets can be lavish and displayed on seven-tiered red platforms. The most extensive sets have as many as fifteen dolls (all attendants of and advisors to the imperial couple) and vast amounts of doll furniture and accessories.
Families drink amazake (non-alcoholic fermented rice sake) and eat arare (crackers with soy sauce) and chirashi-zushi (raw fish served on a large bowl of vinegared rice) to celebrate the day.
Kodomo no Hi (Children’s Day, a.k.a. “Boys’ Day”)
One of the seven national holidays that occur on Golden Week (the first week of May), an entire week most Japanese people have off from school and work, Children’s Day occurs May 5th and was originally a festival intended solely to celebrate young sons.
Now, all children are celebrated, as well as the mothers who raise them. Families fly one koinobori (carp-shaped flag) per son or child and display a special Kintarou (a legendary boy folk hero) doll with a kabuto (military samurai helmet) in honor of a strong, healthy son or child.
Families eat kashiwa (oak)-leaf-wrapped mochi (glutinous rice cakes) and chimaki (sweet rice paste with a bamboo or iris leaf wrapping) during the festivities.
Holidays Celebrated Uniquely in Japan:
Shougatsu (New Year)
You may think of the Times Square ball, “Auld Lang Syne,” champagne glasses, and cheap party favors as you count down until midnight at the start of a new year, but in Japan, the New Year is the most important holiday and a time for the Japanese to leave last year’s troubles behind and pray for the new year’s good fortune.
The Japanese celebrate the New Year over a period of days, preparing a special meal called the osechi-ryouri, which includes foods such as ozouni soup (miso, seaweed, mochi rice cakes, fish cakes, burdock root, mashed sweet potatoes, and black soybeans) thought to cleanse a person and help them forget last year’s troubles.
Children in Japan look forward to the New Year more than they do Christmas, as the New Year is when they receive otoshidama, a gift of money to spend as they wish in a brightly-colored envelope, from their parents and other relatives.
This is the busiest time for the post office, as it is customary for Japanese to send nengajou, specially-decorated postcards, to all of their family, friends, and acquaintances wishing them a happy new year (“akemashite omedetou gozaimasu“). The post office even holds onto any of these postcards received before the end of the year and has delivery service all day January 1st to deliver only these postcards!
The New Year also means hatsumoude (the first trip of the year to a local Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple), even if you’re not particularly religious. The shrines are so crowded on the first three days (as many as 3.45 million people visited one shrine one year!) that people can barely move and must wait for hours for their turns to pray at the shrine for good fortune.
Japanese often use the opportunity to dress formally in traditional kimono and usually buy omikuji, a very-detailed written fortune telling them whether they’ll have good, average, or bad luck for the year. However, even those saddled with bad luck have a chance to ward away the misfortune by tying their bad luck fortune to a tree on the shrine grounds!
Kurisumasu Ibu (Christmas Eve)
Even non-Christian Japanese tend to celebrate Christmas, but they don’t get the day off from school or work. They also only celebrate the occasion on Christmas Eve, by playing games with groups of friends and ordering buckets of fried chicken and multi-layer sponge cakes with strawberries and whipped cream called “Christmas Cakes” for the party.
However, Christmas Eve is actually mostly viewed as a “lovers’ holiday.” Couples go on special dates around town on Christmas Eve and exchange small gifts. Many young adult Japanese people are embarrassed to not have a date for Christmas Eve.
Barentain Dee (Valentine’s Day)
On February 14th, women across Japan mold and decorate baker’s chocolate into “hand-made” chocolates to give to practically every man they know. Strange as it seems, it’s socially expected! Women give hand-made (or bought) chocolate to their fathers, brothers, male classmates, and male co-workers.
However, most of these are giri-choko (obligation chocolates), inexpensive and plain chocolates just to let the men know they appreciate them. To her husband or boyfriend—or to a crush to whom she wishes to confess—a woman gives honmei-choko (true love chocolates), hand-made chocolate she spent a lot of effort making.
If this seems sexist and unfair, Japan has its own unique holiday that’s the yin to Valentine’s Day’s yang. March 14th is Howaito Dee (White Day), a day in which men in Japan are socially expected to give something white to all the women who gave them chocolates on Valentine’s Day.
Common gifts include jewelry, cookies, marshmallows, white candies, and white chocolate, and the expense of the gift is given according to the effort the woman put into making or selecting the man’s chocolate.
White Day is also the day that any crush who was given honmei-choko is expected to answer the woman’s feelings by giving her an inexpensive (he doesn’t return her feelings) or expensive (he returns her feelings) gift! Traditionally, women wait a month for this reply!