More than any other place I’ve ever lived, I think Japan is obsessed with holidays.
It starts with the seasons.
Everyone at this point has heard some Japanese person prattling on about how Japan is the only country in the world with four seasons. It’s not a majority of Japanese people, by any means. But certainly some think that every other country is a variation of Russia (Winter, and Slightly-less Winter) or Papua New Guinea (Summer, and Does It Feel Slightly Less Warm To You, No, I Don’t Think So).
To those of us who came from countries with four seasons (with Four Seasons to boot!), it can feel a little patronizing or condescending to hear that your experience is make-believe. I mean, not nearly as much as someone denying someone’s racial experience is a lie, but at least a little painful.
Part of it is always going to be about national identity. “What makes you Japanese?” The truest answer is your shared experience with others in your daily life. Your values and beliefs, your food and clothing, and your habits and mannerisms. But people always want to point to something more obvious: Something you can see.
And the truth is, there is some truth to the story of Japan being the only place with four seasons. Because, to some degree, they’re the only place that celebrates them in such a full capacity.
Every season, the food and clothes change almost instantly. Along with the constantly changing “limited time” menus (which are super-limited in Japan (try getting a Starbucks Sakura-flavored anything at this point)), many ingredients are only cooked in certain seasons. Like takenoko in spring and satoimo in autumn. And then for clothing, I had someone point out, “these are spring clothes, those are for summer…” I wasn’t sure what made them different, but the color seemed to matter more than the texture and design.
And then there’s business clothes. For salarymen, it’s a suit. Except in summer, where “cool biz” is now a thing and the t-shirt is fine. Unless there’s a meeting. So, you might as well wear a suit all the time since meetings are pretty much constant. For students, their summer uniform is different than their winter uniform in the same way. Short sleeves. No jacket.
It extends to activities like hanami (spring) and fireworks (summer). Sure, you can go out and drink under some trees, but everyone doing it en masse on happens in spring with the cherry blossom trees blooming. And nobody has fireworks in the winter. That’s just crazy.
In Japanese, it’s 決まっている. Decided. That’s just the way things are.
This reverence towards the seasons extends in some part to the holidays.
In all cultures, holidays are important cultural markers. In America, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years consistently grant time off. And yet, only 21% of people celebrate Memorial Day and 50% of people celebrate Labor Day. Christmas and Thanksgiving have pretty equal amounts of people who get the day off and people who celebrate it.
Rarely have I seen in America the request to the government to add more holidays, however. Or the government’s proactive decision to add one. Occasionally outcry that one holiday is granted time off but another isn’t, but almost never the attempt to bring more days into public holidays.
In Japan, the adding of holidays is practically a national pastime.
Last year, Mountain Day (山の日) was added on August 11th as a national holiday under the pretense of “appreciating mountains and their blessings”. But it was largely pushed for because August was one month with no holidays and that for many Japanese people, it was terrible. A month without holidays! Say it ain’t so! Now we have it and August is saved; workers can take a day off in August!
Hopefully. As long as their boss also does.
In any case, holidays are a big deal. Like Christmas music on the radio, you can see koi-nobori all over in the weeks leading up to and after Children’s Day (こどもの日, May 5th, today!).
Other holidays like Culture Day (文化の日) and Coming-of-Age Day (成人の日) usually have some parade or ceremony happening on that day.
Like the seasons, holidays are a big deal. Observed by what seems like everyone. Time off. Pride taken in them. And none more so than the collection of holidays known as…
Which, I want to point out, isn’t even a week. Although, to be fair, takes place over the course of 7 days in total.
Starting with Showa Day (昭和の日, April 29th), Golden Week continues with Constitution Memorial Day (憲法記念日, May 3rd), Greenery Day (みどりの日, May 4th), and ends with Children’s Day on May 5th.
Unfortunately for this year, Showa Day happened on a Saturday, which means nobody could take it off. That’s right! If it happened on a Sunday, Monday would be taken off. But if it’s on Saturday, no such luck. It’s decided.
So Golden Week was a little short this year. In addition to the lack of Showa Day, some people had to work today. Not a lot, but enough (see: the missus).
But it always feels short. You always need to take some kind of vacation time to extend the holiday to a full week. And even if you do, hotels and trains and planes are expensive and probably booked, making travel a real pain. There’s no wiggle room, like there is with Winter Breaks in America. Gotta work next Monday! Even as Japan wants people to travel and boost the economy, there is growing awareness that pushing everyone to act at the same small slice of time can be problematic. At the most benign, news agencies are warning people that traffic will be pretty bad tonight.
I think Golden Week will always feel short for those that hate their jobs. There’s a spike in people quitting their jobs after Golden Week is over. Freedom tasted and all that.
On the other hand, for the first time since coming to Japan in 2013, I didn’t notice Golden Week. In fact, I’ve been working the past few days and it’s felt great! If this is how vacations normally go, I think I’m fine with that.
Because the truth is, there’s no such thing as vacation. Maybe there are breaks from work, true. Days you don’t need to come in. But time itself doesn’t stop because you do. The world doesn’t wait for you to act.
All time is time spent.
Remember that, as the seasons change. As the cherry blossom petals fall and the fireflies come out and the leaves change color and the snow blankets the land. Be aware.