Lunar or Solar?
Japan has traditionally had two major HOLIDAY SEASONS, the winter O-Shogatsu (New Year’s) and the summer O-Bon Festival for welcoming the spirits of deceased relatives. Of course, now there is also the spring-time string of national holidays which has come to be known as Golden Week, but this is a very recent addition to the Japanese annual cycle of life.
During O-Shogatsu and O-Bon it HAS been and STILL IS customary to return to ones native town, meet relatives, visit the family graves, eat special foods, and perform certain rituals.
In contemporary Japan, the O-Shogatsu Holiday now coincides with the Western New Year, with the first day of the year being January first.
This has only been true, though, since 1873 when Japan as a nation converted to the use of the Western (Gregorian) calendar. Before that time, a traditional calendar was used which is now referred to as the kyureki (旧暦), which was a lunar-based calendar with additional sun-based features which helped to keep it in line with the actual seasons. Until the new calendar was adopted, O-Shogatsu was celebrated sometime between January 21 and February 19th on the Gregorian calendar.
Now it is very rare indeed to find any Japanese who celebrate New Year’s on Kyu-Shogatsu, though there are a few events and ceremonies that can be found at a few villages around Japan (especially in Okinawa) which remind us that there once was another time to celebrate New Year’s.
Of course, THE place for Kyu-Shogatsu revelry is Yokohama’s Chinatown.
The case with the O-Bon Festival is quite the opposite. This major annual event was always held in the 7th month of the kyureki which was almost always August on the Gregorian calendar. However when the calendar changed, most Japanese continued to celebrate O-Bon in August! The O-Bon holidays are also fixed in mid-August. In Ibaraki, Tsukuba’s prefecture, it is natural for everyone to celebrate O-Bon in August.
However, since the fervor for the changes of the Meiji Reformation, including the new calendar, all emanated out of Tokyo, many residents of that great megalopolis, as well as those in the neighboring prefectures such as Kanagawa or Chiba celebrate O-Bon in July! That is because now July is the 7th month!
So don’t be surprised when you ask a friend what they did last week and they tell you that they went back to their hometown (for example Kawasaki) for O-bon. They are just adherents of the New Bon, or Shin-Bon. They might also tell you how convenient it is because they do their O-Bon rituals in July and are free to enjoy themselves during the summer vacation!
You may also have noticed the abundance of fully garbed Buddhist priests on the trains in Tokyo last week on their way to perform sutra readings for O-Bon.
You might also find that some people are starting to put up Tanabata decorations this week. These people are observers of the Kyu-Tanabata.
If this sounds difficult, it is. Getting to understand Japan does not come easy and this confusion over the calendar does not help!