Labour Thanksgiving Day in Japan

Author: Bill

Labour Thanksgiving Day in Japan

In our recent article about paid leave in Japan, we mentioned the importance of public holidays in supplementing the – some would say – meager statutory leave entitlement available to workers in Japan. One of these national holidays is Labour Thanksgiving Day (勤労感謝の日 – Kinrō Kansha no Hi), observed on November 23rd.

Labour Thanksgiving Day was established by law back in 1948, along with many of Japan’s national holidays, and was described as an occasion for commemorating labour and productivity, and giving each other thanks. However, November 23rd (and its pre-Gregorian equivalent) had been a notable date on the Japanese calendar for several centuries as an agricultural festival known as Niiname-sai (新嘗祭).

The Usurpers

The history behind national, public, and bank holidays around the world is often one of ancient traditions being supplanted by a pre-eminent authority. The spread of Christianity in Europe as both a spiritual and political force, saw many then existing, and far older pagan festivals and observances hijacked, if you will, for the church’s purposes. Christmas, for example, replaced several pagan winter festivals in Northern Europe and the British Isles, as well as the Roman Saturnalia festival.

So it is with Niiname-sai (sometimes read as Shinjō-sai), a fairly innocuous Shinto harvest festival in which farmers gave thanks for an abundant rice harvest (or other cereal crops) and recognised everyone’s hard work over the year. The festival has been traced back to at least the 7th Century AD, but was likely to be several centuries older, depending on which source one consults. It was also closely linked to the Japanese Imperial household since the time of Emperor Tenmu (667-686 AD), and this was a problem for the post-war authorities.

In drafting the new Japanese constitution and revising the country’s legislature, the occupation forces were careful to exclude or alter almost anything related to Shintoism or Emperor worship. Thus, Niiname-sai was replaced with the current Labour Thanksgiving Day along the lines of the United States’ Labor Day, though on a different date.

Japanese flag and bicycles

From Niiname-sai to Kinrō Kansha no Hi

The meaning of Niiname-sai is something like Festival of the First Taste, which relates to a tradition of the Emperor taking the first taste of the rice harvest and dedicating it to the gods. Indeed, the Imperial household still observes the festival privately and some Shinto shrines and temples may hold modest observances on that day. But few ordinary people give it any thought at all, or indeed have any real familiarity with Shinto traditions; interest in the official state religion has waned considerably throughout the post war era.

It’s tempting to compare this with near empty churches in some ostensibly Christian countries, such as the UK during the same epoch, but that would be a mistake. Religion in Japan is never simply a matter of believing or not believing, rather it is a state of mind that pervades everything from daily life choices to the arts, from aesthetics to philosophy, and more. And in this respect, Buddhism seems a much better fit for the Japanese psyche, particularly in this modern era. But this is another discussion altogether, one we may return to at a later date.

The point is, it wasn’t hard for Japanese people to put aside the Festival of the First Taste for a more accessible and generally relevant Labour Thanksgiving Day, especially if it guaranteed them a day off work. For a while, the spirit of the festival was actively observed, and older people may remember a time when school children designed posters or wrote letters for their local koban (police box) or fire brigade to thank them for keeping them safe and secure during the year; and when families honoured hard working fathers, perhaps with a special meal or a bottle of his favourite shōchū. But this is rare these days.

Labour Thanksgiving Day

Although most often described as an Autumn festival, Labour Thanksgiving Day is not so much a seasonal celebration as a societal one. In view of improved workers rights that were introduced around the time of the holiday’s establishment, it’s not surprising that the principal celebrants are industry, trade unions and city councils. Besides, ordinary Japanese people celebrate Autumn throughout mid October to late November by flocking to the parks, temples and countryside to marvel at the vivid orange hues of changing leaves; they don’t need a special holiday to do that!

In my experience, there are few Labour Thanksgiving Day events per se, certainly very few that might interest tourists, journalists or casual visitors, with the possible exception of the Nagano Labour Festival. You will see a lot of references to the Nagano Labour Festival on the internet, and how it aims to increase awareness of issues such as world peace, human rights, the environment and so on, though I suspect the writers are simply repeating what they’ve read elsewhere and have not actually attended it themselves.

As one who has attended Nagano Labour Festival, I have to say I found it to be a rather dry affair, of more interest to the already-converted than to the average day tripper. Fortunately for the organisers – mostly local labour organisations – the festival coincides with the Nagano Ebisuko fireworks display, the only Autumn fireworks display in Japan, so at least some important messages will get across to those visitors who choose to kill time at the Labour festival before the evening’s attraction.

However, irrespective of the historical basis for Labour Thanksgiving Day, or the somewhat egalitarian flavour of its precept, the majority of working Japanese won’t be celebrating much beyond the chance to catch up on some shut-eye. And because the shops are all still open, teenage girls, like my daughter, will be able to indulge in their favourite pastime: shopping. Whether they thank their parents for making it possible or not is another thing entirely.

Japanese man enjoys walk in the park with autumn leaves

What About May Day?

For those of us born out of an enduring socialist tradition, May Day has long been an important date for remembering workers’ struggles to achieve an 8 hour working day, better working conditions, and the right to union representation. May 1st, if I’m not mistaken, was the date of another of those early European Pagan festivals… a Spring time fertility rite… but I digress.

As for Japan, May Day is not a national holiday as it is in the UK or US (as Labor Day), but because it occurs during Golden Week (between Shōwa Day on April 29th, and Constitution Memorial Day on May 3rd) many employers give it as a day off, or employees simply use a day of paid vacation in order to extend the holiday period. However, trade unions in all the major cities organise May Day marches and rallies, if only to express solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Japan and around the world.

The Labour Movement in Japan

As you might imagine, Japanese workers had their fair share of struggles historically, with significant disputes throughout the late 19th and early 20th Centuries in pursuit of an 8 hour working day, etc. But it was not until 1945 that the Trade Union Act finally allowed Japanese workers to openly unionise, bargain collectively and even strike. Since then, there’s been a tradition of activism within the trade union movement, and not all of it solely for the benefit of Japanese workers.

Consider, if you will, the 1995-1998 Liverpool dockers dispute and the solidarity shown them by dockers’ unions around the world. From the Western seaboard of the United States, right across Europe to Russia, to Australia and New Zealand, and to Asia, dockers’ unions were organising protests and refusing to handle cargo to or from Liverpool, none more so than in Japan. The then Assistant General Secretary of the Japanese Dockers’ Union, Akinobu Itoh, even travelled to Liverpool to address the Liverpool dockers and show solidarity.

A Final Thought

Whether it’s November 23rd or May 1st, a day off is a day off, right? But what we must all remember on days such as Labour Thanksgiving Day, and May Day, is the terrible price that so many of our forefathers paid so that we could enjoy the rights and privileges we have today. It is our duty, therefore, to ensure that those rights are not usurped or abrogated, and to continue to fight on behalf of those whose rights are under threat, wherever they may be.

By Bill Ambler

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