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Saturday, Jan. 3, 2004

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

A primer for Japanese holidays


If you're like me, the one thing you need at the end of a long run of holidays is . . . yet another holiday.

Thus, in Japan we have Coming of Age Day, which follows New Year's like a mint after a heavy meal. Ostensibly this day has been set aside to celebrate the passage of youth into adulthood, but the real celebrants are those folks in desperate need of just one more day as they slowly wean themselves back to work.

It occurs to me that other Japanese holidays could stand a bit of interpretation as well. It's one thing to have a day off. It's another thing to know why. And it is even one thing more to care. Yet, ready or not, here it comes: an inside peek at the real meanings behind Japanese national holidays.

New Year's (Jan. 1): This is the champion of all holidays in Japan, with most businesses shutting down from late December into the first week of January. During this time, most people do little more than lie around and eat. They consume "mikan," rice cakes, mikan and mikan, plus a variety of other festive foods, not to mention mikan. But the key word is "consume," a central concept for every Japanese holiday.

Coming of Age Day (second Monday of January): Another reason for this extra day of rest is so that young girls can get decked out in jazzy kimonos. This, in turn, is to satisfy the hungry camera bug that nests deep in the hearts of most Japanese. Venture out at your own risk; both kimonos and camera flashes can be blinding.

Foundation Day (Feb. 11): Foundation Day commemorates the ascending of the throne of the first Japanese emperor around 667 B.C. So this holiday is nothing but unadulterated Shinto -- which is probably not nearly as fun as adulterated Shinto. Regardless, most Japanese are not so devout, and usually save their enthusiasm for more secular events, such as sales of Valentine's Day chocolates.

Spring Equinox (March 23): The Japanese love equinoxes almost as much they love cemeteries, so they have combined these two passions into one wild holiday. Or rather two holidays. For on this day, people tidy up their family headstones so they can be all spic and span for the next equinox/cemetery day in September.

Green Day (April 29): This is also the birthday of the Emperor Showa, who was not green but rather gray, especially near the end. Green -- in Japanese, the borrowed English word can mean nature -- is so far the only color with its own holiday, though if the economy keeps sinking, red may soon follow.

Constitution Day (May 3): Constitution Day honors -- what else? -- the Japanese Constitution. The document itself may be somewhat controversial, but the day off is beloved by all. This day also marks the second of the Golden Week gauntlet of celebrations -- a string of free days that most people want protected more than the Constitution.

Citizens Day (May 4): Also known as "Between Day," this new holiday came about when the Diet finally noticed that lonely, little space between Constitution Day and Children's Day. The rest of the country is now waiting for the Diet to notice the 75 other lonely, little spaces that fall between Golden Week and the next holiday.

Children's Day (May 5): When you have kids, every day is Children's Day, but May 5 is especially famous for those high-flying banners of Japanese carp that designate the number of children in each household -- or, more traditionally, the number of boys. My own boys, incidentally, will implore me to go fly a kite no matter what the day.

Marine Day (July 20): On Marine Day, Japanese pay homage to that which upholds their island nation. No, not the U.S. Marines, the sea -- and its prodigious bounty. It's sort of "Take a Fish to Lunch Day." Just don't forget the scaler and the lemon.

Respect for the Aged Day (Sept. 15): Respect is cheap, and with so many old-timers now, that's about all Japan can afford. Also note how close this is to the cemetery day. Japanese are nothing if not subtle.

Fall Equinox (Sept. 23): This second equinox/cemetery day is known as "Shubun no Hi" in Japanese, while the first is "Shunbun no Hi." Confused? Perhaps the lawmakers were too, which could be why we ended up with two such holidays.

Sports Day (Oct. 10): Most people think Japanese worship sports 365 days a year, but -- nope -- this is the only official day, added to the calendar after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Culture Day (Nov. 3): Japanese usually spend this day attending school festivals where they stuff themselves with hot dogs on sticks and chocolate-covered bananas. How cultural can you get? This day was also the birthday of the Emperor Meiji, a huge hot dog lover, I'm sure.

Labor Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 23): I have never experienced labor myself, but my wife did twice and seemed thankful only when it was done. Also, on this day I think everyone is supposed to thank me for laboring over these jokes.

The Emperor's Birthday (Dec. 23): Devoid of angels, wise men, shepherds and virgins, this less auspicious of the holiday births at least serves to usher in the Christmas/New Year's season, which means that, yes, once again it is time to eat mikan.

Naturally, Japan has a collection of folk holidays as well. Plus, the Diet has recently established the king of all oxymorons -- Happy Monday -- which yanks certain holidays out of their regular orbits and plants them on Mondays, creating a slate of three-day weekends.

Which shows just how bad we all need that "one more day."

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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