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Things Japanese/Festivals


Festivals. The holidays observed officially are:

Jan. 1, 3, 5.—New Year.

Jan. 30.—Death of Kōmei Tennō, the late Mikado, A. D. 1867.

Feb. 11.—Accession of Jimmu Tennō, the first Mikado, B.C. 660.[1] Promulgation of the Constitution, A. D. 1889.

March 20 (or 21).—Spring festival of the Imperial ancestors,—an adaptation of the Buddhist Higan, or Equinoctial festival of the dead, who are supposed to cross the ocean of existence and reach the other (hi) shore (gan), that is, Nirvana.

April 3.—Death of Jimmu Tennō.

Sept. 23 (or 24).—Autumn festival of the Imperial ancestors.

Oct. 17.—Offering of first-fruits to the Shintō gods.

Nov. 3.—Birthday of the reigning Emperor.

Nov. 23.—The Emperor tastes the first-fruits offered to his ancestors.

The observance of most of these holidays is as modern as the flags that are flown and the salutes that are fired in their honour. The occasions of them may serve as a measure of the all-engrossing importance of the Imperial House since the revolution. There is another set of holidays of more ancient institution, which, though perhaps less observed year by year, still live on in the thoughts and usages of the people, and especially in their dinners, as the defeat of the Spanish Armada does in our English Michaelmas goose. The chief dates are as follows, and it is most convenient to begin the enumeration, more Japonico, at the end:—

Dec. 13.—This day is called Koto-hajime, that is, "the be ginning of things," because such preparations for New Year as house-cleaning, decorating, and the pounding of rice for takes (mochi), are then taken in hand. People eat o koto-jiru on this day, a kind of stew whose ingredients are generally red beans, potatoes, mushrooms, sliced fish, and a root called konnyaku. Presents of money are made to servants by their masters at this time of year. Both the season in question and the presents then given are termed o seibo.

Dec. 22.—The winter solstice (tōji). Doctors then worship the Chinese Esculapius.

Jan. 1-3.—Termed the San-ga-nichi, or "three days" of New Year, when the people eat a stew called zōni. In Tōkyō this stew consists of rice-cakes, and greens boiled in fish gravy. More fuss is made about the New Year in China and Japan than in any Western country. On the last night of the old year no one goes to bed, and bells are rung, and on New Year's morning the usual sweeping and dusting of rooms is pretermitted, doubtless in order to avoid sweeping away good luck. Gateways are decorated at New Year time with pine-branches, straw ropes, oranges, and a lobster (the latter symbolising old age because of its crooked back), and presents are given called o toshi-dama.

Jan. 7.—This day is termed Nana-kusa, or the Seven Herbs, because in early times the Court and people used then to go out to pluck parsley and six other edible herbs,—a custom to which the poets make frequent allusion. Rice-gruel, or congee flavoured with greens, is the appropriate dish. (About the 9th January, the people resume their ordinary work).

Jan. 15-16.—The end of the New Year holidays. The 16th is the (Hōkō-nin no Yabu-iri), or Prentices' Holiday Home. Rice-gruel mixed with red beans is eaten.

Jan. 20.—Kura-biraki, that is, the day on which godowns are first opened. This is, however, more a name than a fact. Zōni is the dish of the day.

Setsubun is the name of a movable feast occurring sometimes late in January, sometimes early in February, on the eve of the first day of spring, Old Calendar. Beans are scattered about the house on the evening of this day in ordar to scare away demons, and of these beans each person present eats one more than the number of the years of his age.

N.B. Azuki-meshi, that is, rice mixed with red beans, is eaten on the 1st, 15th, and 28th of each month, these being the so-called san-jitsu, or "three days." On the 30th, people eat buckwheat vermicelli (misoka-soba.)

The First Day of the Horse (Hatsu-uma) in February, consequently a movable feast. This day is sacred to the Fox-Goddess Inari. For the little that is known of this deity, see Murray's Handbook to Japan, 7th edit., pp. 49 and 336.

March 3.—The Girls' Festival (Jōmi no Sekku), when every town is decked out with dolls. It is also called Hina Matsuri, that is, the Feast of Dolls. A sweet drink called shiro-zake is partaken of on this day.

March 17.—This and the next six days are the already mentioned great Buddhist equinoctial festival of Higan. On the actual day of the equinox, the sun is believed to whirl round and round at sunset.

April 8.—Buddha's Birthday. Images of the infant Buddha (Tanjō-Shaka) are set up in the temples for worshippers to pour liquorice tea (ama-cha) over with a ladle. This tea is then bought, and either partaken of at home in order to kill the worms that cause various internal diseases, or placed near the pillars of the house to prevent ants and other insects from entering.

May 5.—The Boys Festival (Tango no Sekku), when such warlike toys as bows and arrows are sold, and gigantic paper fishes are flown from the houses, as explained on p. 93. Except New Year, this is of all Japanese festivals the one whose outward signs are most effective.

June 22.—Geshi, or the summer solstice.

July 7.—Tanabala. The idea of this festival is most poetical. See last paragraph of the Article on Sun, Moon and Stars.

July 13-16.—This is the great Buddhist festival of Bon, which is often termed by foreigners the Feast of Lanterns, but might better be rendered as All Souls Day. The spirits of dead ancestors then visit the altar sacred to them in each household, and special offerings of food are made to them. The living restrict themselves to maigre dishes as far as possible. The ceremony of "opening the river" (kawa-biraki), as it is called, generally takes place in Tōkyō about this time. The spectacle is a delightful one. Half the town goes out on the River Sumida in boats gaily decked with lanterns, while fireworks and music add to the gaiety of the evening. The rural population of most parts of the empire celebrate the festival by a dance known as Bon-odori (see p. 113). It is usual for masters to fee their servants at the Bon season. This should be done not later than the 13th.

July 16.— A second Prentices' Holiday.

The Doyō nō Iri, or "First of the Dog-days," and the Doyō Saburō, or "Third Dog-day," are kept by the eating of peculiar cakes. The Third Dog-day is considered by the peasantry a turning-point in the life of the crops. Eels are eaten on any day of the Bull (Doyō no Ushi) that may occur during this period of greatest heat.

Sept. 9.—The Chōyō no Sekku, a holiday whose appropriate dish is rice mixed with chestnuts.

Sept. 20th.—The autumn equinox.

Oct. 20th.—The festival of Ebisu-kō, so called after one of the Gods of Luck, the only one of all the eight million deities to remain at large during October, which is called the "godless month" (Kami-na-zuki), because all the other gods then desert their proper shrines, and go off to the great temple of Izumo. The reason for Ebisu's not accompanying them is that, being deaf, he does not hear their summons. On this day tradesmen sell off their surplus stock, and give entertainments to their customers, correspondents, etc., as an amends—so it is haltjocularly said—for cheating them during the rest of the twelve month. At present, when all such antique customs are falling into desuetude, the 2oth October has come to be regarded rather as a day for what are called konshinkwai—social gatherings, that is, of the members of a guild, political coterie, learned society, and so forth.

November has several Shintō festivals. The most notable of these, held in honour of the Goddess of the Kitchen-range (Hellsui no Kami), and termed Fuigo Matsuri, or the Feast of Bellows, takes place on the 8th. Fires are then also lighted in honour of Inari and other deities in the courts of Shintō temples,—the reason, so far as Inari is concerned, being the assistance rendered by that deity to the famous swordsmith Kokaji, for whom she blew the bellows while he was forging a sword for an ancient Mikado.

Nov. 15.—This is the day on which children who have reached the age of three are supposed to leave off having their heads shaved. It is accordingly called Kami-oki, that is, "hair-leaving," but corresponds to no actual reality, at least in modern times. The Kazuki-zome, or, "first veiling" of girls aged five, and the Hakama-gi, or "first trowsering" of boys aged five, formerly took place on the same day; but these also are now empty names.

Dec. 8.—The Hari no Kuyō, a festival at which women rest from the constant use of the needle by entertaining the other members of the household,—they, and not the men, directing matters for the nonce.

Thus ends the year. The adoption of the European calendar in 1873 tended to disorganise the old Japanese round of festivals; for with New Year coming five or six weeks earlier than formerly, the association of each holiday with a special season was destroyed. How go out and search for spring herbs on the yth January, when winter weather is just beginning, instead of showing signs of drawing to an end? Confronted with this difficulty, usage has vacillated. For the most part the old date has been retained, notwithstanding the change thus caused in the actual day. To take the instance just alluded to, the 7th of the 1st moon, which would formerly have fallen somewhere about the middle or end of February, is retained as the 7th January. In other cases the actual day is retained, irrespective of the date to which it may correspond in the new calendar; but this entails a fresh calculation every year, the old calendar having been lunar and irregular in several respects, not simply a fixed number of days behind ours, as, for instance, the Russian calendar is. A third plan has been to strike an average, making the date of each festival exactly one month later than formerly, though the actual day becomes about a fortnight earlier. Thus the festival of the 7th day of the 7th moon, Old Style, is in some places celebrated on the present 7th August, though really falling somewhere about the 2Oth August, if the calculation be properly worked out. Energetic holidaymakers will even celebrate the same festival twice, first according to the new calendar and then according to the old, so as to be sure of keeping on good terms with the invisible powers that be. Altogether, there is great confusion and discrepancy of usage, each locality being a law unto itself.

The list given above does not of course pretend to be exhaustive. There are local as well as general festivals, and these local festivals have great importance in their special localities. Such are the Gion festival at Kyōtō, and the Sannō and Kanda festivals at Tōkyō. Gion and Sanno take place in the middle of July, Kanda in mid-September. All three are distinguished by processions, of which the chief feature is a train of triumphal or rather mythological cars, called dashi by the Tōkyō people, yama or hoko by the people of Kyōto. These cars have recently been reduced in height, because they were found to interfere with the telegraph, telephone, and electric light wires that now spread their web over the great cities.

Book recommended. Astrologia Giapponnese, by Antelmo Severini, gives details that may interest the student of folk-lore and superstitions, if he can read Italian. We know of nothing on the subject in English.

  1. This date is not to be accepted seriously; see Article on History.