Be Grateful for Golden Week

Print your tickets! Pack your bags! The most celebrated week of the year (at least in Japan) is here: Golden Week! By now you’ve heard of the series of national holidays clustered at the beginning of May. Perhaps it was a fellow ALT or a friendly JTE who first made you aware of this spectacular feat in scheduling. Some of us will embrace Golden Week as a time to travel while others may spend the extra time sleeping late or enjoying local festivities.

No matter how you choose to express your merriment, it’s interesting to consider the meaning behind Golden Week and the significance of the individual days. Surprisingly, the term “Golden Week” was actually coined by the movie industry, which experiences its highest sales of the year during this time period. Massive ad campaigns are expected for new releases and theaters will likely be crowded. Commercialism aside, the holidays themselves are important reflections of Japanese heritage and history. Read on to learn more about the symbolism and intended meaning behind this week of gold.

Showa Day 昭和の日 Shōwa no Hi  [Tuesday April 29th 2014]

Japanese custom dictates that the reigning emperor’s birthday will be celebrated as a public holiday. Former Emperor Hirohito (whose posthumous name is Emperor Showa) was born on April 29th, 1901. During his reign, from December 25th, 1926 through January 7th, 1989, this date was a recognized as a national day of rest. After his death, April 29th became Greenery Day, officially promoted as a day to celebrate nature. Some sources (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4543461.stm) claim that Greenery Day was intended as an implicit nod to the former monarch, who loved plants, while deliberately removing the wartime emperor’s name from the holiday. Greenery Day was moved to May 4th in 2007. At that time, April 29th was re-instated as Showa Day. Rather than celebrating the life and times of the former emperor, Showa Day is described as a time for people to reflect on the hardships and achievements of Japanese society during Emperor Showa’s reign, a time period now known as the Showa Period. The current emperor’s birthday is December 23, which is marked as a national holiday (天皇誕生日 Tennō Tanjōbi).

Constitution Memorial Day 憲法記念日 Kenpō Kinenbi [Saturday May 3rd 2014]

On May 3rd, 1947, the Constitution of Japan became the supreme law of the nation. This document establishes Japan as a democratic society and limits the powers of the emperor to that of a symbolic figure head. Modeled after American and British federal documents, the Constitution of Japan also contains the controversial Article 9 which, summarized and simplified, states that Japan may never declare war nor maintain a domestic military capable of waging war. On this day, Japanese people are encouraged to reflect on democracy and the Japanese government system. For more information about Article 9 and it’s relevancy in current events, see Taylor M Wettach’s February article “Active Pacifism.”


Greenery Day みどりの日 Midori no Hi [Sunday May 4th 2014]

It’s not surprising that Japan would designate a national holiday to honor nature and all its greenery. Despite its relevance, Greenery Day’s celebrations have been bumped around the calendar several times. The first Greenery Day celebration began in 1989 on April 29th (former Emperor Showa’s birthday). At the same time, May 4th was recognized as a de facto holiday because it fell between two national holidays. It wasn’t until 2007 that April 29th was officially recognized as Showa Day and Greenery Day was rescheduled to May 4th. Also known as Arbor Day, the holiday focuses on nature and promoting care and concern for the earth. The National Land Afforestation Promotion Organization hosts a festival every year to raise money for its conservation work. According to my JTEs, the festival is held in a different prefecture each year and the Emperor and Empress will make an appearance to plant a tree. However, the location is a secret until the day of the event. Many municipalities across the country host tree planting events.

This year, May 4th falls on a Sunday which means the day of rest is automatically moved to the following Monday. But wait – Monday May 5th is another national holiday! Therefore, Greenery Day will be observed on Tuesday, May 6th, extending our weekend by an additional day!

Children’s Day こどもの日 Kodomo no Hi [May 5th 2014]

In 1948 the Japanese government changed the symbolism of this holiday to celebrate lives of all children. Although it’s labeled as a gender-neutral “children’s” day, this holiday is for the boys. Many people still recognize Children’s Day as Tango no Sekku or Boy’s Day (likewise, Girl’s Day is still linked to Hinamatsuri on March 3rd). Parents express their love by hanging paper carp lanterns, displaying samurai dolls, and praying for the future happiness and success of their sons. The carp’s prominence comes from the Chinese teaching that a carp that swims upstream will turn into a dragon. The paper carps blow in the wind, as though they are swimming against the current. Local organizations typically host fun activities for children on these days.


So there you have it – Golden Week is not simply an extended weekend for traveling (or sleeping) but also a series of important historical and cultural celebrations about Japan’s symbolic land and beautiful culture.

Bonus: If you’re brave enough to venture north to Tokyo during Golden Week, visit Meiji Shrine from April 29th – May 3rd for the Spring Grand Festival, Golden Week’s biggest festival: http://www.gotokyo.org/en/kanko/shibuya/event/meijijinguharu.html.





Claire Bronchuk

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