Japanese festivals, celebrations and ceremonies explained

Why does White Day (a second Valentine’s Day when Japanese guys give chocolates to girls) exist?

Why beans for setsubun?

Why do the Japanese only dance at O-Bon (the summer festival of the dead)?

Although there are plenty of other local festivals with dancing involved, this is the only time of year associated with dancing almost everywhere. It originally started as an ecstatic nembutsu Buddhist dance, possibly meant to communicate with the returning spirits of the ancestors. Because it was not tied up with local deities like (Shinto) local festivals, it became a national custom.

Why are traditional Japanese matsuri street festivals similar to Spanish ones (carrying a shrine through the streets etc.)?

Wanting to have your street and house blessed and protected is probably a human universal, but one similarity between Japan and Spain that might be relevant is that a Shinto shrine and a Spanish catholic church are places where the people are usually kept well away from the most important places, perhaps making it necessary for them to open up at least once a year.

Why are beans used to drive demons out of the house in the Setsubun spring festival, rather than something that usually represents purity, like salt?

Because salt would be more difficult to clean up after? Because roasted beans were the only thing still in abundance at the end of winter? It is also possibly because roasted beans were more generally used in bean bags etc. as something you throw around.

Why do the Japanese clean their homes at New Year when it’s freezing cold when you open the windows, rather than having a “spring clean”?

Apart from the symbolism of having your house in the clean state you wish to see the rest of the year, New Year is also a time when you are traditonally most likely to have visitors. In Japan, New Year is often a time with clear blue skies and low humidity, perhaps making it quite a suitable time for cleaning. The Japanese do also have a traditional spring clean after the Setsubun bean throwing.

Is calling an office Xmas party a “bounenkai” (forget the year party) just a joke, or does it have a more traditional and/ or deeper meaning?

Although most people can see the humourous connection being drinking and forgetting, the original meaning seems to have been to have a drink with someone to forget any disagreements or problems you might have had over the year so that you can start with a blank slate next year.

Why do only boys get a carp streamer hung outside the house for them?

Although a few families hang one out for a girl nowadays, this comes from a time when the division of the sexes was much clearer. The carp is meant to represent a man’s ability to perservere and keep on fighting, like a carp swimming against the current. Although a housewife of a poor family living with her mother-in-law would have needed exactly the same qualities, these were perhaps considered less “lady-like” character traits. Hanging out one carp per boy was also a way of a family boasting about the number of healthy boys they had managed to produce, and so the future strength of their family.

Why are traditional Japanese dolls (e.g the ones used in the hina matsuri girls’ festival) so scary looking?

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