Thanksgiving in Japan (Labor Thanksgiving / 勤労感謝の日)

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Here is a trivia for Japanese Option students who need to show off their knowledge from their schoolwork to the extended family members during the Thanksgiving meal. In short, rough equivalencies between the U.S. Thanksgiving and the Japanese Thanksgiving are:

  • U.S Thanksgiving = Japan’s New Year Day
  • U.S. Labor Day = Japan’s Thanksgiving
  • U.S. May Day = Japan’s Thanksgiving

In Japan, the November 23 is a national holiday called 勤労感謝日 (きんろうかんしゃのひ) (Labor Thanksgiving). The origin of 勤労感謝日 (きんろうかんしゃのひ) is quite similar to the American Thanksgiving, both of which started from the appreciation for the autumn harvest of the year. In the U.S., appreciation for harvests was depicted in the meal between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag in 1621 while, in Japan, the similar harvest appreciation started during the Japan’s Emperor’s supper depicted in The Chronicles of Japan in 720 AD.

Thanksgiving has become a major holiday for family reunion in the U.S., which resembles a lot of the New Year holidays in Japan and many other Southeast and East Asian countries. Probably because there was already a holiday for family reunion in Japan, 勤労感謝日 (きんろうかんしゃのひ) in Japan has undergone a major transformation from its original meaning.

We need to look at the history of 勤労感謝日 (きんろうかんしゃのひ) in order to understand how Japanese Thanksgiving has transformed into a completely different type of national holiday. Originally the Japanese Thanksgiving was called 新嘗祭 (にいなめさい), which is translated into “ceremonial offering of newly-harvested rice to the deities”. In 1947, in order to establish a clear separation between religion and politics, the Japanese Government has decided to change 新嘗祭 (にいなめさい) to 感謝日 (かんしゃのひ), or “Thanksgiving Day.” Unfortunately, “Thanksgiving Day” was not popular in Japan because of the ambiguity about the object of appreciation. In theory, it should have been changed to something like 収穫感謝日 (しゅうかくかんしゃのひ), or “Harvest Thanksgiving”, but since a large number of Japanese that time were not farmers, the term 勤労感謝日 (きんろうかんしゃのひ), or “Labor Thanksgiving” was eventually adopted.

Ironically, the term “Labor” took on more significance in Japan during the Thanksgiving holiday and the current “Labor Thanksgiving Day” in Japan looks a lot more like “Labor Day” or “May Day” (plus a little bit of feeling of “Thanksgiving”) in the U.S.

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