Rethinking Our National Holidays?

by Nassrine Azimi, Professor of international organizations, Hiroshima Shudo University

HIROSHIMA— I often ask my students to think what it means to live in a country with a constitution that prohibits wars of aggression, and removes from national priorities war-mongering discourses, distractions and impulses?

One answer they often come up with is it could mean more resources, energy, imagination and focus, for productive endeavors of benefit to the greater good.

More than seven decades since it conceded defeat, laid down arms and made into law a constitution centered on peace, Japan is reaping the benefits of that historical shift. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both today at the vanguard of anti-nuclear and peace movements worldwide, the results of this profound change are obvious for all to see. But at the national level, too, and notwithstanding efforts to undermine or dismiss as ‘foreign’ the 1946 peace constitution and specially its Article 9, in both letter and spirit it seems profoundly engrained in the national psyche.

The concrete benefits are clear. The ‘peace-loving’ Japanese are trusted and respected worldwide, their businesses are thriving, and their scientific, artistic and cultural achievements are celebrated. At home they enjoy universal health care, safe cities, free education, admirable public transport, and impeccable services. Needless to say like any other country Japan, too, has many problems but at least these are not exasperated by a tendency to aggression and war. The 1% of GDP cap on military spending, while allowing a strong self-defense force (contrary to militarists’ claims about a ‘weak’ Japan) restrains nonetheless the worst shenanigans of arms dealers and dealings. When my Afghan friends visit Hiroshima, to learn of Japan’s post-war nation-building, I often sum up my talks with a one-liner—‘Forget the American model—here is the model to emulate!’

This shift—from a mentality of war to one of peace—continues at other subtle levels as well. One overlooked example is how Japan seems in a league all its own, in its designation of national holidays. Indeed, since 1948 when the Public Holiday Law was enacted, the emphasis has gradually moved away from themes of military, war and self-aggrandizements, to more universally resonant concerns. Neither are there any official religious holidays, despite deep influences of Shintoism and Buddhism in everyday life.

Rather, and excluding New Year’s Day, 12 of Japan’s 16 national holidays are somehow related to nature, culture or the common people. Many have millennial roots, like rice harvesting or the spring and autumn equinoxes, ancient practices and rituals realigned to more recent times. Marine Day, which was just celebrated, is one example. It was established to express gratitude ‘for the gifts of the sea and honor its importance to the prosperity of Japan as a maritime nation’. Ironically, in this age of climate change, no other country actually considers this essential part of life on our planet worth a national holiday (The International Maritime Organization does have a World Maritime Day, but that is entirely different). Marine Day is relatively recent—designated only in 1996—even if its origins are rooted in ancient traditions.

Spring Equinox in March, corresponding roughly to the start of the cherry blossom season, is a national holiday, as is the Autumn Equinox, in September. Each May there is a necklace of public holidays that includes Constitution Memorial Day on the 3rd, Greenery Day on the 4th and Children’s Day on the 5th. November 3rd is Culture Day, with museums and art institutions around the country open free of charge, and November 23rd is Labor Day, i.e. rice harvest celebration, when ordinary people flock to the countryside to remember their agrarian roots.

Mountain Day, on August 11, is the newest addition to the list. The 2016 legislation aims to provide citizens with “opportunities to get familiar with mountains and appreciate their blessings”—eminently meaningful in a country where two thirds of the territory is covered by mountains, where there is a millennial tradition of Yamabushi or mountain hermits, and where Alpine clubs have recently become the boom. But mountains are also common to all of humanity—why don’t other countries celebrate them?

Some significant dates are not officially designated as holidays, even if they are marked nationwide: the Obon festival of ancestors in mid-August coincides (or was made to coincide) with shusen kinenbi, or end of war memorial day, marking Japan’s declaration of surrender on August 15, 1945. But even this remains somewhat sober, with no wasteful military parades, and few saber-rattling or chest-thumping exercises. August 6 in Hiroshima and August 9 in Nagasaki, the dates of the US nuclear bombings, are not national holidays either, though they remain major events in both cities.

Long annual leaves are a rarity in Japan, so official public holidays, reformed such that many now fall on a Monday, are simply important rest and leisure time for working people. Still, one must ask why, in this age of global threats, is Japan still the rare country with such universal ideas about what deserves national holiday status? This requires our attention, for it is starkly different from other countries, where the predominant themes remain essentially the same—religion, war, self-determination and sometimes national vindication.

In the United States for example most public holidays, with the exception maybe of Thanksgiving and Christmas, are either related to a specific personality (Christophe Columbus, George Washington, Martin Luther King) or to struggle and liberation (Independence Day, Veterans’ Day). India has to strike a delicate balancing act, in officially designating holidays for its vast multicultural population, its myriad of saints, its patchwork of regions and its more republican aspirations. Russia’s public holidays are almost entirely about some form of patriotism: Unity Day, Victory Day, National Day, Defense of Fatherland Day. In France it is mostly religion, war and revolution that justify legal designation. The same in Italy, Egypt and Israel. Saudi Arabia’s only national holidays relate to Islamic events. Even Switzerland, whose rather secular and pragmatic citizens genuinely love and respect nature, has a surprisingly religious-only calendar of national holidays. Its unique treasures—spectacular mountains, lakes, forests or rivers—still await official recognition.

Clearly then, at least when it comes to national holidays, Japan’s are the closest to universality, proof that it is possible to be both specifically local and eminently global. No one who has been here during the cherry blossom or autumn foliage festivities, or at harvest time, can doubt their deeply popular character. Yet one need not be Japanese or even Asian, Shinto or Buddhist, to appreciate the beauty and the transience of cherry blossom petals floating in the wind, or be moved by a full moon shining on an autumn rice harvest. One needs simply to be human.

The historian Masashi Haneda, in his book ‘Toward Creation of a New World History’, writes of the pressing need to shift away from the politically correct but emotionally uninspiring concept of ‘Global Citizen’, to the more direct and meaningful idea of ‘Inhabitant of the Earth’. Our problems, he contends, require an urgent sense not just of distant citizenry, but of an all encompassing feeling of rights and responsibilities, as one species inhabiting this fragile planet alongside others. We are otherwise condemned, he rightly implies, to self-destruct.

In Japan geography dictates almost everything. Natural disasters—earthquakes, volcanos, tsunami, typhoon or floods, the wrath of which we saw in Hiroshima recently—are never too far away. Historically sensitive to nature’s every hue, freed since 1945 from base militaristic impulses, the Japanese seem increasingly at ease, being both Japanese and ‘Inhabitants of the Earth’. For millennia the great themes of nature—seas, forests and mountains—have been ritualized and celebrated here. Now by law they are also designated as worthy of a national holiday. It is amalgamating the local with the global, continuity with change. And like the constitution’s peace article, surely another law worth emulating.