What’s Red and White and Gold All Over?

Features - April 21st, 2006

Why Golden Week is a distinctly Japanese holiday

by Laura Fumiko Keehn

What starts on Apr. 29, ends May 5, and among other things, celebrates greenery, children, and the constitu­tion? You got it, Golden Week. It’s that strange cluster of holidays around the first week of May when planes, trains, and automobiles fill up and all hell breaks loose. But what exactly is Golden Week? Where does it come from, what’s the spirit behind it, and what makes it gold? In fact, the history of this holiday cuts right through the heart of post-war Japan, and may well embody the spirit of this country more than any other holiday.

Take a Vacation, it’s the Law!

To know what Golden Week is, we need a bit of his­tory. Back in 1948, the world was in one of its turn­ing stages. The World Wars had ended, and Japan was very much on the losing side. The country was made to know this in no uncertain terms. That year, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE) sentenced seven Japanese military and political lead­ers to death for war crimes and crimes against hu­manity. They were found accountable for the unbelievable atrocities commit­ted during the war. One of the men ex­ecuted, Hideki Tojo, had attempted sui­cide upon his capture, but was treated and saved by his captors so he could stand trial and receive his sentence. In the previous year of 1947, a drafting of the Japanese constitution under the watchful eye of General Douglas MacArthur and the Allied occupa­tion also served to make the former fierce warring na­tion a humble, meek, and defeated island. By force, necessity, and for survival, Japan adapted (some may say reinvented) itself into a pacifist nation.

Apparently Golden week, though definitely not
a national holiday in the U.S., has entered
the mainstream vocabulary in Hawaii and Guam

Great, significant things were happening outside of the tumultuous borders of Japan as well. Israel was de­clared an independent state and was promptly invaded by surrounding nations, who found themselves kicked firmly out by an even more self-assured country. The World Health Organization was established, and the first color newsreel was shown. Mahatma Gandhi died, and James Taylor, Steven Tyler, and Andrew Lloyd Webber were born.

Amidst this stew of events, Japan passed the Public Holiday Law. The law states that, “in order for the peo­ple of Japan, who wish for freedom and peace, to nur­ture customs of beauty, and to construct a better, more abundant society and lifestyle, days that are celebrated, shown gratitude, and commemorated by a significant number of citizens, are hereby designated and called ‘National Holidays.”‘ Interestingly, this law, passed the same year as the sentencing of the IMTFE, made the celebration of Japanese cultural holidays official.

Who gets the Gold?

But where does the name ‘Golden Week’ come from? What does it have to do with national holidays serving to improve society? For the first two years succeeding the Public Holiday Law, the national holidays closely clustered around the first week of May had no name. But in 1951, Matsuyama Hideo, the managing director of Daiei Motion Picture company (now Kadokawa Herald Pictures Inc., a company focusing on domestic releas­es, such as Chakushin Ari and Chakushin Ari 2, a horror film series about cellphones) coined the term Golden Week. No doubt golden for the money that filled his pocket during the week. Apparently people filed into movie theaters en masse during these holidays. And in fact, 1951 was a very good year for Japanese film, with Rashomon in theaters (made in 1950, the film went on to win an academy award in 1952).

So is Golden Week still a great time for movies? A few kiddie cartoons — Crayon Shinchan and Conan — are coming out right before Golden Week this year, indicat­ing that the holiday is a great time for children to go to the movies. However, Goodnight and Good Luck and Tom Yum Goong are the main releases during Golden Week for the Virgin Toho Theater in Roppongi Hills, so per­haps the answer is, though by no means bad, Golden Week is not especially a great time for movies today.

Into the Pacific

Instead of flooding the movie theaters, people are flooding Hawaii. No joke, apparently Golden Week, though definitely not a national holiday in the U.S., has entered the mainstream vocabulary in Hawaii and Guam. Shoko Someya, a travel agent for All Nip­pon Airways (ANA), says that plane tickets can be up to three times their regular price, and the most pop­ular destinations are, of course, Hawaii and Guam. “There are usually over 60 people on the waiting list.

Before they all give up and cancel, the waiting list can even have over 120 or 140 people,” she claims. Amazingly, ANA even sends out more planes. “We usually only have flights to Guam from Kansai In­ternational Airport, but for Golden Week, we send some flights out from Haneda too.” Someya how­ever, is not jumping on the bandwagon. A service industry employee, she hasn’t had Golden Week off in at least seven years, but if she did, she’d rather go to Canada.

However, Mimi Nakano, a professional in her twen­ties, loves Hawaii, and would jump at the chance to spend her Golden Week under its golden sun. “Hawaii has everything,” she explains, further enlightening me as to why the 50th United State is so popular to Japanese travelers. “You’ll never get bored. It’s got shop­ping, the sky is beautiful, the ocean too. It was the first foreign place I’d ever traveled to, and it was beautiful,” says Nakano. She’s almost convinced me to get myself on one of those waiting lists to Hawaii, and if it wasn’t for the crowds and the exorbitant prices, I just might.

Which brings me to the other Golden Week char­acteristic. As Someya mentioned, travel costs can be as high as three times the regular price. And crowds are unbearable, with bullet trains filling up to rush hour Yamanote line levels. So why cling to this holiday? Could it be an almost primal desire to preserve the Jap­anese spirit? Is it an expression of pride and solidarity in their fellow fallen citizens, a remembrance of that painful year almost 60 years ago when their leaders were tried, found guilty and hanged, the same year the country quietly passed into law holidays commemo­rating their country?

To many people today, the answer can be incred­ibly simple. “I celebrate these holidays because I have those days off,” says Kenji Ito, a workaholic web de­signer. Being a workaholic, he doesn’t even take week­ends off. However, if it induces Ito and others like him to take a day or two off, Golden Week is definitely a force to be reckoned with.