Beyond “Yasumi”: The Sad Disappearance of Silver Week Explained

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If it feels like an extra holiday and being able to leave a few hours early on Premium Friday constitute enough vacation time for you, take comfort in the fact that Silver Week is approaching.

Wait. There is no Silver Week this year. You know, that period in September when there is five days break — a weekend followed by three Japanese public holidays. Rather than mourn its absence (and the absence of Silver Week for the next, uh, nine years) I’m here to distract you with a related quiz question that will help us get to the bottom of why there is no extended holiday this month:

How is Silver Week related to understanding the difference between 祝日しゅくじつ (shukujitsu, or national holiday) and 祭日さいじつ(saijitsu, or festival day)? Even if you’re not studying Japanese, it’s really not too hard to understand.

Break it down

Photo by Tagosaku

This kanji can be seen all around Japanese festivals.

You might recall from another holiday-themed article, “The Many Words for Holiday in Japan,” that the words can be understood from their kanji. Let’s go over them again. The first kanji character in shukujitsu (しゅく) is derived from the verb いわう (iwau), meaning “to congratulate” or “to celebrate.”

When you see the first character in saijitsu (祭), you might be thinking, wait, “I saw that on the back of a happi coat at practically every matsuri (festival) this summer.” Well, you’re right. Get this: 祭 in its verb form まつる (matsuru) means “to deify, enshrine or worship.”

With any matsuri, big or small, they all have the same purpose — a ritual conducted to show gratitude or to pray to ancestors and Shinto and Buddhist gods. Don’t believe me? Check out the lyrics to the retired Kouhaku classic, “Matsuri,” by Saburo Kitajima. The entire song is an ode to the gods of the mountain and sea. These facts will come in handy later, but first, let’s go back to shukujitsu. These are days designated by the Act on National Holidays that went into effect in 1948. Besides Saturday and Sunday, there are three types of national holidays in Japan:

  1. Public holidays (or 国民の祝日こくみんのしゅくじつkokumin no shukujitsu). These are days designated by the government on which schools and public institutions are closed. For example, New Year’s Day, Coming of Age Day, and the Emperor’s Birthday are all public holidays
  2. Substitute holidays (or 振替休日ふりかえきゅうじつfurikae kyuujitsu). These are days for when a holiday falls on a Sunday or overlaps with another holiday. For example, in 2016, Spring Equinox (March 20), fell on a Sunday, so Monday, March 21 became a public holiday.
  3. The “people’s holiday.” ( or 国民の休日こくみんのきゅうじつkokumin no kyuujitu) This is technically not shukujitsu but a freebie that occurs when a weekday is sandwiched between two holidays. This is where Silver Week ties in. See, I wouldn’t leave you hanging.

Dec. 23 is the Japanese emperor’s birthday, a holiday that falls on a Saturday for 2017.

The absence of Silver Week revealed

Silver Week can only occur when Autumnal Equinox Day and Respect for the Aged Day sandwich a weekday and these three days are followed by — or preceded with — a Saturday or Sunday. It’s such an abnormality that it has only been celebrated twice: in September 2009 and most recently in September 2015. The next one won’t occur until 2026.

By the way, Autumnal Equinox Day happens to be a saijitsu and Respect for the Aged Day is a shukujitsu. Remember how I said that matsuri were related to honoring the ancestors and Shinto and Buddhist deities? In the case of saijitsu, these rituals are strictly Shinto in nature and are performed at shrines like Yasukuni and Ise Jingu.

While the emperor is a symbolic head of state with no political influence, he has the very important job of performing Shinto rites such as welcoming the harvest. These days of Shinto rites were called saijitsu.

After the passage of the 1948 Act on National Holidays, days on which Shinto rites were held became holidays stripped of their religious significance and replaced with secular meanings. The designated holidays are intended to “foster beautiful customs, a better society and productive lives within the people of Japan who earnestly seek freedom and peace.”

Review

It’s time to review saijitsu and shukujitsu.

Shukujitsu: a broad category covering three kinds of public holidays

Saijitsu: an obsolete term referring to days formerly used to honor the ancestors and Shinto deities

Here is a chart of Japanese holidays. Note which holidays were formerly Shinto ritual days. See any connections?

Public Holiday Date Ritual Performed
New Year’s Day January 1
Coming of Age Day The second Monday in January
National Foundation Day Ferbuary 11 Honoring the enthronement  of Emperor Jinmu
Spring Equinox March 19 – March 22 Prayer to deities for abundant crops
Showa Day April 29
Constitution Day May 3
Greenery Day May 4
Children’s Day May 5
Ocean Day The third Monday in July
Mountain Day August 11
Respect for the Aged Day The third Monday in September
Autumn Equinox September 22 24 Giving thanks to deities for a successful harvest
Sports Day The Second Monday in October
Culture Day November 3 Honoirng the Meiji Emperor’s birthday
Labor Thanksgiving Day November23 Ceremonial offering to the deities of newly-harvested rice
Emperor’s Birthday December 23

While Silver Week is a bust this year, there are several holidays coming up, including the nenmatsu nenshi, or period at the end of the year. What are your plans?

Go beyond the regular Japanese vocabulary and cultural knowledge. Check out our “Beyond” series.

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Freelance writer, blogger and kindergarten teacher in Tokyo.

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