The Many Words for Holiday in Japan


Photo by Becca Miller Design

One of the most interesting things about living in Japan for a long time is discovering how many different ways the Japanese language has of saying, well, the same thing. Take for example the word ‘holiday’ in English. How many different words can you think up? How about doing the same in Japanese?

Simply by only including the most common words, learners have to master the uses of:


Most of these have similar meanings, but with subtle differences that distinguish them.

Some of them can be understood from their kanji. So 祭日(さいじつ), for example, is made up of the kanji for ‘festival’ and ‘day’. It is often used to describe national holidays such as in the sentence 今度(こんど)祭日(さいじつ)日曜日(にちようび)(かさ)なります (The next holidays will be on a Sunday).

A similar word is 祝日(しゅくじつ) which is made up of the kanji for ‘celebration’ and ‘day’. Most learners first encounter this word when talking about official holidays. It is often found paired with 国民(こくみん) (The citizenry) to make 国民(こくみん)祝日(しゅくじつ) (A national holiday).

A similar word to 国民の祝日 is 記念日(きねんび) which is used to describe a memorial anniversary or event. A common use of 記念日 is in the word 創立記念日(そうりつきねんび) which describes a holiday that celebrates the founding of a company or school. The incredibly long string of kanji 大阪大学創立記念日(おおさかだいがくそうりつきねんび) is the name of the Osaka University’s founding day, for example.

While the kanji can give learners some insight, other differences depend more on formality. One of the kanji that has many variations is the holiday kanji (きゅう). The most common form of this verb is in 休み which literally means a break in activity (In this case usually a break from work). On the other hand, the similar looking 休日(きゅうじつ) is roughly equivalent, but usually found in formal or written situations.

Another word that uses the 休-kanji is 休暇(きゅうか). This word is usually found as a suffix and has a meaning of ‘~leave’. So, combining it with 育児(いくじ) (maternity) creates the compound word 育児休暇(いくじ きゅうか) (maternity leave). Similarly, combining 休暇 with クリスマス makes クリスマス休暇 (Christmas leave).

While someone is on Christmas leave, you may see another 休-word 定休日(ていきゅうび) written on their workplace. 定休日 is usually used whenever a business is on holiday. This kanji is often written with the word 本日(ほんじつ) (today) to make 本日定休日(ほんじつていきゅうび) (We are on holiday today).

If the break is going to be shorter, 休憩(きゅうけい) is usually used instead. While this usually means a break for lunch or for a breather, be careful as in sentences like 休憩中(きゅうけいちゅう)そこに滞在(たいざい)した it becomes a way to say that someone is taking a vacation from work.

Finally, (ひま) comes from free time. It can even be an insult, for example, 暇なやつだ would be considered an insult, implying that someone has too much free time. Likewise when you use いつお暇ですか you are ask someone if they are free (To grab a coffee with you, for example).

Did you get all of them? Just to review, in this article we have looked at 祭日(さいじつ), 記念日(きねんび), (やす)み, 休日(きゅうじつ), 祝日(しゅくじつ), 休暇(きゅうか), 定休日(ていきゅうび), (ひま) and 休憩(きゅうけい).

While this may seem an unnecessary amount of words for similar things, English isn’t much better. The differences between breaks, vacations, holidays, recesses etc. in English are enough to give English students a headache too. So much like English-language students, it is best just to keep practicing them until the subtle differences between them become apparent.


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