Kanji Clinic #79, The Japan Times, April 18, 2006
"Kanji reveal the origins of our Golden Week holidays"

Japan’s pastel pink cherry blossoms have fallen off their branches and made way for delicate new foliage called 新緑 (shinryoku, new-green), signaling that Golden Week is just around the corner.

ゴールデンウィーク (Golden Week) consists of four national holidays which annually fall within a seven-day stretch in late April and early May. The first, みどりの日 (midori no hi, Greenery Day), on April 29, is a relatively new addition to the calendar. Established in 1989, the year of the death of the Showa (昭和, glorious-peace) Emperor, the day memorializes his love of nature, particularly plants. Prior to that, his birthday (天皇誕生日, tennou tanjoubi, Emperor’s Birthday) had been celebrated on this day. For some reason, the powers that be behind みどりの日 opted to forego the use of 緑 (midori, green), a kanji known even to Japanese third-graders, and transcribed “midori” in hiragana instead.

Beginning next year, April 29 will be renamed 昭和の日 (showa no hi, Showa Day), みどりの日will be moved to May 4 and the national holiday with the uninspiring name 国民の休日 (kokumin no kyuujitsu, Citizen’s Holiday, May 4) will be axed.

憲法記念日 (kenpou kinenbi, Constitution Memorial Day, May 3) is the second national holiday during Golden Week and memorializes the establishment of Japan’s post-World War II constitution on May 3, 1947. The compound 憲法 (kenpou) is comprised of kanji representing “constitution” and “law,” and 記念日(kinenbi, remember-bear in mind-day) is widely used in other compounds, such as 結婚記念日 (kekkon kinenbi, wedding anniversary).

Last in the Golden Week lineup is こどもの日, (kodomo no hi, Children’s Day, May 5). This holiday is also written minus a couple of commonly used kanji, 子供 (kodomo, children). Here the use of hiragana, the first writing system learned by Japanese school children, renders こどもの日 more reader-friendly to the little folks it honors.

こどもの日was established in 1948, when Japan’s national holiday system was given an overhaul, and is a bit of a misnomer in that it actually marks the traditional Japanese celebration for boys known as 端午の節句 (tango no sekku, Boys’ Festival). 端 (tan) means “edge,” (i.e., the start of) and 午 (go, also pronounced uma) represents the Horse, the seventh sign of the Oriental zodiac, which corresponds to the month of May on the lunar calendar. 節句 (sekku, season-phrase) means “seasonal festival.”

The origins of Boys’ Festival can be traced to ancient China, where May 5 was viewed as an auspicious day for performing ceremonies to expel evil spirits. In the modern Japanese incarnation of 端午の節句, parents pray for the health and future success of their sons by hanging brightly colored carp streamers, symbolizing fortitude, on poles outside their homes.

Though not a national holiday, a day in honor of daughters, 桃の節句 (momo no sekku, peach seasonal festival), is celebrated on March 3. Peach blossoms, traditionally used in Japan as a decoration to protect young girls from sickness and evil spirits, are displayed in the homes of families with daughters, along with a pricey array of Japanese dolls. 桃の節句 is also called ひな祭り(hinamatsuri, Dolls’ Festival).

Once Golden Week is over and the carp streamers have been folded away, Japan’s workers and students face a long dry spell without holidays. 海の日 (umi no hi, Ocean Day), doesn’t roll round until the third Monday in July. 海の日was originally celebrated on July 20, commemorating the return, on that date in 1876, of the Meiji Emperor from a boat trip to Hokkaido, but ハッピーマンデー (Happy Monday, i.e., a three-day weekend) reforms in 2003 insured that it would always fall on a Monday.

Although it is not an official national holiday, many Japanese workers are given time off during the three-day お盆 (obon) period in mid-August, making it one of Japan's major holiday periods. According to Buddhist belief, the spirits of the dead return to this world during お盆in order to visit their relatives. The Japanese word お盆 is taken from the Sanskrit “urabon,” with the kanji meaning “tray” (盆, pronounced “bon”) borrowed to represent it phonetically.

Coming to grips with the kanji representing Japan’s spring and summer holidays should give learners a better appreciation of why each of these days means much more than simply “a day off from work.”

Home Previous Columns Book Reviews Other Articles Reader Response Links