A familiar phrase?

Beginning on April 29th, the Japanese gear up for their busiest time of the year. A period known as Golden Week in Japan.

It is arguably Japan’s most awaited time of the year, but it is an expression that may also be somewhat familiar to some here in the UK (mostly through online marketplaces). I’m here to answer the question “what is Japan’s Golden Week all about?”

Let’s get right into it.

What is Golden Week in Japan?

It’s a time of the year that corresponds to a string of public holidays in Japan, all of which emerged during the rule of Emperor Shōwa (The Shōwa era). Running from April 29th through until May 5th, it is Japan’s longest run of public holidays; however, the concept of a week-long period of celebration was never actually intended, instead the dates coincidentally fell into place.  

The term ‘Golden Week’ then came about through another means.

It was noted by a Japanese film producer that the most amount of movie tickets were sold during the period between the end of April and the beginning of May. This prompted him to assign the term ‘Golden Week’ to this period of the year.

As with many public holidays around the world, many Japanese businesses and public buildings close for the day. This results in an increase to many Japanese people travelling to holiday spots, both domestically and internationally; Spending time outdoors; and taking part in other leisure activities instead. Consequently, it’s a time of year where hotels and transport costs are also at their highest point.

There is also the same expression in China however this is a separate occasion altogether.

A Golden Week of public holidays

Golden Week is the term used to describe the period of national holidays; but this — as we learnt — originally referred to the financial effects. What about the commemorative days themselves?

Currently in Japan there are 16 days of national holidays. During Golden Week, there are four days that are either recognised or celebrated. These are:

  • Shōwa Day (April 29th)
  • Constitution Memorial Day (May 3rd)
  • Greenery Day (May 4th)
  • Children’s Day (May 5th)

Despite there only being four days, including the weekend into the mix often creates a full week of celebrations. There is a law in Japan that states: if a day not celebrated as a public holiday, is surrounded either side by public holidays, then that day itself becomes a public holiday. Hence many businesses will close for an entire week.

Let’s take a brief look into each one and uncover what makes them important.

Showa Day

Showa Day is held on the 29th of April every year to commemorate the birth of Emperor Shōwa. (Hirohito being his actual name.)

During his reign, this day was known as the emperor’s birthday which in itself is a national holiday and is customary for the birthdays of all emperors; yet Emperor Hirohito is the only emperor in Japanese history to be given a permanent day of celebration.

The reason for doing so is twofold; One, he was the longest ruling emperor in Japanese history, reigning from 1926 until 1989; two, the Shōwa era (the period named after him) was among the most tumultuous.

Over the 63 years of his reign, he witnessed the increased militarisation of Japan, resulting in: The Japanese invasion of Manchuria (now part of northeast China) in 1931, the second Sino-Japanese war in 1937, and Japan’s entry into the second world war in 1941. He also witnessed the other end of the scale; the end of the empire of Japan following world war two in 1945, and overseeing Japan’s miracle era (the economic recovery) lasting until the early 90’s.

For these reasons Shōwa day is not just a day of recognition but also a day of reflection.

Emperor Showa
Emperor Shōwa/Hirohito
宮内省(Imperial Household Agency), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Constitution Memorial Day

The 3rd of May is the day in which the Japanese constitution came into effect in 1947. This came about from Japan’s surrender of world war two and the following occupation of allied forces.

It’s an important day that symbolises the end of the Japan’s military empire and its shift to a pacifist country. It’s a time that encourages the Japanese to look to its history and take an interest in politics and the countries democracy; to this end, the national Diet (government building) opens to the public for tours and engagement.

This constitution, unamended for 70 years, focus’ on primarily two things: the renunciation of war, and of the emperor’s status of godhood; instead, being defined as “the symbol of the state and the unity of its people”.

Greenery Day

The purpose of Greenery day is simply to appreciate and celebrate nature. It’s a public holiday that doesn’t get as much recognition as most other national holidays; despite this, across Japan many people take the opportunity to seek the outdoors and plant commemorative trees.

Celebrated after Constitution Memorial Day on the 4th of May, Greenery Day has close links to Emperor Hirohito once again.

Hirohito was known to have a love for plants and nature. Following his death in 1989, April 29th became Greenery day, until 2007 when it became Shōwa day. Greenery Day was then moved to the 4th of May.

Children’s Day

The last day of Golden Week is Children’s Day that takes place on the 5th of May. Children’s Day is day in which people wish for, and celebrate, the happiness of children across Japan.

It’s a celebration that goes back several hundreds of years albeit under the name of Boy’s Day; It was the counterpart to Girls Day or Hinamatsuri which takes place on the 3rd of March. In 1948, Boys Day was changed to Children’s Day to include girls as well.

As part of the festivities, a common sighting is Koinobori — Koi carp shaped streamers that represent strength and success. As they fly in the wind, they give the impression of swimming in the air.

Fish shaped banners flying during Golden Week in Japan
Koinobori banners in the wind.
663highland, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

The legacy of Golden week

Golden Week is the time of year that many Japanese people look forward to most, where there’s a chance to take a break from the hectic working schedule they are known for. This in itself may have become the most important aspect in recent years rather than each day’s specific importance.

Yet, it’s a period that sees a hive of activity across the country; not just through travelling but also through contrasting festivals and celebrations that occur on each of the corresponding holidays — mostly on Greenery Day and Children’s Day.

Golden Week then, first and foremost, is a time of enjoyment.