Japanese History: 13 Festivals, Celebrations, and Traditions

japanese festivals

You can enrich your Japanese-learning experience by also learning about Japanese history and culture. Japan is a country that’s rich in history and traditions. It was first established as a united state around 300 AD, although people had resided on the cluster of islands since 10,000 BC.

Over time, Japan has adopted numerous holidays and festivals. Some of these traditions were borrowed from other cultures, but Japanese people made these holidays distinctly Japanese.

Here are a few of the biggest, most widely-celebrated Japanese festivals and traditions.

Japanese Traditions

Some of the most interesting Japanese traditions are thousands of years old. While a few of them may seem a little odd, such as public bath houses, Western society actually had comparable traditions during the Roman periods.

Here is a look at a few of the most notable Japanese traditions.

Public Bath Houses

japanese bath house

Photo from Japan-guide.com

Public bath houses started in Japan out of necessity. Since many homes did not have bathtubs, neighborhood public bath houses were built to accommodate the Japanese people.

While most homes in Japan are now made with bathtubs, public bath houses are still found in many Japanese neighborhoods. Public bathing allows people to relax and socialize at the end of the day or week.

Just like pools, you’re expected to shower before getting into the springs so that the water remains clean and clear. Unlike pools, however, bathers are not allowed to bring anything into the water, including clothes.

You may wear a towel on your head or you can place it beside the water.

Traditional Japanese Writing

kanji

Photo from Tofugu

Much of the Japanese language originated in China, including the characters. There are three scripts in the Japanese language:

  • Hiragana is used to write words that are Japanese.
  • Katakana is used to write words that are imported from foreign languages, such as German, English, Korean, and Chinese.
  • Kanji is what most people think of when they think of Asian writing. These are full words represented by single characters, and they are similar to the characters used in China.

In Japanese, writing is top down, right to left. This means that Japanese books start at what Westerns would consider the back.

Learn more about the history of kanji here.

Japanese Gardens

main_garden

Photo from Jaapn. Endless Discovery.

Japanese Gardens were first cultivated during the Asuka period. Japanese merchants saw the beauty of the Chinese Gardens and wanted to create a similar atmosphere at home.

This Japanese tradition was influenced by the Shinto religion, and  the Gardens provides a place for people to think and pray. Japanese gardens and Chinese Gardens appear in many major cities around the world. The ponds in Japanese gardens are usually filled by koi fish, streams, trees, and flowers.

Buddhist and Chinese philosophers used these gardens as a sanctuary for reflection, and in hundreds of years, the purpose of the gardens has not changed.

Tea Ceremonies

tea ceremony

Photo from Teavana

Similar to the gardens, the tea ceremony is a way to foster inner peace. The tradition began during the Tang dynasty (between 618 and 907 in China).

As relations improved and the two countries started a cultural exchange, green tea seeds were one of the gifts from China to Japan. Over time, the ceremony was heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism, but it has evolved over the centuries as the country has changed.

Today, the ceremony is used to keep the tradition going, as well as to offer guests the experience of a very formal ritual  known across the world.

Daily Traditions

There are a few Japanese traditions that apply to etiquette and day-to-day life. If you’re planing a trip to Japan, pay close attention to these traditions.

Bowing

The Japanese bow when they greet each other. Bowing is a way to show respect. Men keep their hands to the sides, and women cross their hands over their legs.

Making eye contact while bowing is considered disrespectful. Also, if you would prefer to shake hands, the Japanese will not be offended as this is expected from visitors.

Gratuity

hospitality

Photo by Franek N

Despite excellent hospitality and customer service, it is not common to tip in Japan.

Resist the urge to tip since it is considered rude.

No Shoes Inside

To be polite and have proper etiquette, remove your shoes before you enter someone’s house. This tradition is still recognized in many Asian households throughout the world.

Wear a Mask

masks

Photo by RachelH_

If you’re not feeling well, wear a mask when you go out in public. This is a common way to prevent the spread of illness.

Japanese Festivals

Many of Japan’s largest festivals are actually part of national holidays.

New Year’s Day (January 1)

temple

Photo by Jun Takeuchi

The Japanese New Year celebration is called shogatsu. On New Year’s day, people greet each other by saying “akemashite-omedetou-gozaimasu” (happy new year).

New Year’s Day is the only day where all businesses are shut down. Many people head to shrines or temples to pray for health and good fortune for the year to come.

Coming-of-Age Day

2010 成人の日(Seijin No Hi) Coming of Age Day: Post-Ceremony

Photo by Derek A.

Japanese people celebrate Coming-of-Age Day on the second Monday in January. This is a celebration for everyone who turns 20 during that Calendar year, since turning 20 signifies becoming an adult in Japan.

National Foundation Day (February 11)

This Japanese festival celebrates the formation of the nation. The event commemorates when Emperor Jimmu, the first Emperor of Japan, took the throne in 600 BCE.

Birth of Buddha (April 8)

In Japan, Buddhist people celebrate Hana Matsuri or the Birth of Buddha every April.

The Star Festival (July 7)

Star Festival

Photo by Izu navi

Tanabata (The Star Festival) is based on an ancient legend about star-crossed lovers Hikoboshi and Orihime who were banished to opposite sides of the Milky Way. According to the legend, they are allowed to cross the Milky Way and see each other once a year on Tanabata.

These are a few of the nationally-celebrated Japanese festivals. When you learn Japanese history, you will learn about many other traditions and celebrations.

If you get the opportunity to travel to Japan, you should definitely participate in one of these events.

For more information about traveling to Japan, check out the top 10 Japan Travel blogs.

Photo by Moyan Brenn

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