I usually find myself having to debunk a lot of Japanese stereotypes to people. I talked at length about this in my Q is for Quirky post, so if you’d like to see my thoughts on the matter head on over there.
That being said, I think we are all in agreement that the idea that Japan as a collective whole works too darn much is true. But that blanket statement doesn’t paint the whole picture – it makes it sound as if Japanese folk don’t take holidays. And yet the simple fact of the matter is that Japan has a huge number of public holidays – sixteen of them, in fact. Compare that to only eight in the UK, nine in Australia and ten in the USA. In fact only India, Argentina and Hong Kong are ahead of the Japanese in this regard.
Public Holidays are called ‘Kokumin no Kyuujitsu’ (国民の祝日), literally ‘Citizen’s celebration days’, and are scattered throughout the whole year. With the latest addition of Mountain Day (山の日, ‘yama no hi’) to the calendar in August 2016, June is now the only month in the Japanese year without a public holiday. Let’s list them, shall we?
I won’t go into detail about each and every holiday’s history and meaning here, but what is fascinating is that there’s no holiday’ based around religion. Even for countries which, in this modern age, are quite secular, holidays which have a rooting in religion such as Christmas, Easter and Passover are common. Not so in Japan. A possible reason is because the modern calendar of Japanese public holidays was established in 1948 via the Public Holiday Law, superseding the old calendar based around the Chinese one. If we think of Japan’s situation at that time, it’s easy to see why they would be keen on divorcing themselves from the past and looking to the future.
Another thing to note is that this is the public holiday calendar for 2016: it changes every year. Of course, things like the equinoxes shift from year to year, but another interesting quirk of the public holiday system in Japan is, when a holiday falls on a Sunday, the following Monday shall become the ‘substitute’ holiday instead. This is then called a ‘furikae kyuujitsu’ (振替休日), literally a transfer holiday. Also, should a day fall between two public holidays then the day inbetween shall magically transform into a day off unto itself. May 4th used to be like this constantly, as May 3rd and 5th were actual holidays, until the 4th became it’s own bonafide holiday in 1989. This created the string of holidays in late April and early May which are affectionately known as ‘Golden Week’, when the whole country goes on holiday. And once every five years or so, the days land in such a way that holidays line up perfectly in September too, creating a string of five days off it you count the weekend. This is called ‘Silver Week’, and the most recent one was in 2015.
It’s a very generous and liberal holiday system, is it not? Now, you might be thinking it doesn’t fit in with Japan’s image of being a workaholic nation. And you’re right. And that’s precisely why this great spread of public holidays exist and continues to grow to this day (Mountain Day is a brand new holiday starting in 2016). To encourage the people to take a day off and enjoy themselves! Sure, Japanese people get paid leave just like the rest of us, and the number of days they get are just as much if not more than the rest of the working world. The problem is they never use them, for reasons far too complex to explain here. The public holidays exist both as a way to prise office workers away from their desks and out into the sunshine, as well as a handle on which to maybe add some of those paid holidays. If, for example, a public holiday falls on a Thursday, one might feel less guilty for taking the Friday off as paid leave and making it a four-day weekend.
The public holiday calendar in Japan is genuinely a wonderful thing and serves an important purpose for the people and the economy. Moreover, even for the most overworked and stressed salaryman, the knowledge that next public holiday is never far away can be a great comfort.