Culture Day in Japan: An Annual Celebration of National Pride & History
By Emma Regan
Every year, on November 3rd, the nation comes together to celebrate the culture of Japan through many festivities and events in all prefectures for Culture Day (文化の日). But what do these celebrations consist of and how will Culture Day in Japan be celebrated this year amid the global pandemic?
What is Culture Day in Japan?
Culture Day is the national event to honour traditional Japanese culture and promote the love of freedom and peace that was enshrined in the Japanese constitution. It has been a public holiday since 1948, yet officially adopted in 1946 after the Second World War. The first week of November is known as Education and Culture Week (教育と文化の週), where events relating to education and culture in Japan are carried out to deepen the interest and understanding of the general public, with schools and universities across the country taking part.
But November 3rd has always been a notable date. It was the birthdate of Emperor Meiji, who ruled Japan from 1867 until 1912 and became a national holiday in 1927 known as Meiji Setsu (明治節) to honour the late Emperor until it was transformed into Culture Day. Celebrations for Culture Day do not strictly run on November 3rd but can span across a few days.
The festivities held in different prefectures encourage everyone to engage with traditional Japanese culture, with museums around the country often offering free admission on the day to allow the general public to be able to delve into the history and culture of Japan. There are even prestigious award ceremonies to highlight an individual’s prowess in promoting Japanese culture.
How is Culture Day Celebrated in Japan?
Order of Ceremony Award
The Order of Culture Awards Ceremony takes place at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. It is a Japanese medal awarded to individuals who have achieved remarkable accomplishments in promoting Japanese culture in sectors such as science, technology, academics and arts. The order was enacted in 1937 by the then prime minister Hiroyuki Hirota and is bestowed by the Emperor of Japan on Culture Day every year.
In order to be nominated for the award, the individual will have already been given the Person of Cultural Merit, functioning as a tandem. The Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology recommends candidates to the Prime Minister for the Cabinet Bureau to decide.
Over 400 people have received the prestigious award and not all recipients have been Japanese, including Japanologist Donald Keene. Other notable winners have been fashion designer Issey Miyake, artist Ikuo Hirayama, and academic Haruko Wakita. People are allowed to refuse the order, which is what the novelist Kenzaburō Ōe did. Last year, Nobel laureate Akira Yoshino was among the six selected for the Order of Culture award. This year sees five recipients, including script writer Sugako Hashida and sculpturer Kiichi Sumikawa.
Meiji Shrine Autumn Festival
Taking place over 3 consecutive days including Culture Day, the Meiji Shrine Autumn Festival celebrates the birthday of Emperor Meiji using cultural demonstrations that introduce visitors to a wide range of Japanese performances and martial arts. The festival includes; Bugaku (舞楽), a dance that was performed to select elites, Noh (能), a dance-drama that has been performed since the 14th century, Kyogen (狂言), a comic theatre which developed alongside Noh, Hogaku (邦楽), traditional Japanese music, and Aikido (合気道), self-defence martial art.
The most popular demonstrations are the Yabusame (流鏑馬), horseback archery where the archers are dressed in traditional costumes from the Kamakura period, and the Sumo ring entering ceremony. The Meiji Shrine is an imperial shrine with connections at the top levels of society, therefore the performers at the festival are often at the top of their art. For example, the Sumo ring entering ceremony is performed by a Yokozuna champion, the highest rank in Sumo wrestling, with only 72 men having attained this title since the 1700s. A lot of these events are now only performed on Culture Day in Japan, making the festival an unmissable event.
Hakone Daimyō Gyōretsu
The Hakone Daimyō Gyōretsu (箱根大名行列), otherwise known as the Procession of the Feudal Lord, is one of the most famous events that take place on Culture Day in Japan, as well as Hakone all year round. It reenacts the processions of the feudal lords who were forced to visit Edo (Modern-day Tokyo) during the reign of the Tokugawa family. During this time, regional feudal lords were forced to spend alternate years in Edo to keep any possibility of an uprising at bay.
The feudal lords would spend enormous amounts of money to fund their long procession of protectors, administrators, and entertainers. The re-enactment was introduced in 1935 and sees just under 200 men and women dressed as samurai, Yakko warriors, workers, and princesses commemorate the Old Tokaido Road, which travels through the heart of Hakone and connects Tokyo to Kyoto.
Tokyo Jidai-Matsuri and Shirasagi-No-Mai
The Tokyo Jidai-Matsuri (時代祭), Festival of the Ages, is a historical parade held on Culture Day in Japan that recreates the history and culture of Tokyo along the streets of Asakusa. It was first held in 1999 as part of the Tokyo Reinsassaunce, an attempt to publicise Asakusa’s unique presence as the historical and cultural centre of Tokyo, and sees 1600 volunteers participating by dressing up in historical attire, representing various eras, dating back to the 7th century. The parade starts behind Sensoji Temple and ends up at Asakusa Tawaramachi.
Another event that takes place at the Sensoji Temple on Culture Day is the Shirasagi-No-Mai (白鷺の舞), White Heron Dance. It was reconstructed in 1968 to mark the 100th anniversary of when Edo became Tokyo. The original event is found in the Keian Engi Emaki (けいん縁起絵巻), a historical picture scroll owned by the temple which includes various rituals of peace.
There are eight dancers dressed in heron costumes accompanied by three attendants who have different roles- a bird feeder, baton twirler, and a parasol carrier. The dancers are also accompanied by a float of musicians and guardian children. It is only performed a couple of times throughout the year, Golden Week and Culture Day in Japan.
ACA National Arts Festival
As well as the Order of Culture, other culture-related award ceremonies take place around Culture Day in Japan. Since 1946, the Agency of Cultural Affairs (ACA) National Arts Festival has been held with aims of enabling a wide segment of the public to enjoy outstanding works of art from Japan, to encourage creativity and develop the arts.
The event takes place in autumn and consists of sponsored performances, cosponsored performances and participating performances and works, that can either belong in the categories of performance (theatre, music, dance, and popular entertainment) or production (TV dramas, TV documentaries, radio, and recordings).
Performers who have made outstanding contributions to the promotion of arts and culture receive awards for a grand prize, excellence award, and newcomer award. They are appointed by the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.
Culture Day in Japan 2020
Unfortunately, Japan has cancelled the Meiji Shrine Autumn Festival, Hakone Daimyō Gyōretsu, Tokyo Jidai-Matsuri, and Shirasagi-No-Mai this year to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The ACA National Arts Festival is still being held and has already opened to the public at the National Theatre in Tokyo, with appropriate safety measures in place.
See also: Halloween in Japan 2020
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