A 10-Day Vacation: Behind Japan’s Epic “Golden Week”

A 10-Day Vacation: Behind Japan’s Epic “Golden Week”

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Carp streamers
How did Japan's notoriously long yearly holiday get even longer? Inside the holidays that make up Golden Week.

Late April and early May is set to be a busy and exciting time in Japan. Still riding on the highs and effervescence of the nation’s sakura bloom, people are starting to gear up for Golden Week (ゴールデンウィーク), Japan’s annual week-long block of holidays. It’s Japan’s busiest time of the year for travel. Tours and hotels are booked months in advance, and cities go all-out with festivals and fireworks.

But this year will be especially noteworthy. As discussed in my article on Emperor Akihito and the impending end of the Heisei era, the emperor will officially be abdicating on April 30th, making way for his son, the soon-to-be-adjunct Crown Prince Naruhito to ascend the throne on May 1. As a result, Golden Week is getting an extension, making it 10 days long instead of the usual 7 days, prompting the media to dub it “Platinum Week.”

When the news first broke out in 2017 about the 10 day holiday (10連休), there were a plethora of mixed reactions. On Twitter, tweets ran the gamut from excitement to concerns about securing childcare, to complaints about sold-out tours and travel costs. As one user put it, 「みんなが休めるわけじゃない」 — “Not everyone can take a holiday.”

GWの「10連休」化、意外と歓迎されてない? Twitterで疑問の声「サービス業を死なせる気か」

「10連休」が現実味を帯びてきたーー。 政府が、皇太子さまの即位が決まった2019年5月1日を臨時の祝日か休日にする方向で検討していると、 共同ニュース などが報じた。 実現すれば、祝日法の規定によりその前後の4月30日、5月2日も休日となり、4月27日から10連休になる。 GWの「10連休」化に喜びの声が広がっていると思いきや、Twitter上では「サービス業を死なせる気?」などと冷ややかなコメントが寄せられている。 休日に働くサービス業などに従事する人たちや、子育て中の親への負担が増えるとの懸念から、「みんなが休めるわけじゃない」「子育て中の親は預け先に困る」と10連休を歓迎しないムードが一部で漂っている。 10連休だと逆にサービス業の人はどうなるのか 特に指名が入る美容師とかは代わりがきかないし、10連勤( ̄▽ ̄;) 恐ろしやー – アイザック (@wakmhrest8times) December 5, 2017 要らない要らない。子育て中の親は預け先に困るだけ。誰しもが10連休できるわけでない。公務員の考えることは休みのことだけか? – 38jr (@38Yz) December 5, 2017 10連休になってもエンジニアは多分システム監視とかあるから休みにはならない() – ジュン@風邪かな… (@jun_yaharin0110) December 5, 2017 10連休とかホンの一部の人間だろ? – クリキン (@kurikin1993) December 6, 2017 10連休、仕事が詰まってキツくなるだけだからたいしてありがたくないんだよな…

(JP) Link: (JP) Link: Golden Week’s “10-Day Holiday” Is Surprisingly Not Welcomed? People on Twitter Ask “Are You Going to Kill the Service Industry?”

So why extend it in the first place? As covered in Jay Allen’s comprehensive write-up on the new era name Reiwa (令和), Japan has something called the shukujitsu-ho, or Holiday Law. This stipulates that the day before and after a national holiday are also holidays, or kokumin no shukujitsu (国民の祝日). Since the government designated May 1st a holiday, the days before and after are holidays by default.

So how did it come about that an entire week is dedicated to holidays? It’s all in the timing.

The Golden Week Holidays

April 29: Showa Day (昭和の日)

Showa Day commemorates the birthday of the Showa Emperor Hirohito, who reigned from 1926 to 1989. Previously the holiday was known as the Emperor’s Birthday (天皇誕生日) until his death in 1989, when it became Greenery Day (みどりの日) to honor the Emperor’s love of nature.


This name didn’t stick for long. In 2005, the government relegated Greenery Day to May 4, re-christening April 29 as Showa Day. The explanation for the name change this time was one rooted in cultivating retrospection:


We will reflect on the Showa era, which has undergone a revival after experiencing days of great turmoil, and think of the future of our country.

(JP) Link: What’s the Original Date of Showa Day? The “Four Names” of April 29

One town in Oita Prefecture goes all out for Showa Day. Bungotakada (豊後高田) is home to Showa Town (昭和の町), a spot-on reproduction of a Showa-era street full of shops, vehicles, and exhibits with memorabilia. The community hosts various events and festivals on Showa Day, complete with a parade featuring Showa-era vehicles.

探訪「昭和の町」 寂れた商店街 レトロに変身 大分県豊後高田市

木製の看板に格子戸、丸形ポストに駄菓子屋―。時折、狭い商店街を縫うように現在は見られなくなったボンネットバスがやってくる。まるで昭和の頃にタイムスリップしたような街並みが広がっていた。 大分県の国東(くにさき)半島にある豊後高田市の「昭和の町」を訪れた。昭和30(1955)年ごろには〝商人の町〟として活気があった…

May 1: Ascension Day (新天皇即位日)

This is the day Crown Prince Naruhito officially becomes Emperor on what will be a one-time national holiday. This day is the crux for the 10-day holiday, granting holiday status to April 30 and May 2 thanks to the Holiday Law. The official enthronement ceremony is slated for October 22 and has also been declared a new national holiday.

The ascension will be marked by a grand ceremony, in which the soon-to-be Emperor will take up the sacred sword and jewels (剣璽; kenji), and both the imperial seal (御璽; gyoji) and the state seal (国璽; kokuji). It’s purported that the Emperor Akihito will be the one to bequeath these sacred objects to his son. The sword used in the rite is a replica of the Grasscutter Sword, or Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (草薙の剣). The jewels are a necklace of precious stone beads called the Yasakani-no-Magatama (八尺瓊曲玉). These two treasures, along with the Yata-no-Kagami (八咫鏡), are thought to be gifts from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu to her grandson Yamato, the progenitor of the imperial line, after his descent to earth.

May 3: Constitution Memorial Day (憲法記念日)

May 3 recognizes the Constitution penned during the Allied Occupation after Japan’s surrender in WWII. The holiday celebrates the three core tenets of the Constitution: national democracy (国民主権; kokumin shuken), respect for basic human rights (基本的人権の尊重; kihontekijinken no sonchō), and pacifism (平和主義; heiwa shugi).

While the Constitution was promulgated on May 3, 1947, it was actually approved by the Emperor on November 3, 1946. However, the Diet had already set May 3 as the official date of promulgation. Still wanting to recognize the official go-ahead of the Constitution, however, the government declared November 3 as Culture Day (文化の日; bunka no hi) to honor the Constitution’s emphasis on promoting peace and cultural development.

Aside from the usual festivals, people attend lectures about the role the Constitution has played in Japan’s development. The National Diet building in Tokyo opens its doors to the public, giving people a glimpse of what goes on and how the Constitution is upheld.

In recent years, people have been gathering in great numbers not only to celebrate the Constitution, but to protest Prime Minister Abe’s drive to revise Article 9 of the Constitution. One can’t help but wonder if he’ll try and plug his proposal for revision on May 3, or if the voices of the protesters will drown him out.

Japan Constitution Day: Protesters oppose PM Abe’s interpretation change

Tens of thousands of Japanese citizens have participated in a demonstration to commemorate the country’s Constitution Day. The demonstrators called to protec…

Protesters gather in Yokohama on May 3, 2015 to speak out against Prime Minister Abe’s plan to create a more militaristic Constitution.

May 4: Greenery Day (みどりの日)

As I mentioned before, when the Holiday Law underwent revision in 2005, Showa Day moved to April 29, and May 4 became Greenery Day. Emperor Hirohito purportedly held a great fascination and appreciation of nature and environmental projects. The amendment to the Holiday Law explains the reasoning behind the name change:


…to grow close to nature while appreciating its benefits and cultivating a rich spirit…

On this day, people are encouraged to commune with nature and get involved in tree planting festivals and other eco-friendly projects. It’s also common to drink lots of green tea (緑茶; ryokucha) and visit parks and gardens.

May 5: Children’s Day (こどもの日)

Carp streamers
Koinobori wave in the breeze across the Shingashi river in Kawagoe, Japan. The black koi (真鯉; *magoi*) represents the father; the red carp (緋鯉; *higoi*) stands for the mother; and smaller koinobori represent the children, one for each child. (Picture: Alyssa Pearl Fusek’s personal archives)

Children’s Day has been celebrated long before it became a national holiday. It originated in China and made its way to Japan during the Nara period (710-794 AD) under the name Boy’s Festival (端午の節句; tango no sekku). It was typically held on the fifth day of the fifth moon according to the Chinese zodiac calender, but when Japan switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1873, the Meiji government declared May 5 as the official date. In 1948, the government declared May 5 a national holiday to celebrate the health and personalities of all children and parents, not just the males.

In Chinese lore, a koi that swims upstream will become a dragon and ascend to heaven. The image of them swimming against strong river currents led the Japanese to hope for their own children to grow up strong. People fly koi no bori (鯉のぼり), or carp flags, as the sight of them waving in the breeze mimics the movements of swimming fish. Typically there’s a carp for the father, one for the mother, and one for each child.

It’s also customary to display a samurai helmet, kabuto ningyo (兜人形), or a samurai doll astride a carp as symbols of endurance and bravery. Inspiration comes from the heroes Kintaro and Momotaro, both children with god-like strength who feature in many classic Japanese folk tales.

To cap off this string of holidays is a “compensatory holiday” (振替休日) on May 6. This is basically a substitute or makeup holiday occurring after a national holiday. People will most likely be returning home from vacations or nursing massive hangovers.

Whatever the opinions circulating about this year’s Golden Week, it’s approaching fast, and so is the abdication. Just this past Thursday, the Emperor performed a ritual at Ise Shrine to enlighten the gods of his impending abdication. If you’re heading to Japan around this time, beware the large crowds and closed shops.

But if you do happen to be around when the new emperor ascends the Chrysanthemum Throne, consider yourself lucky: you’re witnessing a rare moment in Japanese history.

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Alyssa Pearl Fusek

Alyssa Pearl Fusek is a freelance writer currently haunting the Pacific Northwest. She holds a B.A. in Japanese Studies from Willamette University. When she's not writing for Unseen Japan, she's either reading about Japan, writing poetry and fiction, or drinking copious amounts of jasmine green tea. Find her on Bluesky at @apearlwrites.

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