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Japanese Holidays: Five Unique Ones You Should Know About! 

Sophia Wasylinko

Sophia Wasylinko

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A traditional Japanese fan for traditional Japanese holidays.

There are many fascinating Japanese holidays, from large cultural celebrations to more intimate family gatherings. However, while Westerners might be aware of the more significant events and their traditions, they might not be familiar with older holidays that have continued to the present day. Here are five unique Japanese celebrations you should know about! 

Hinamatsuri (March 3) 

Also called Girls’ Day, Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival) is held for girls until they’re ten. It’s famous for the hina dolls collected and displayed at home or in public. There are usually five tiers: the Emperor and Empress, court ladies, musicians, ministers, and other attendants.

A doll display for Hinamatsuri.
Hinamatsuri takes place in March. Image via Shutterstock

The first festivals were held during Heian (794-1185) when families floated straw and paper dolls downriver for purification. Displaying dolls became popularized in the Edo period (1603-1868). The hinakazari (set) was traditionally stored by the day afterward, or it was said the daughters would marry late. Chirashizushi (scattered sushi) is one of several Hinamatsuri foods, along with hishi mochi (diamond mochi) and chi chi dango (beautiful dango). Nagashi-bina (doll-floating) is still performed around Japan.

Tango no Sekku (May 5) 

Next is Tango no Sekku (Boys’ Day) or Kodomo no Hi (Children’s Day). Established around the 7th century, it was initially a purifying festival for women using irises. During the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), it celebrated samurais’ sons. Families displayed armor, kabuto (helmets), swords, and samurai dolls for divine protection. In 1948, the holiday changed to include all children and focus on democracy instead of militarism.

A display at Tango no Sekku.
Tango no Sekku is also known as Children’s Day. Image via Shutterstock

On Tango no Sekku, people hang koinobori (carp streamers) outside homes and government buildings for perseverance, good luck, and fortune. Children eat kashiwa mochi (mochi wrapped in oak leaves) and chimaki (dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves). Miniature samurai displays still exist; some people decorate and bathe with irises to drive away evil spirits.

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Shichi Go San (Nov 15) 

Named after the Japanese words for seven, five, and three, Shichi Go San focuses on girls aged three and seven and boys aged five (sometimes three). According to Japanese numerology, odd numbers are lucky. Shichi Go San originated in the Heian period to celebrate nobles’ children passing into middle childhood, or the Muromachi period (1336-1573), to celebrate children reaching their third birthday due to the high infant mortality rate. 

A family taking pictures for Shichi Go San.
Shichi-Go-San celebrates children who are three, five, and seven years old. Image via Shutterstock

During the ceremony, boys and girls dress in kimonos, and boys wear hakama (breeches worn from five years old). In the past, they wore shaved heads until the age of three. Families visit shrines and take pictures afterward. Children also receive chitose-ame (thousand-year candy), red-and-white candy in a bag decorated with the crane and turtle, for longevity and luck.

Seijin Shiki (second Monday of January) 

Seijin no Hi (Coming of Age Day) commemorates people who turned 20 in the past year with seijin shiki (coming of age ceremonies). While Japan’s age of majority is now 18, the legal age for adult activities such as drinking is still 20.

20-year-ol women dressed up in kimono for Seijin Shiki, one of many Japanese holidays .
Seijin no Hi is in January. Image via Shutterstock

Seijin no Hi originated in the Nara period (710-794), recognizing aristocrats’ adulthood with new clothes and hairstyles. Genpuku (traditional coming-of-age ceremonies) were held for both genders but emphasized males. The age of majority later increased, and Seijin no Hi became an official holiday in 1948, initially on January 15. It changed to the second Monday of January in 2000. 

Women wear furisode (long-sleeved kimonos) with furry stoles, and men wear kimonos with hakama or Western-style suits. The ceremonies occur at gymnasiums or public centers; afterward, there are visits to shrines, restaurants, or izakayas. 

Kanreki 

Combining the Japanese words for “return” and “calendar,” Kanreki (60th birthday) refers to the zodiac cycle restarting every 60 years, signifying rebirth and new beginnings. People also celebrate Kanreki in China, Korea, and Hawaii. This is equivalent to a jubilee celebration in the West.

A family gahtering around an elderly man for his 60th birthday, or kanreki. This is one of many Japanese celebrations.
Kanreki celebrates someone’s 60th birthday. Image via Shutterstock

This holiday came to Japan from China during the Nara period. Only the upper classes celebrated it when life expectancy was closer to 50. It has now grown to over 80 years, with Japanese people still working or near retirement at 60. 

Traditionally, the celebrant dresses as aka-chan (“red one”), sitting at the head of the table on a zabuton (red cushion). Red represents infants, festivity, and good luck. The meal includes seikhan (rice with red azuki beans), tai (red seabream), and kasane mochi (stacked mochi). Guests receive red clothing, such as a silk scarf, shirt, or tie.

Why are these unusual Japanese holidays important? 

These unusual Japanese holidays recognize special milestones, such as entering adulthood or senior years. Besides marking a new calendar date, they remind people of their community obligations and roles. Moreover, the events on this list also offer different perspectives on life stages, mainly since they were first celebrated when the life expectancy was lower. While Tango no Sekku and Seijin no Hi are enjoyable, they’re also a reminder to not take time and good health for granted. 

A bunch of people in kimono.
Have you ever celebrated these Japanese holidays before? Image via Shutterstock

Finally, the celebrations highlighted here have many unique traditions, from the Hinamatsuri and Tango no Sekku displays to the food eaten on Shichi Go San and Kanreki. Knowing their history and meaning ensures that people cherish and remember them fondly. Which of these Japanese holidays is your favorite? Are there others we should have included? Tell us in the comments below.

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