One of the first things I noticed, as a schoolteacher in Japan, is that so many countries start their school year in a different month. I come from Australia, where the school year is the same as the calendar year, and so the students begin their classes in January.
Being in the southern hemisphere, Australia’s summer holidays start around the 15th of December and finish on January 26th, which is Australia Day. (Summer itself doesn’t end until March). The United States also begins their school year after summer vacation, which in North America means that the students start their new school year in September.
Japan is different again, with the new school year beginning in April. It doesn’t follow summer vacation, but rather spring vacation. In a way, this makes perfect sense, because Japan’s year is in perfect sync with the seasons.
Spring is the time when nature starts its cycle all over again, after a cold snowy winter in which ‘mother nature’ appears to hibernate; and just as the flowers once again begin to bloom, so does a new year. This is not just the case in schools and universities either, but also in the work place.
(A new year, with regard to schools and companies in Japan, should not be confused with the official “New Year Day” on January 1, called ‘Oshogatsu’ in Japanese. However, I was fascinated to learn that Japan only adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1873, and before this time, Japan used a ‘lunar-solar’ calendar similar to that of China).
Japanese companies have their recruitment drive (for students) in January, and advertise general job vacancies in the media throughout February and March. Most job interviews are held in March, and the welcome ceremony for new recruits is held at the start of April. Many companies hold ‘welcome parties’ for new employees outdoors, under the Cherry Blossom trees (Sakura). This custom is known as ‘Hanami’ (‘flower viewing’).
It is often the duty of a new employee on that day to reserve a good spot in the park, as many companies hold parties at the same time, often on the same day, and the parks become crowded very quickly. They celebrate not just a new year in the company, but also the arrival of spring after what has usually been a long, cold winter.
The concept of ‘lifetime employment’ is rapidly fading in Japan, and many positions are now filled by workers on yearly contracts. However, even permanent employees can find themselves in a new position come April, either due to a promotion or a transfer; and yet this seems natural to most Japanese, coinciding as it does with the start of a new seasonal year outside their windows.
In May there is a string of religious and traditional holidays, which coincide with the peak of spring, and this week long vacation is commonly called, ‘Golden Week’.
Summer begins in June, and so does the rainy season, known as ‘Tsuyu’ in Japan. This is perfect for the rice fields. Rice seeds are planted in special containers in April, and then the rice shoots are transplanted into rice fields in May. Then the rain arrives in June.
But by this time, almost every student at school is looking forward to the summer vacation, which starts in mid-July. The annual high school baseball championship, held at Koushien Stadium in Osaka, is played during the summer vacation, and is extremely popular with students and adults alike. It is televised around the nation during August.
Many summer festivals are held all over Japan. One of the most important of these is called, ‘Obon’, and this is a time that Japanese people travel to be with their families. Companies allow workers time off for this traditional holiday. It is a time for honoring deceased relatives, cleaning their grave sites, and enjoying a dance called ‘Bon Odori’.
In most local neighborhoods, one can smell the wonderful scent of burning wood as families fire up their barbecues. It is a time for swimming, watching fireworks, and relaxing. Japan is extremely humid during summer, and many people opt to stay inside and fan themselves to stay cool. In fact, on the old Japanese calendar, July was known as ‘Fumizuki’ (literally ‘book month’), as it was a good time to stay indoors and read.
Autumn is exceptionally beautiful, and many Japanese people go driving and hiking at this time to see the gorgeous autumn leaves as they change colors. The yellow, orange and red leaves often make it appear as if the hillsides are on fire. There are still many barbecues at this time of the year, as families and groups of friends sit outside and observe the spectacle that nature provides.
The rice is harvested at the beginning of autumn, just before the annual typhoon season begins (usually in October in most places, depending on the location).
It still amazes me how quickly the seasons change, and winter always seems to take me by surprise. Being an Australian who loves warm weather, it is never a pleasant surprise. However, for many people, it is a time to have fun enjoying winter sports. Skiing, snow boarding and ice-skating are all very popular in Japan.
Then end of winter coincides with the end of the school year, and the end of another year for salaried workers. Towards the end of March, many “Sayonara” parties are held for employees who are leaving their companies, or being transferred to another location.
Many graduation parties are held for university students in March, and in April they will begin a new life, at the same time as the new cherry blossoms begin theirs, and their year, like so many other people in Japan, will remain tied to the seasons.
Author: Chris Ryall
Chris Ryall is an Australian school teacher, who has lived in Japan for 14 years with his wife, Mandy. He is a novelist, poet and enjoys writing articles about Japan.