Festival celebrations of different kinds were enjoyed by children as well as adults. For children who were evacuated, or teenagers mobilised for work in factories, festivals were a relief from wartime pressures, and sometimes an opportunity to go home and see their families.

New Year was a particular highlight. Interviewees remembered various ways in which it was celebrated in their households. Children looked forward to special New Year dishes, such as o-zōni soup with ricecake (mochi), carp, and tempura; during wartime, previously commonplace foods like mandarin oranges, boiled eggs, fish, and biscuits could be celebrated as special holiday treats. Households that normally ate rice mixed with barley might eat pure white rice as a special treat at New Year. Some interviewees also remembered being bought new items, such as clothes and toys, as well as putting up special decorations. Many interviewees recalled playing special New Year games such as the card game karuta, kite-flying, or hanetsuki, a game where the players try to keep a shuttlecock in the air. New Year might also be the time when children would receive the blank diaries, stationary, brushes, and fountain pens they would later use to record their lives.

The summer festival of O-Bon was also an important holiday for young people, as it involved veneration of ancestors and also could relieve children of various pressures, whether it was evacuation, labour, or schoolwork. Special meals were heavily influenced by regional cuisine, as was the date when O-Bon was celebrated, but festival foods included grilled octopus (takoyaki), sweet rice dumplings (dango), and possibly sushi (depending on the availability of fish and white rice). Children wore traditional summertime robes, like yukata and kimono, and locals would perform special dances in public, as some interviewees remembered. Most importantly, it was an occasion for families to come together, so for young people separated from home it could be an especially hard time.

Cherry blossom viewing (hanami) was also remembered by a number of interviewees as a family excursion to which they looked forward. This was particularly so in the case of interviewees who lived near a famous site for cherry blossom viewing, such as Hirosaki Castle grounds in Aomori prefecture. In the Kansai region, for example, families might take their children by public transit to Kyoto to view particularly famous sites, like Yasaka Shrine, which was an opportunity for young people to travel and see a bit of the world outside of their hometown.

Interviewees also remembered enjoying local festivals. Sometimes these involved carrying portable shrines (mikoshi) or playing a musical instrument like flute or drum. At local nebuta festivals in Aomori prefecture, children might make a decorated float called a nebuta and carry it around the streets at festival time. The leadership role among younger children was taken by children at higher elementary school (kōtō shōgakkō), and among older youth, by the youth organisation (seinendan). Many interviewees recalled receiving a little pocket money to spend on eatables, toys, and games at the street stalls that used to appear at festivals. Girls remembered wearing pretty kimono for festivals, or seeing older girls doing so and wanting to do the same. During the Pacific War, however, wearing such festive clothes was frowned upon.

The occasions of such festivals varied according to locality. In Okinawa, for example, one interviewee recalled gathering for a festival called Shiimii, corresponding to the Ching Ming grave-sweeping day in China.

Elementary school sports days (undōkai) were also an opportunity for families to spend a day watching the events and enjoying some nice picnic food and drink (sometimes including alcohol). For evacuated children they were unique social events, in that children of different hometowns, schools, class years, and genders mixed together in a large public event. Racing, kendo, and sumo matches feature in wartime diaries frequently, as highly competitive and memorable events.

Peter Cave, Aaron William Moore, and L. Halliday Piel

How to Cite This Source

Peter Cave, Aaron William Moore, and L. Halliday Piel, ‘Festivals’, in Childhood, Education and Youth in Modern Japan [add URL and access date].