Folk Beliefs in Modern Japan
[Table of Contents]

Annual Events and the Transformation of Japanese Religious LifeI


1. Annual Events and Japanese Religion

Japan's traditional calendar of "annual events" (nenchû gyôji[Glossary: nenchu_gyoji]) is intimately woven into the fabric of Japanese life, partitioning it and giving it a sense of the regular, seasonal passage of time. But even that regular holiday calendar has undergone substantial change in recent years. The observance of Christmas has now become a fixed custom in the Japanese calendar,1 and Valentine's Day and White DayII are also now observed among a wide strata of, primarily younger, Japanese.2 Other holidays like Halloween, Easter, "Secretaries' Day" and "Bosses' Day," or "St. Jordi's Day"III have also entered the Japanese calendar as new commercial opportunities, primarily for gift marketing.3 Perhaps in reaction to the penetration of these new, originally non-Japanese holidays, some department stores have even begun advertising the traditional festival of Tanabata under the English name "Love Stars' Day."4

On the other hand, a number of more traditional Japanese festivals continue to be observed faithfully, including the first pilgrimage at New Year's[Glossary: oshogatsu][Glossary: hatsumode], the summer "All Saint's" festival of O-bon[Glossary: bon_matsuri], and the semi-annual visits to family tombs during the equinoctial weeks. But while public-opinion surveys dealing with Japanese attitudes toward religion confirm a continuing high level of participation in these annual events, it is also true that the Japanese style of life has undergone great changes in the postwar period, particularly since the period of high economic growth which began in the 1960s. And that fact hints that even when we see the same festivals of New Year's and O-bon being observed today, the way they are now observed has also changed substantially, relative to the way those same festivals were observed by our parents and grandparents. As a result, in this article, I want to undertake an analysis of the holiday calendar as observed in modern urban Japan, and use that data--limited though it may be--as a vehicle for an objective consideration of the changes and current status of Japanese religious life.

According to the definition found in Minzokugaku jiten [Dictionary of Japanese Ethnography]IV edited by Yanagita Kunio[Glossary: yanagita_kunio], nenchû gyôji are "traditional observances repeated as a matter of custom in the same manner and style, and at the same point in the annual calendar."5 Further, these annual observances are not merely repeated by individuals, but "as a regular practice undertaken communally by a family, hamlet, ethnic body or other social group." This fact of regular social observance gives nenchû gyôji the force of obligation, compelling their observance by the groups involved.

Throughout the annual process of production, particularly at the joints and interstices dividing the seasons of the agricultural calendar, people "differentiate time from the continuity of everyday life, setting apart holidays like New Year's, O-bon, and the seasonal nodalities (sekku), on which they rest from everyday labors and observe special customs." In sum, the Dictionary of Japanese Ethnography asserts that the calendar of annual events represents a series of obvious junctures in the life of a society, non-everyday times, called hare, which are divorced from everyday pollution (kegare[Glossary: kegare]).

The definition of nenchû gyôji given in the Dictionary of Japanese Ethnography is most intriguing, but when the holiday calendar is viewed in the context of this definition, a considerable gap appears between the kind of "annual events" I earlier noted as characteristic of modern urban life, and those forming the subject of Japanese folklore studies (minzokugaku).

Until now, most research on annual observances and individual rites of passage have been undertaken from the perspective of Japanese ethnography, and that research has produced a wide range of studies, ranging from field reports dealing with discrete customs, to more general structural analyses. At the same time, I must confess to feeling some discomfort whenever I read such ethnographic reports. My discomfort arises from the consciousness that even though such reports may offer detailed descriptions of holiday customs observed at times like New Year's and O-bon, I myself have never actually observed those practices and customs. As a result, even though such ethnographic reports allow me to understand the existence and significance of such customs, the customs themselves remain divorced from the reality of my own everyday life and experience.

And this observation must be even truer for those younger people born after the mid-1960s, young people who are sure to have even less experience and knowledge of the customs described and analyzed by Japanese folklorists. In short, the analyses we find today based on rites of passage and annual events as defined within Japanese folklore studies are focused on rites and customs of the past, or at any rate, customs which have virtually disappeared from the urban Tokyo scene. On the contrary, in order to understand the worldview and religious attitudes of current urban residents, it is necessary to analyze the calendar of annual religious events actually observed in the modern city.6

Virtually all public-opinion surveys of recent years agree in reporting that approximately thirty percent of all Japanese respond positively to the question, "Do you possess religious faith?".7 While it is common for Japanese to assume they are not a very religious people in comparison to societies of the West, research in Religious Studies and other related disciplines has made it clear that, in terms of concrete religious behavior and attitudes, the Japanese are also religious to a relatively high degree.8 The level of participation in such rites of passage as the infant's first shrine visit, the "Seven-Five-Three" festival,V weddings and funerals, or annual events such as New Year's visits to shrines and temples, Valentine's Day, the equinoctial visits paid to family tombs, O-bon, and Christmas indicate a relatively high level of participation and interest in religious behavior.

For example, in 1984, Japan's national broadcasting company NHK published a public-opinion survey of Japanese religious attitudes, and found that "a relatively high proportion of Japanese engage in religious activities when considered as 'annual events.'" Within that category, the survey included such things as "New Year's pilgrimages," "scattering good-luck beans on the last day before spring," "visits to family tombs at O-Bon and during the equinoctial weeks," and partaking in a "Christmas cake."9

Yanagawa Keiichi and Abe Yoshiya have likewise pointed to participation in religiously oriented annual events as an indicator of Japanese religiosity.10 And Miyake Hitoshi points to annual events as a kind of "religion within everyday life."11

Against this common perception, I want to throw some doubt on the way such "annual events" are generally considered. For example, of those observances typically treated as "annual events" within Japanese folklore studies, which ones are still celebrated today, and which have fallen into disuse? With the great recent changes in industrial structure and the structure of everyday life, what new kinds of annual events have emerged, and how has the overall structure of annual events changed? And when one considers such diverse behavior as young couples' visits to shrines and temples at New Year's, young women's crowding department stores in the search for chocolates on Valentine's Day, and the activity of young people who form early morning queues before the doors of department stores to purchase Tiffany necklaces as Christmas presents, in what sense can we call such behavior "religious?" In short, through a consideration of the religious character of "annual events," I want to consider the overall religiosity of the Japanese people today.

2. The Transformation of Annual Events in Japan

As an introduction to my consideration of the modern transformation of annual events in Japan, let me begin by listing again their ethnographic features as defined by the Dictionary of Japanese Ethnography noted earlier. Namely, annual events are defined as (1) traditional observances repeated annually; (2) communal observances possessing coercive force; (3) rites observed at junctures in the social calendar accompanying a sense of seasonal change; and (4) special days, called hare, which are viewed as "non-everyday" time by the community.

Against this definition, the changes in industrial structure and everyday life which have occurred in the postwar period--particularly since the period of high economic growth--would appear to have steadily eroded the basis for annual events as understood by Japanese folklorists. As one example, numerous reports have pointed to the fact that changes in industrial structure have led to the dissolution of the agricultural village, the local community with coercive force posited by Japanese ethnography at the crux of its analytical framework.12 Urbanization has not only brought about changes of an ecological kind, but also stimulated the appearance of new structures and styles of everyday life. And many researchers are now pointing to the fact that such changes have resulted as well in sharp transformations in the attitudes and consciousness of the Japanese people.13

Given this situation, how can one know what kind of annual events are actually being observed at present, particularly in the urban environment? Unfortunately, it appears that no rigorous surveys of current annual events have been published, although we are not left without some clues. Numerous public-opinion surveys have been conducted by a variety of organizations in recent years, and they frequently include questions dealing with attitudes toward annnual events. Here, I want to collate those survey questions dealing with such observances, and use the results in an attempt to produce a general overview of the current status of Japanese attitudes. Needless to say, the specific annual events dealt with in the various surveys and questions are not always the same, and one must also consider regional attributes and variations. In short, while we cannot make a simple comparison of the rates of participation in the annual events covered by different surveys, it remains possible to obtain a general grasp of the current situation by studying the results of such surveys.

To begin, let me present the questions and results from three surveys which were conducted in the Tokyo area, listed in the order in which they were conducted:

I. Survey of Urban Life (Tokyo Metropolitan Government, Bureau of Citizens' Affairs, December 1979)14

(Unit: %)

  1. New Year's pilgrimage to shrine or temple: 65.3
  2. Display New Year's bamboo and pine gate decorations, or display New Year's offerings: 51.8
  3. Scatter good-luck beans[Glossary: mamemaki] on the last day of the lunar year (setsubun[Glossary: setsubun], February 2-3): 67.4
  4. Make equinoctial visits to family tombs, offer ohagi or botamochi (traditional rice cake sweets): 66.3
  5. Display dolls on Doll's Festival[Glossary: hina_matsuri] (March 3), or display carp streamers on Children's Day (May 5): 46.7
  6. Spring flower-viewing excursions: 35.2
  7. Take iris-leaf bath (May 5): 33.0
  8. Air out and store seasonal clothes in summer: 50.2
  9. Display Tanabata (Star Festival) decorations (July 7 or August 7): 24.6
  10. Eat seasonal foods (early mackeral, summer eels, fall mushrooms, etc.): 45.2
  11. Make temple/shrine visits on the first day of the horse[Glossary: hatsuuma], the day of the cock[Glossary: tori_no_ichi], or feast days to the deity Fudô Myôô, etc.: 20.3
  12. Eat rice with red beans on celebratory occasions: 43.2
  13. Display the Japanese flag on holidays: 10.1
  14. Display pampas grass decorations and eat sweet rice dumplings on August 15 (harvest moon): 20.1
  15. Observe major housecleaning at year-end: 84.7
  16. Eat buckwheat noodles on New Year's eve: 83.8
  17. Observe none of the above: 0.9
  18. Don't know: 0.3

II. Kita-Ward Survey of Residents' Attitudes toward Culture (Tokyo-to, Kita-ku, October, 1988)15

(Unit: %)

  1. New Year's pilgrimages: 70.2
  2. Eat rice gruel with seven herbs (nanakusa gayu: January 7): 21.9
  3. Observe setsubun by scattering good-luck beans: 57.6
  4. Doll's Festival (March 3): 38.9
  5. Spring flower viewing: 37.2
  6. First day of the horse: 26.6
  7. Tanabata: 17.3
  8. Fifteenth night [harvest moon]: 14.0
  9. Christmas: 59.8
  10. Family birthday celebrations: 68.3
  11. Other: 5.0
  12. None of the above: 7.1
  13. Total (M): 423.9

III. Survey on Home Life (Tokyo Metropolitan Government, Office of Information, February, 1989)16

(Unit: %)

  1. Celebrate children's birthdays: 59.9
  2. Celebrate parents' or grandparents' birthdays: 37.2
  3. Celebrate wedding anniversaries: 28.8
  4. Family celebration of holidays like Christmas and Children's Day: 56.0
  5. Home party on celebratory occasions (school entrance, graduation, first employment, etc.): 44.9
  6. Home party with friends: 16.8
  7. Visits to family tombs on equinox, or on anniversaries of death: 61.9
  8. Family gatherings at holidays like New Year's and O-bon: 62.4
  9. Other: 3.2
  10. No response: 2.9
  11. Total (M): 374.0

Beginning with the first study, "Survey of Urban Life," fifty percent or more of respondents indicated their participation in the following seven events (listed in descending order of observance): Year-end housecleaning; eating buckwheat noodles on New Year's eve; celebrating setsubun (scattering good-luck beans on the last day of the lunar year); equinoctial visits to family tombs; New Year's pilgrimages; displaying pine and bamboo New Year's gate decorations; and the seasonal airing and storing of clothes.

In the second study, "Survey of Ward Residents' Attitudes toward Culture," events drawing the participation of fifty percent or more of respondents included New Year's pilgrimages, birthday celebrations, Christmas, and setsubun. In the third survey, "Survey on Home Life," the corresponding events included family gatherings at holidays like New Year's and O-bon, visits to family tombs on equinox or on anniversary of death, celebrations of children's birthdays, and family celebrations of holidays like Christmas and Children's Day.17

The times, subjects, purposes, methods, and questions of the three surveys all differ, making it difficult to attempt any simple comparison of their results, but it nonetheless remains possible to point out several common characteristics. First, all three surveys display high rates of participation in events surrounding the New Year's holidays, including the traditional year-end housecleaning, eating year-end buckwheat noodles, displaying gate decorations of pine and bamboo, and making New Year's pilgrimages to shrines and temples. When Christmas is considered as falling within the category of year-end observances, the results indicate that the interest in observances around the period of year-end and New Year remains extremely high.

Second, outside the annual events associated with the year-end and New Year's holidays, a high level of participation is also evidenced for the celebrations of O-Bon and the equinoctial festivals associated with ancestral memorials. Third, a high rate of participation is also seen in the celebration of setsubun and birthdays. Since the observance of birthdays obviously differs depending on the date of birth, it falls outside the ethnological category of "annual events," but it is nonetheless observed at a very high rate.

Next, let me present some differing survey results as a comparison to the data from the aforementioned surveys. In December of 1990, I conducted a survey designed to reveal what annual events are currently observed by young people, and with whom they observe them (Table 1). I conducted the survey at two universities, one a church-affiliated women's college in Tokyo, and the other at the private university at which I am personally employed. The survey resulted in 225 replies.18

Of the annual events listed in the table, those observed by fifty percent or more of respondents include the following eight, in descending order of observance: New Year's (93.8%), Christmas (82.2%), O-Bon (73.7%), Mother's Day (70.2%), Setsubun (57.3%), Valentine's Day (56.9%), ÔharaeVI (53.8%), and the Spring equinox (53.3%).

The results of my survey confirm the high level of observance of the year-end and New Year's holidays, and of memorial rites to ancestors. Other observances showing a high level of observance in this survey include Mother's Day and Valentine's Day, both of which can be considered events observed primarily by young people.19

In contrast the above high rates of observance, which of the traditional annual events can be considered "dead" and no longer observed? The results of my survey reveal fifteen annual events which fifty or more percent of respondents indicated they had "never even heard of." Listed in seasonal order, they include hatsu tsuitachi (February 1); koto yôka (eighth day of February and December); shanichi[Glossary: shanichi] (the nearest major earth day [tsuchinoe] preceding and following the equinoctial days); uzuki yôka (April 8); kôri no tsuitachi (June 1); suijin matsuri[Glossary: suijin] (festival to the water deity, June and December); nagoshi no harai[Glossary: nagoshi_no_harae] (summer rite of purification, June 30); hassaku[Glossary: hassaku] (August 1); hokakesai (presenting first rice harvest to household deities); okunchi[Glossary: okunchi] (September 9); onna no hi ("women's day"); Daishikô (November 23); kawahidari (December 1); koto yôka (eighth day of February and December); and susutori shôgatsu[Glossary: oshogatsu] (December 13).

The young people responding to my survey did not say of these customs merely that they "don't observe them"--meaning that they may have once observed them but did so no longer, nor did they respond that they had heard of them but did not perform them personally. In short, they had never seen, nor "even heard of" them. And of these fifteen customs, if one excludes natsugoshi no harai, the total proportion of respondents indicating they had "never even heard of" or "don't observe" these customs exceeds ninety percent.

Next, let me note the results of a free-response question from my survey, in which I asked respondents to list the three annual events they considered personally to be most important ("List in order the three annual events you think are most important"). The responses to this question are tabulated in Table 2.

The overwhelming majority of students responding to my survey listed either "New Year's" or "Christmas" as the holiday observance they considered most important. Christmas is also listed with high frequency in the second- and third-place positions. Other holidays receiving a large number of votes included O-bon, "Valentine's Day," Higan (the equinoctial days), "Birthdays" and the "Star Festival" of Tanabata. The results here indicate that Japanese young people are like their elders in giving importance to events at year-end and the New Year, together with holidays celebrated with boyfriends and girlfriends, and their own birthdays.

Several other intriguing details are suggested by the results of my simple survey. The first is that the majority of holiday events central to Japanese folklore analysis are missing from the customs of young people living in modern cities. Most of those traditional holidays were observed in village communities set within the context of a tradition of agricultural rites, whereas the growth of cities lacking the traditional village community, and where labor is characterized chiefly by employment in tertiary industries has naturally produced a situation in which such holiday events are not observed, nor "even heard of."

Second, the holidays observed by young people today include several of the traditional Japanese annual events, but it would appear that their manner of observance differs greatly from the traditional pattern, judged either by their contents or by their relation to other events. Even though holidays like "Seven-Five-Three," the Flower Festival (Hana matsuri[Glossary: hana_matsuri], April 8), and the change-of-season festivals (sekku) were focused on children, they were fundamentally observed by the village as a whole. In contrast, when I asked on my survey, "With whom do you celebrate this festival?" the highest proportion of responses for "Seven-Five-Three" were "with my family," while for the Flower Festival it was "with friends," indicating that different social groupings are at the center of different festival observances today.

Third is the fact that the festivals observed today include a substantial number of new holidays imported from the West. As is clear from the high rates of observance of Christmas and Valentine's Day, such holidays have become a firmly embedded custom among the young people of today, and have now occupy a very important place in the holiday calendar. The other well-known holidays of Halloween and Easter mentioned earlier can also be considered within this group.20

3. The Structure of Annual Events

To this point, I have analyzed a number of public-opinion surveys and other sources of statistical data as a means of clarifying what kind of annual events are currently observed; a reconsideration of the annual events observed today leads here to a number of important suggestions.

What one first notices is that the number of annual events serving as seasonal nodes has greatly declined, compared to the annual events described by conventional Japanese ethnography. Second, if Christmas and Valentine's Day can be considered as part of the overall set of annual events, the annual events observed at present are focused around the two holidays of New Year's and O-Bon. How are we to understand this structure of annual events?

Discussions of annual events within Japanese ethnography often point out the bipolar or binary structure of the holiday calendar. As in the case of New Year's and O-Bon, many important holidays form ritual pairs separated from each other by semiannual intervals. The prototypical binary pair of holidays represented by New Year's and O-Bon has been analyzed by Tanaka Sen'ichi as including three kinds of dual correspondences, including (A) the specific pair of corresponding days, as in New Year's Day and kamabuta tsuitachi,VII or Little New Year [January 15] and Urabon-e [July 15]; (B) corresponding physical structures or implements, as in the New Year's pine decorations (matsu mukae) and Bon flowers (Bon-hana mukae), or the "altar to the god of the new year" (toshigami[Glossary: toshigami]-dana) and Bon altar (Bon-dana); and (3) corresponding kinds of sacralization, as in the "god of the new year" (toshigami) as an ancestral spirit, and the returning Bon spirits (seirei) considered as the spirits of ancestors.21

But is this same kind of bipolar correspondence of New Year's and O-Bon evident within the modern city? The lack of detailed research makes it impossible to present any conclusive answer to this question, but since the way in which the two holidays are observed has completely changed, it can be assumed that the parallelism of the days of observance has long since disappeared as well.

Next, it goes without saying that the physical facilities and implements used in observing these two holidays have greatly changed. While only my own personal impression, it seems that extremely few urban families still prepare the traditional toshigami-dana and Bon-dana altars, with the result that there are also extremely few homes that greet ancestral spirits as part of their New Year's observances. In sum, it would appear that the meaning of New Year's and O-Bon for us urban dwellers has changed significantly.

While not limited to urban attitudes, the following survey responses provide an indication of how Japanese people today view the New Year's holidays:

"What significance do you give to the year-end and New-Year's period?" (Survey by Jiji Tsûshinsha, December, 1989. Unit: %)22

Undertaken nationwide by the Jiji Tsûshinsha in December of 1989, this survey was not conducted against any background of assumptions regarding New Year's customs as interpreted by Japanese ethnographic surveys, but it nonetheless provides several important pieces of data. As reflected by the overwhelming response "An opportunity for easygoing relaxation at home," the majority of respondents to this survey consider the New Year's holiday period first and foremost as a time of vacation rest. The New Year's vacation period enjoyed by the average employed person today is synchronized with the closure of public offices, extending generally from December 29 until January 3. The vacation period at large corporations tends to be a bit longer, but with no great difference. In sum, this brief period is used, after completing the year-end cleaning, to relax at home while also visiting friends and relatives, and greeting visitors.

New Year's Day is said to be a non-everyday hare day, an occasion on which special foods are eaten. According to Japanese ethnographic studies, it is the men who prepare hare foods, and these meals are eaten after the observance of a series of rituals, including the drawing of the first water of the new year (wakamizu kumi). But how many people in fact abide by such traditional customs? According to a survey on culinary habits conducted by the Mainichi Newspaper,23 seventy-four percent of Japanese homes undertake the preparation of osechi, ohagi and other special foods traditionally associated with New Year's and O-Bon. While it is difficult to estimate whether seventy-four percent should be considered a particularly high or low figure, the survey results do indicate that at least one in four homes do not prepare traditional foods. And the reasons such respondents give for not preparing those traditional foods hint that they consider such foods to have already lost their traditional ritual significance.

Survey on Culinary Habits (Mainichi Newspaper, December 1989)

(Unit: %)

Foods Associated with Traditional Holidays
Reasons for Not Preparing Traditional Foods

Further, according to a newspaper account reported by the Asahi shinbun (December 31, 1990), department-store sales of specially prepared "sets" of New Year's foods had experienced tremendous growth over the past five years. As reasons for this growth, the spokesman for one department store suggested the swelling numbers of women working outside the home, the increasing number of women who did not know how to prepare such foods, and a general trend toward enhanced emphasis on the holiday "atmosphere." As a result, while it appears that the Japanese continue to follow the custom of eating special foods during the New Year's holidays, the data simultaneously suggests that there is a great difference in the significance given to eating such foods.

Next, let me present several examples as a means of considering the meaning of the New Year's holidays for Japanese today.

Just before and after midnight each December 31, NHK broadcasts a television program called Yukutoshi, kurutoshi ["Year out, year in"], which is viewed by a large proportion of Japanese. Using the same basic format each year, the program relays live images of Buddhist temples throughout Japan as they ring out the old year on temple bells during the last fifteen minutes before midnight.

Images of Shinto shrines virtually never appear during this final fifteen-minute period, but at the instant of midnight, the television announcer greets the viewing audience with "Happy New Year!" and the scene switches abruptly to one or another Shinto shrine. This basic pattern continues without change, year in and year out.

As temple after temple tolls out the final fifteen minutes of the old year, one can assume that the image and mood transmitted to viewers is the one of "death." The fact that temple bells toll through the night in this way does not mean at all, however, that we Japanese have a common Buddhist faith and understanding of the Buddhist concept of "human passions" (bonnô).VIII Rather, the sound of the bells is a simple device meant to transmit the "ambience" of the Buddhist temple.

In the same way, the images of Shinto shrines which are broadcast during the last half of the program would appear to be designed to transmit the symbol of new "life." At the "end" of each busy year, urbanites experience their own "end" (death) through the medium of death symbolism associated with Buddhist temples. And at the start of the new year, we similarly experience a new rebirth through the image of the Shinto shrine, which for us represents "growth and productivity." The fact that the same broadcast format is sustained from year to year suggests that the initiative for the program's production lies not with the NHK staff, but rather with the expectations of the viewing audience, we Japanese ourselves.24

And when considered in this light, it becomes easier to understand the massive crowds of pilgrims visiting the Meiji Shrine[Glossary: meiji_jingu] during the New Year's holidays. According to figures released by the National Police Agency, the number of pilgrims to temples and shrines nationwide during the first three days of 1992 was 82.59 million, an increase of 5.17 million from the previous year. Visitors to Tokyo's Meiji Shrine numbered 3.6 million, the largest number to any single shrine or temple throughout the country. At the same time, while the Meiji Shrine currently draws the single largest number of pilgrims nationwide, things have not always been this way. It has taken this leading position only since 1980. Why, then, did it achieve this position, and extend its lead thereafter?

The reasons for this kind of growth cannot be subsumed simply to the increasing concentration of population in the Tokyo area, or the construction of better transportation facilities. After all, the other shrines in the Tokyo area can likewise assume to have benefitted by such factors, but not necessarily with any corresponding growth in visitors. In fact, with the exception of a very small group of shrines, the average number of visitors to most shrines has declined. On the contrary, it is probably closer the truth of the matter to say that the striking increase in visitors to the Meiji Shrine has been produced at the cost of a stagnation or decrease in visitors to other shrines.25

Why, then, do nearly four million pilgrims congregate at the Meiji Shrine and not at other shrines? Given their distaste for waiting in lines, how is it that Tokyoites can stand the congestion they are forced to bear leading up to the Meiji Shrine? If it is true that the simple growth in urban population is not immediately reflected in increasing numbers of shrine visitors, and if it is true that better transportation facilities have not worked to the unilateral benefit of the Meiji Shrine alone, the reason for the increase must be sought in the nature of the Meiji Shrine itself.

My immediate conclusion is that the Meiji Shrine must have a close association with the motif of annual "renewal" or "rebirth" for residents in the Tokyo area. Built during the Taishô era (1912-1926) the Meiji Shrine of course enshrines Emperor and Empress Meiji[Glossary: shoken_kogo] (r. 1868-1912), but with its spacious expanse of some 120 hectares in the Shibuya district, it produces the mood of a shrine generated spontaneously in the distant past. Large ritual gateways (torii[Glossary: torii]) clearly demarcate the sacred precincts from the profane area outside, while the gravel spread over the approachway[Glossary: sando] would seem to contradict the modern insistence on the shortest, most efficient means to a destination. By being thus drawn into this vast realm of green, visitors leave everyday profane space and enter a sacred world. If the collapse of the traditional village community has rendered impossible the sacralization of the community as a whole, then individuals and families must, by their own efforts, seek for a sacred area in which to pursue life's renewal. I believe that the Meiji Shrine can be viewed as a facility providing just that kind of space to modern urban residents.

In Japanese ethnography, the New Year's holidays are explained as "a rite of spring, celebrating the renewal of life." And the New Year's celebrations observed in the modern city can probably be understood in the same general sense. But the ethnographic analysis which states, as found in the Dictionary of Japanese Ethnography, that "the rites of Great New Year [January 1-7] are focused on spiritual rebirth, as reflected in the greeting of the 'new-year deity' (toshigami)" can no longer be applied to New Year's observances as found in the city. We urban residents have no mechanism for greeting the "new-year deity," and that precisely because we have lost the structure which itself gave rise to the toshigami concept itself. What gives structural regularity to the lives of modern urban residents is not agriculture, but information. Having lost the close-knit community of the agricultural village, urban residents still make efforts to maintaining their individual selves, their families, and societies, and in order to do so, they require rituals which give rebirth to those exhausted entities. I believe that in the mass pilgrimage to large-scale urban shrines, one can see the focus of urban residents fixed, through the mass media, on rituals which promise them the experience of sacred time, and can thus be understood as the result of a search for sacred space within the city.

4. Conclusion

I have argued thusfar that the annual events observed in the modern Japanese city differ broadly from those rites treated within traditional Japanese folklore studies. First, each of the corporations, schools, clubs, families and other social groupings to which an individual may belong possesses its own independent rituals and celebrations. This fact makes it doubtful whether any single "chart" of annual events can any longer be constructed as a means of providing a uniform and systematic explanation of the cosmology and religioous views of the Japanese people. It is no longer the case that a specific annual holiday is observed according to a prescribed formula with the kind of coercive force it once had within the community of the agricultural village. For example, even when rites exist which are ostensibly obligatory for the members of a group, they remain, fundamentally, voluntary in nature. But at the same time, while the nature of the coersion is different, it remains true that "annual events" are impressed forcibly upon the Japanese people as a whole. The ways of celebrating the holidays may differ, depending on the age and social grouping of which an individual is a member, but Christmas and New Year's remain the most important annual holidays celebrated in common by the majority of Japanese people.

Second, as revealed by my survey, the calendar of annual events observed within the modern Japanese city is formed from a combination of traditional festivals, together with newer events popular primarily among young people. As a result, we see that a large number of traditional observances have disappeared, but that fact simultaneously suggests that another category of holidays, seasonal nodes, or turning points which I have not considered here continues to exist in different form within the broader variety of specific social groupings. But such annual events cannot be sheerly private observances, and while the dissolution of the traditional commnity may mean such observances no longer possess the same force of compulsion they once did, they must still be defined as social events in which social obligation is at work in some other sense, including the force of mere "faddish popularity."26

I think the perspective of Religious Studies is very important for our understanding of the annual events currently observed in Japan. Religion in Japan is linked intimately to everyday life, and an analysis of annual events is thus indispensable to our understanding of this form of religion. In turn, I believe that a consideration of urban residents' religiosity as evidenced in their observation of annual events will make possible a better understanding of both the changes in and current state of postwar Japanese society and culture. What is important at this stage is to collect even broader and more detailed survey materials, toward obtaining a better grasp of the current state of affairs.


1. Regarding the history and current state of Christmas observances in Japan, see my article "Merii kurisumasu!" [Merry Christmas!], Shunjû (December 1990), and Shimazaki Seisuke, "Kurisumasu" [Christmas], Taishû bunka jiten [Dictionary of mass culture] (Tokyo: Kôbundô, 1991).

2. Regarding the history and current state of Valentine's Day observances in Japan, see my article "Mai fanii barentain" [My funny valentine], Shunjû (February-March 1991).

3. Yodo Emi, Jissen gifuto maaketeingu [Practical gift marketing] (Tokyo: Nihon Keizai Shinbunsha, 1990); Sakurai Hidenori, ed., Gifuto aidea jôhôgen [Information on gift ideas] (Sanmaaku Shuppan, 1988); Dentsû Maaketeingu Senryaku Kenkyusho, ed., "Okuru kokoro" no maaketeingu [Marketing the "spirit of gift-giving"] (Nihon Keizai Shinbunsha, 1987).

4. Regarding the observance of Halloween, St. Jordi's Day, and "Love Stars' Day," see my article "Bisuketto de harouin paateii o!" [A Halloween party with cookies!], Shunjû (November 1991).

5. See Yanagita Kunio, "Nenchû gyôji oboegaki" [A memorandum on annual events], Teihon Yanagita Kunio shû [The collected works of Yanagita Kunio, standard edition], Vol. 13 (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobô, 1969); Orikuchi Shinobu[Glossary: orikuchi_shinobu], "Nenchû gyôji" [Annual events], Orikuchi Shinobu zenshû [The collected works of Orikuchi Shinobu, Vol. 13], (Chûô Kôronsha, 1955); Wakamori Tarô, Nenchû gyôji [Annual events], (Tokyo: Keibundô, 1957); Nihon minzokugaku taikei Vol. 7: Seikatsu to minzoku, II [Anthology of Japanese ethnography, Vol 7: Everyday life and customs, II], (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1959); Nihon minzoku bunka taikei 9: Koyomi to saiji--Nihonjin no kisetsu kankaku [Anthology of Japan folk culture 9: calendars and festivals--The Japanese sense of seasons] (Tokyo: Shôgakkan, 1984).

6. This is not to say that changes in annual events have been entirely ignored within the field of Japanese ethnography. Important research has been done by Miyata Noboru, who analyzes the calendar of events in the early modern city of Edo (Edo saijiki [The Edo calendar of annual events] (Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kôbunkan, 1981); Kuraishi Tadahiko, who deals with annual events and the calendar of everyday life (Toshi minzokuron josetsu [Prologue to a theory of urban ethnography] (Tokyo: Yûzankaku, 1990); and Kobayashi Tadao, who considers urban folklore, focusing on the city of Kanazawa (Toshi minzokugaku: toshi no Folk Society [Urban ethnography: the folk society of the city] (Tokyo: Meicho Shuppan, 1990). But while providing important suggestions, these works are not entirely satisfying, since they omit any analysis of Christmas, Valentine's Day, or other annual events currently observed within urban areas.

7. For example, in the results of the survey on "Japanese national characteristics" conducted by the Kokuritsu Tôkei Sûri Kenkyusho [Institute of Statistical Mathematics] in 1988, thirty-one percent of Japanese indicated they "have religious faith."

8. See Ikado Fujio, "Nihon no shûkyô jijô: sôron" [The condition of Japanese Religion: a general introduction], Ikado Fujio and Yoshida Mitsukuni, eds., Nihonjin no shûkyô [Religion of the Japanese] (Tokyo: Tankôsha, 1970).

9. NHK Hôsô Yoron Chôsasho, ed., Nihonjin no shûkyô ishiki [The religious consciousness of the Japanese] (Tokyo: Nippon Hôsô Shuppan Kyôkai, 1984), 33. Based on the level of response, the same work calls the "New Year's pilgrimage" a universal "national event" (kokuminteki gyôji) observed by an overwhelming proportion of the populace, while "visiting the family tomb at O-Bon" is called a "class 1 national event" (dai ikkyû kokuminteki gyôji).

10. "Nihonjin to shûkyô" [The Japanese and religion], Yanagawa Keiichi and Abe Yoshiya, eds., Shûkyô riron to shûkyôshi [Religion theory and the history of religions] (Tokyo: Hôsô Daigaku Kyôiku Shinkôkai, 1985). This work analyzes the spring Flower Festival (Hana Matsuri) and O-bon as observances with close ties to Buddhism; Coming-of-Age and "Seven-Five-Three" as events with close ties to Shinto shrines; Tanabata and Chûshûsetsu [August moon festival] as holidays transmitted from China; and Christmas and Valentine's Day as holidays closely related to Christianity (212).

11. Miyake Jun, "Ichinen no rizumu" [The annual rhythm], Seikatsu no naka no shûkyô [Religion in everyday life] (Tokyo: Nippon Hôsô Shuppan Kyôkai, 1980). Also, idem, "Girei no kôzô bunseki-rei: Nihon no minzoku shûkyô no girei no kôzô" [An example of the structural analysis of ritual: the structure of rituals in Japanese popular religion], Shûkyô minzokugaku [Religious ethnography] (Tokyo: Tôkyô Daigaku Shuppankai, 1989).

12. Tanaka Minoru,, ed., Riideingusu Nihon no shakaigaku Vol. 6: Nôson [Readings in Japanese sociology: the agricultural village] (Tokyo: Tôkyô Daigaku Shuppankai, 1986); Sobue Takao, ed., Nihonjin wa doo kawatta no ka: sengo kara gendai e [How have the Japanese changed?: the postwar period to the present] (Nippon Hôsô Shuppan Kyôkai, 1987); Kôdo Keizai Seichô o Kangaeru Kai, ed., Kôdo seichô to Nihonjin, Part 3: Shakaihen, rettô no itonami to fukei Part 3 [High-level growth and the Japanese, Part 3, The society: the workings and scenery of the archipelago] (Nihon Edeitaa Sukuuru Shuppanbu, 1986).

13. In addition to the references in the previous note, see Kôdo Keizai Seichô o Kangaeru Kai, ed., Kôdo seichô to Nihonjin, Part 1: Kojinhen, tanjô kara shi made no monogatari Part 1 [High-level growth and the Japanese, Part 1, The Individual: the story from birth to death] (Nihon Edeitaa Sukuuru Shuppanbu, 1985); idem, Kôdo seichô to Nihonjin, Part 2: Kateihen, Katei no seikatsu no monogatari Part 2 [High-level growth and the Japanese, Part 2, The Family: the story of family life] (Nihon Edeitaa Sukuuru Shuppanbu, 1985); Sakuta Keiichi, Kachi no shakaigaku [The sociology of values] (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1973); Katô Tetsurô, Sengo ishiki no henbô [The transformation of consciousness in the postwar period], Iwanami Bukkuretto Shiriizu Shôwashi 14 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1989); NHK Yoron Chôsabu, ed., Gendai Nihonjin no ishikiki kôzô, Daisan han [The structure of modern Japanese consciousness, part 3] (Tokyo: Nippon Hôsô Shuppan Kyôkai, 1991); NHK Yoron Chôsabu, ed., Zusetsu sengo yoronshi [Illustrated history of postwar public opinion] (Tokyo: Nippon Hôsô Shuppan Kyôkai, 1982); and Keizai Kikaku-chô Kokumin Seikatsu-kyoku, [Economic Planning Agency, Social Policy Bureau], ed., Kokumin seikatsu o kaeru aratana shuyaku-tachi [The new forces shaping national life] (1991).

14. Survey conducted via personal interviews with men and women aged 20 and above living within the Tokyo metropolitan area, excluding island areas. Of 3,000 persons interviewed, 2,104 responses were received, for a response rate of 70.1%.

15. Survey conducted by Tokyo's Kika Ward via questionnaires mailed to residents aged 18 and above. Of 1,300 interviews mailed, 905 responses were received, for a response rate of 69.6%.

16. Survey conducted via personal interviews with men and women aged 20 and above living within the Tokyo metropolitan area, excluding island areas. Of 3,000 persons interviewed, 2,094 responses were received, for a response rate of 69.8%.

17. The seven holidays widely observed with such a high level of regular support also rank high in observance on nationwide surveys. The following are results taken from a public-opinion survey conducted by the newspaper Yomiuri shinbun in July 1978, together with the results of the previously mentioned NHK survey on religious attitudes (see note 9 above):

Yomiuri shinbun Nationwide Survey of Public Opinion

(Rates of Observance; unit: %)

Survey of Japanese Religious Consciousness (NHK)

New Year's pilgrimage
Scattering beans on setsubun
Visits to family tombs at O-Bon, equinoctial periods
Moon viewing (Harvest Moon)
Christmas cake
Family birthdays

18. My survey covered thirty-five event items, including observances considered by ethnologists to be "Japanese events," together with the six holidays Valentine's Day, White Day, Easter, Mother's Day, Halloween, and Christmas, which are thought to be observed primarily among young people. For more detailed results of the survey, see my article "Utsurikawaru nenchû gyôji" [Changing annual events], Shunjû (May 1991).

19. The five holidays of 7-5-3, Doll Festival, White Day, Children's Day, and Tanabata show less than a fifty-percent rate of observance, but they all produced high rates of response in the item "formerly observed." When one considers the relationship between a ritual and the age of its chief participants, these five should probably be included on the list of those holidays currently observed. When these are included, the total of "living" observances among modern young people would seem to be the combination of the eight holidays (New Year's, etc.) with the highest rates of observance, together with the addition of the five rites noted above and which possess a close relationship to specific ages.

20. Here, some degree of sexual differentiation can be observed in the responses. When the overall rates of observance are plotted in terms of rates for the two sexes, the rates for women are in all cases higher than for men.

21. Tanaka Sen'ichi, "Nenchû gyôji no kôzô" [The structure of annual events], Nihon minzoku bunka taikei 9: Koyomi to saiji--Nihonjin no kisetsu kankaku, 111.

22. Survey conducted nationwide with persons aged 20 and above. Of 2,000 persons interviewed, 1468 responses were received, for a response rate of 73.4%

23. Survey conducted nationwide with people aged 20 and above in December, 1989. Of 3,000 persons interviewed, 2,235 responses were received, for a response rate of 74.5%

24. Regarding the current significance given to New Year's, see my articles "Hayaku koikoi o-shogatsu" [Waiting anxiously for New Year's], Shunjû (January 1991), and "Imadoki no o-shogatsu" [The modern way of New Year's], Shunjû (January 1992).

25. For a statistical analysis of New Year's visitors to major shrines throughout Japan, see my "Hatsumode[Glossary: hatsumode] no jittai kenkyû jôron: sengo no jinja shinto no hen'yô no kaimei ni mukete" [Prelude to research on the state of New Year's pilgrimages: toward an understanding of changes to Shrine Shinto in the postwar period] Meiji Seitoku Kinengaku kiyô, (supplementary issue 1, 1988).

26. An important point here is the positive participation in annual rites by females. Both Christmas and Valentine's Day as observed in Japan can be considered centered on women, and my own survey revealed a noteworthy level of active concern for annual events by women overall. This fact represents an intriguing development in the context of the historical Japanese community, where where men formed the exclusive group crucially responsible for the observance of most annual events.

Translator's Notes

I. Originally published as "Nenchû gyôji ni miru Nihonjin no shûkyô seikatsu no hen'yô", Wakimoto Tsuneya and Yanagawa Keiichi, eds., Matsuri e no manazashi [Focus on worship]. Gendai Shûkyôgaku 3. Tokyo: Tôkyô Daigaku Shuppankai, 1992.

II. Within recent Japanese "custom," Valentine's Day is observed by women who send gifts to men. In turn, men reciprocate by sending gifts to women on "White Day," a unique Japanese custom observed one month after Valentine's Day on March 14.

III. Observed on April 23, Saint Jordi's Day is a holiday of Spanish origin; according to Japanese practice, the day is observed by men's sending flowers to women, and by women's sending books to men.

IV. Minzokugaku jiten. Tokyo: Tôkyôdô, 1949.

V. The "Seven-Five-Three" festival is observed on or around November 15 by girls of seven, boys of five, and three-year-old children of both sexes. Typical observances includes making a visit to a shrine dressed in finery, and making prayers for the child's good health.

VI. Ôharae[Glossary: oharae] or ôharae is the Shinto ceremony of "major purification," traditionally observed semiannually on June 30 and December 31. The June observance is also called nagoshi no harai (see the text, two paragraphs below).

VII. Kamabuta tsuitachi ["first day of the opening of the kettle"] is observed on July 1 in some parts of Japan as the first day of the O-bon season. The name comes from the belief that the "kettle of hell" is opened on this day, allowing deceased souls to return to earth for the duration of the O-bon holidays.

VIII. Temples traditionally toll their bells one-hundred and eight times on the last night of the year, in what is traditionally explained as a symbolic exorcism of the one-hundred and eight evil passions.

Table 1. Survey of University Students' Attitudes toward Annual Events

Question: "Do you observe the following annual events?" [Glossary: ko_shogatsu][Glossary: tango_no_sekku][Glossary: niinamesai]
  Yes No
I used to
observe it
I don't
observe it
I've never even
heard of it
New Year's Day 93.8 4.0 0.9 0.4
Nanoka shôgatsu 28.4 13.8 44.9 9.3
Koshôgatsu 19.6 8.9 55.6 10.2
Hatsu tsuitachi 3.1 0.9 25.3 68.0
Setsubun 57.3 40.4 2.2 -.-
Koto yôka 1.8 -.- 16.0 79.6
Valentine's Day 56.9 22.2 10.2 1.3
Shanichi 2.2 -.- 12.0 82.7
Spring equinox 53.3 9.8 23.6 11.6
Doll's Festival 39.1 42.7 16.9 0.4
White Day 41.8 22.2 24.4 1.8
Easter 5.3 10.2 56.0 17.8
Uzuki yôka 1.3 0.4 30.2 65.8
Hana matsuri 8.0 12.0 43.6 32.9
Tango no sekku 24.4 53.8 20.0 1.3
Mother's Day 70.2 20.9 6.2 0.4
Kôri no tsuitachi 0.9 -.- 10.2 87.1
Suijin matsuri 2.7 0.9 32.4 62.2
Nagoshi no harai 14.7 2.2 20.4 59.6
Tanabata 35.1 63.6 1.3 -.-
O-bon 73.3 12.9 10.8 -.-
Hassaku 1.3 -.- 26.7 70.2
Hokakesai 2.2 0.4 22.2 74.2
Okunchi 0.4 1.8 34.2 60.4
Harvest Festival 6.2 4.9 57.8 28.4
Halloween 12.9 10.2 58.7 3.6
"Seven-Five-Three" 11.6 81.3 6.2 -.-
Onna no ie 0.9 -.- 11.6 84.4
Niinamesai 12.9 1.3 68.4 11.6
Taishikô 1.8 0.9 28.4 66.2
Kawahidari no tsuitachi 0.9 -.- 11.6 85.3
Koto yokka 1.3 -.- 17.8 78.7
Susutori shôgatsu 3.6 6.7 33.8 52.9
Christmas 82.2 10.2 2.7 -.-
Ôharae 53.8 4.4 26.2 8.9

Table 2. Important Annual Events

Most Important Second Third
Rank Responses Rank Responses Rank Responses
1 New Year's 78 1 Christmas 42 1 Christmas 24
2 Christmas 36 2 New Year's 26 2 O-bon 22
3 Ôharae 8 3 O-bon 22 3 Valentine's Day 14
4 O-bon 7 4 Valentine's Day 14 4 New Year's 13
5 Birthday 2 5 Higan 6 5 Ôharae 11
6 Tanabata 1 5 Ôharae 6 6 Mother's Day 7
6 Easter 1 7 White Day 4 7 Tanabata 6
  8 Easter 3 7 Birthday 6
10 Mother's Day 3 9 Higan 5
10 Doll's Festival 2 10 Hana matsuri 3
12 Harvest Moon 1 11 Halloween 2
12 (School) opening ceremony 1 11 Setsubun 2
12 Jôdo-e 1 12 White Day 1
12 Setsubun 1 12 Winter solstice 1
12 Okunchi 1 12 Nehan-e 1
12 Father's Day 1  

[Table of Contents]

$Date: 2000/11/09 05:48:01 $
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