Huge crowds of people flocked to a festival at Waseda University, where they enjoyed food, drink, gifts and entertainment.

Celebrations are an important part of every society, and today we’re going to look at two different kinds of celebrations in Japan – one will likely seem very familiar, while the other may surprise you.

Over the weekend, I was lucky enough to attend both a massive festival at my university campus, and also a small family birthday party for my host mother. We’ll start with the familiar, and talk a bit about my first experience at a Japanese birthday party.

Luckily for me, birthday cake is just as delicious in Japan as it is in America.

I arrived home tired after a day of classes and errands on Saturday, and was surprised to find my host family preparing to leave the house. It was my host mother’s birthday, but nobody had told me! I had to drop everything and rush off with them to the home of their daughter, Kaori, who was hosting the birthday party.

My host mother was turning 72, and her husband is 74 – the daughter who hosted the party, Kaori, is in her 40’s and she and her husband have two daughters. It was my first time meeting all of them, and it was very interesting to get to spend an evening talking and celebrating with three generations of the Kato family.

Grandma Kato gets a birthday dance from her 7-year-old granddaughter.

Mr. Kato relaxes on his daughter’s couch, while the youngest Kato keeps a close eye on the birthday cake.

Overall, this birthday party was not that different from many that I’ve attended in America. There was lots of food (Japanese food and also pizza), birthday cake, and they even sang the “happy birthday” song in English. However, one thing that I did notice is that this birthday party was more about the family than it was about one person. Often, birthday parties are about celebrating one person, making their day special, and showering them with gifts. This, however, was just a really nice family gathering, with everyone talking, watching baseball (it’s the playoff season for Japanese baseball as well), and playing games with the kids. The only time the birthday girl was singled out was when we proposed a toast, the standard “omedetou gozaimasu” – which means “congratulations.”

The Kato girls, aged 7 and 13.

Because it was my first time meeting Kaori’s family, everyone had a lot of questions for me – and some pretty funny comments as well. The youngest has a small dog, whose name is “choco” but whom she likes to call “buta-chan” – “chan” is similar to “san,” but is usually used for either young girls or pets. It just has a cute kind of ring to it, I guess. The funny part is “buta,” however – “buta” means “pig.”

“Buta mitai yo!” she giggled – “He looks like a pig!.”

And while she thinks Choco the dog looks like a pig, she (and the rest of the family) kept telling me that I look like Tom Cruise. I have to say, it’s the first I’ve heard of it!

I don’t see the resemblance. Do you?

I’m pretty sure Tom spends more time doing his hair than I do.

I asked Kaori’s husband a little bit about Japanese birthday parties, and what they mean to the family.

“For children, it’s very important to celebrate their youth and to spoil them a little bit,” he said. “But for adults, it’s very important for us to celebrate our elders and show them how much they mean to us.”

(This is a rough translation of what he said in Japanese, which doesn’t translate exactly).

I was really touched to be invited into this family, whom I’ve only known for 5 weeks, and to have them share with me such an important moment in their lives. Plus, the birthday cake was delicious.

There are some stereotypes about Japan that are true – one is that they really do have cute, adorable characters for everything.

The very next day, I was off to a “matsuri” (Festival) at my university, Waseda. Festivals are very, very important in Japan and it’s rare that I’ll go more than a few days without seeing a small parade of people drumming and celebrating, or holding festivities at a shrine. Japan is a largely Shinto country, and this religion recognizes many, many gods and deities, all of whom are worshipped at various shrines throughout the country. There are shrines for famous mountains and streams, one’s dedicated to the god of thunder, and to literally hundreds of other deities, most of them associated with nature.

Waseda is a very prestigious university in Japan, similar to Harvard in America. Even here, at Japan’s respected educational institution, you’ll find cute mascots. Meet the Waseda bear.

Some festivals celebrate deceased loved ones, others a special time of year or a special place. This festival was dedicated to past Waseda graduates, but even though it basically amounted to a party for a bunch of old people, it was done in the traditional style of Japanese festivals – food, drink, games, and all kinds of fun stuff to buy.

Japanese festivals are very family oriented, and I wasn’t at all surprised to see many people enjoying games with their young children. There was, however, one bit of entertainment that I did not expect to see. An earthquake simulator.

This earthquake simulator began shaking, and moved up from a “1” on the Richter Scale, to a “10” – simulating the most powerful earthquake measurable – as a family and their child demonstrate proper earthquake safety.

I remember once, when I was in elementary school, being instructed on what to do in case of an earthquake – but NEVER anything as cool as this. Then again, earthquakes are a constant part of life in Tokyo. In fact, it’s impossible for an American to imagine just how used to earthquakes people in Tokyo are, because no place in America has as many of them as they have here.

What do you guys think of this approach to earthquake safety? Do you think that this kind of safety education is more likely to stick with these young kids?

I asked this family what they thought of the ride – “sugoi ne” – “It’s awesome,” they both said.

Earthquakes were not all there was for the kids to experience at this festival. Clubs and social groups are an important part of life in Japan, especially at the university level. In fact, many students at Waseda take their “circle” (club) more seriously than their classes, which may not be a bad idea because the people in these clubs will help them move into careers after they graduate. Also, Japanese high school is very difficult, so university is a time for them to relax. There are all kinds of clubs – sports, literature, comic book fans, martial arts – Waseda has thousands of clubs. Many of the alumni seemed to have certain clubs already in mind for their little ones.

There were many groups of cheerleaders, dancers, and other sports groups for small children. Waseda has a reputation for its famous college sports programs.

At every turn there were vendors selling delicious food, kids playing, and parents enjoying a chat with one another, or buying the various crafts – it’s kind of like a cross between a farmer’s market and a county fair.

No festival would be complete without music.

Can any of you think of ways that the county fair or farmer’s market seem different from what I’ve described? Do any of you have ideas about why these festivals happen so often, and are so important in Japan? Post your ideas, and I’ll give you some answers next week.

Just don’t count on seeing “Hannah-chan” at the county fair or the farmer’s market.

I’m actually not sure what “Hannah-chan” is a mascot for, but she seemed pretty popular!

About Josh

Part-time journalist & student of communication studies.
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67 Responses to Celebrations

  1. Greta says:


  2. Shock000 (gabe) says:

    1:sorry greta, and i posted that under her name
    2:the difference is that there are a lot more celibrations in the us
    3:i like cheese!!!

  3. Huy says:

    What did the operator do to simulate the earthquake in the simulation?

  4. Zeno says:

    Ummm… are those costumes… normal?

    • Kees says:

      Lucky you, that cake looks delicious! I think it is quite interesting that your hosts thought that you look like Tom Cruise. Also when you said this it made me think- do the Japanese people talk about American celebrities there as much as they do here?

      • autofact says:

        Kees, thanks for the reply. Japanese people don’t talk about American celebrities very much, for the most part, but there are a few that they really love. Brad Pitt is the most famous here in Japan. Other than that, it can be kind of random, but usually bigger stars.

    • autofact says:

      Zeno, thanks for the comment. Yes, those costumes are TOTALLY normal in Japan. In Japan, there are cute mascots for everything – cell phone companies, banks, even graveyards and the police have their own mascots – and they are all cute.

  5. Sameer says:

    There seems to be a lot more celebration in Japan than in the US. Here it’ mainly just friends, but it seems this is much bigger.

    • kevin says:

      Wow! Thoses are some pretty sweet costumes and celebrations. We don’t have that kind of local celebrations in the U.S but I do have some family traditions that maybe families in Japan do celebrate too. Such as Christmas, New years eve, and I’m not sure on this one ” The Fourth of July.” Japan probably is not very fond of it but does shoot fireworks I bet.

    • autofact says:

      Sameer, I would say that you are definitely correct. We celebrate in the U.S. for sure – Thanksgiving, Christmas, 4th of July, Birthdays, depending on our religion, of course – but Japan has a lot more smaller celebrations, especially when it comes to neighborhood get togethers. I love it!

  6. Danny says:

    I noticed that both America and Japan think music is a big part of celebrations. Also, cake seems pretty popular in Japan, too!

  7. Giovanni says:

    My family doesn’t do any different Traditions and I think that my family is completely fine without Hanukkah or other low class holidays. What holidays do the Japanese celebrate? How often does a Japanese tradition or holiday come up?

  8. Trevionn says:

    My family has many celebrations, including Christmas birthday’s and other famous american holiday’s. I am not very into holidays that don’t give you time off of school. Sometimes it is a holiday, but I did not even know. During celebrations you dance right? Can you video a Japanese dance. Thank You

    • autofact says:

      Trev, thanks for the comment. The next time I see some dancing, I’ll videotape it. There are different kinds of dances at different events, though. Sometimes, kids doing cosplay will dance but sometimes it will be more traditional. Do you know what cosplay is?

  9. Zaidie says:

    The birthday celebration seems really similar to ours and so does the birthday cake. we also get together as a family in the US, and actually my family usually does use birthdays to get together as a family. But the celebration at the university seems really different than any festival here.
    Thank you!

  10. Meredith says:

    I kinda see the resemblance. If you had a little more of a beard, turn your head to the side a little bit, and spiked your hair in a way resembling his, you would look just like him! XD

    Ok, enough goofing around. I say I want some cake! XD XD XD

    *some time later*

    Ok, I’m serious now.(says while eating ice cream) In a way, a b-day party there seems so similar to a b-day party here; yet, so different.(this is a good time for the infamous quote: “So close, yet so far.”-unknown)
    (BTW wish the b-day girl Happy B-day 4 me)

  11. Justin says:

    In Japan, birthdays are usually more of a family reunion, you could say. It sounds fun and touching because you get to actually feel the family relationship at the party, and you would also have a great time there as well. When you come back, will you celebrate birthdays like the Japanese do?

    • autofact says:

      Justin, thanks for the comment. I personally celebrate birthdays my own way: Usually I just go out for a big dinner or pizza with lots of my friends. It’s hard to explain, because there birthday parties are pretty much the same here, but like I said, less of a focus on the person whose birthday it is and more focus on the family as a whole. However, it’s not like a family reunion, necessarily, because the family see each other a lot already.

  12. Anandi says:

    The birthday celebration sounded really fun. What flavor was the cake? During the birthday party were there any gifts at all? The birthday sounds kind of like a birthday party for an adult where the adult isn’t the center of the universe for a day, but they are recognized. During some birthday parties in america the birthday person isn’t the main attraction of the birthday party, the children are recognized some. For the university party the Hannah-Chan character reminded me of Dora the Explorer. I have never heard of anything like that party, but at OMSI there is a kind of earthquake simulator, but is only has two settings of intensity. The celebrations of Japan are really interesting

  13. Molly says:

    We don’t really have any festivals here in america–especially not like in Japan, with earthquake games and all–but we have lots of other types of celebrations, like birthdays, that Japan also celebrates.

  14. Edil says:

    In America, we don’t really have much festivals but we do have Halloween, Christmas, and Easter. In Portland, we have the Portland Rose Festival which is kind of a celebration but only in Portland. I bet Japan has way more celebrations than America. Do you know if Japan celebrates Halloween, Christmas, or Easter? Do they have any other holidays that are similar to them?

    • autofact says:

      Edil, thanks for the great question. They don’t celebrate Christmas or Easter in Japan, because they are not a Christian country (although there are a few Japanese Christians). However, some celebrate Halloween. They also have lots and lots of much smaller holidays. Valentines Day is celebrated in Japan, but it is celebrated differently than in America. Girls give chocolate to boys on Valentine’s Day in Japan, and then a month later, on a holiday called “White Day,” boys give gifts to girls.
      The emperor’s birthday is also a holiday, as is something called “National Sports Day.” They even have a holiday celebrating eel!

  15. Duy says:

    There are some differences from holidays in U.S and Japan like the part where you said when in the U.S on birthdays we celebrate on person and we give them gifts, but in Japan it’s a big family gathering. My family kind of does it both ways when we celebrate birthdays an we give gifts, but also it;s just another time for the whole family to get together. Also that was funny how they said you look like Tom Cruise. I actually have been in an earthquake simulator too in OMSI. It’s pretty fun!

  16. Simon says:

    It seems like in Japan, birthdays are a big deal and are very important and local, but in America, it’s just with a few friends and your family. Cake seems popular in both places. We also celebrate the major holidays like halloween, Christmas , Thanksgicing and New Year.

    • Sona says:

      well that is not entirely true. some people think of birthdays as a big thing. like sweet sixteens… but my sister didn’t really have a big sweet sixteen so scratch that.

      • autofact says:

        In Japan, there is a national “coming of age day” that is a big holiday. On this day, anyone who has turned 20 years old in the past year is celebrated and given gifts. In America, we usually celebrate 16 or 21 as big birthdays – in Japan, 20 is the biggest.

  17. Do you think that this kind of safety education is more likely to stick with these young kids?



  18. Giovanni says:

    Did you get my reply

  19. Sophia says:

    It must be really fun to see all kinds of new celebrations. What are you looking most forward to or is your favorite?

    • autofact says:

      Sophia, thanks for the reply. It might sound gross to you guys, but one of my favorite Japanese foods is roasted eel, so I’m looking forward to “ato no matsui” which is a festival in July where roasted eel is served at special celebrations.
      I am also really looking forward to “hanami” which are the traditional sakura (cherry blossom) viewings that happen in spring, and Valentines Day, when girls give chocolate to the boys that they like.

  20. Noah says:

    It seems like in Japan they have a lot more celebrations than here. I would view that as a positive. what do you view it as, positive or negative?

  21. Andrew says:

    Hi, well in our family celebrations, we just have a quiet time at the movies or go to a restaurant. We spend most of the time at home.

  22. Annie says:

    Does the cake taste the same? Are all the celebrations really big, like everybody celebrates them like in the U.S.. It seems like having so many holidays would make them less special.

    • autofact says:

      Annie, that’s a good question. These celebrations are always very lively. First of all, not everyone goes to the same celebrations and some are more neighborhood or city festivals than big national ones. So, yes, people are into them and they definitely are all special to the people who go. Even for me, it’s hard not to get excited with so much music, dancing, cute kids in kimono, and great food and games.
      P.S. Yep, the cake tasted the same! Maybe a little sweeter, though. In Japan, most things are less sweet than in America, but a few things, like coffee, candies and cakes, tend to be even more sweet.

  23. Bebe says:

    The celebrations do seem like they occur more. And you said they sang the birthday song in english? Do they have a birthday song in Japanese and why do they use the english one?

  24. Sona says:

    It’s nice that birthday parties for the adults are more about respecting the elderly. Something that needs to be encouraged more here. Going over to the children’s birthday parties, well… what child doesn’t like to be at least a little bit spoiled! 🙂 And also, I have the same question a Kees… do the people in Japan talk about American stars as much as they do in the U.S?

  25. Hannah W. says:

    The only thing I can think of that is relating to the constant fairs are the Jewish holidays in the fall which is almost every 10 days. On my mom’s side of the family we have a lot of birthdays in November so we have gone somewhere exotic the past few years. Costa Rica, Hawaii, Cancun Mexico, and this year (not so exotic) palm desert. My grandma’s, grandpa’s, cousin’s, and my aunt’s. We celebrate the whole family and don’t place the center of attention all on one person.

  26. Elise says:

    Are there more celebrations in Japan than there are here? Are there any more celebrations that they have in Japan that they don’t have in America? What is your favorite celebration? Mine is Halloween, because I get a lot of candy and it’s fun to dress up in funny costumes. My family doesn’t have a lot of special celebrations (except for birthdays, of course).

    • autofact says:

      There are definitely a lot more celebrations in Japan than in America, but they aren’t always really really big. Sometimes they are just small festivals. A lot of the time I will wander into a festival without knowing about it ahead of time. It’s pretty fun!
      Thanks for the great question.
      Oh, and so far my favorite matsuri (festival) that I went to is just one that was celebrating a special temple near my university.

  27. zephrym says:

    My family does a couple extra things. We celebrate Christmas a day early, and we celebrate half birthdays. Speaking of which, my little brother was born when i was 5, so when mom celebrated his b-day every month, so I was like,” What the flip!”. I understand now. What does your family cellibrate?

    P.s. I know I’m spelling cellibrate wrong.

  28. Maeve says:

    In my family we all have dinner together, the b-day person gets to choose what to eat, and then dessert and presents! I think in my family we do spoil the b-day person more than in your host mother’s birthday, but I also think that it would be really fun to go to a birthday party like that!

  29. Gabriel says:

    i think the festival seems kind of like a block party but on a larger scale and with more games/attractions. the birthday seemed pretty cool too. it seemed really social.
    p.s. i kind of see the resemblance between you and tom cruise. if you did your hair like his you would look like him.

    • autofact says:

      Gabriel, thanks for the great comment! I think you have hit the nail right on the head – these festivals are a lot like what we call a ‘block party’ in America. They usually involve a specific neighborhood or temple

  30. Ders says:

    It really does seem like they have a lot more celebrations there. The birthday parties really don’t seem that different, but that’s just my opinion. My family likes to celebrate Christmas, and I can’t wait for Halloween! I’m going to be a monster potato and get lots and lots of candy.

  31. gracethebunny says:

    In America we celebrate Chinese new year Even though we are not in china. Do you know of any celebrations that originated some where else that they celebrate there? Do they celebrate Chinese new year? My family has a big party for Canadian thanksgiving with some of our friends. Do you celebrate anything like that?

    • autofact says:

      Grace, thanks for the reply. The Japanese celebrate Valentine’s Day, but in a slightly different way than we do in America. Valentine’s Day came to Japan in 1936, and was introduced by a chocolate company. It was originally aimed at foreigners in Japan, but in 1958, during the women’s rights movement, a department store in Japan advertised the idea of women giving chocolate to men, instead of men buying chocolates for women. It was supposed to appeal to the new sense of women’s independence – and it worked. Since then, Valentine’s Day is a holiday where women buy chocolate for men. One month later, on White Day, men are expected to buy gifts for the women who bought them chocolate on Valentines’ Day.

  32. Due to the fact my family is Chinese, we celebrate many traditional holidays, namely the Mid-Autumn Festival and Chinese New Year. Usually during the end of August, we celebrate the Mid-Autumn festival where eat moon cakes. For the New Year, we eat dumplings. During birthdays, its all a family celebration where we cook up delicious foods and eat fruit cake. Different but still similar in ways to the US and Japan.

  33. Sam says:

    In my family December is like the month with the most celebrations. On December 13th it’s my little brother’s birthday, ten days later on December 23rd is my birthday, two days later it’s Christmas, and finally it’s New Year’s Eve. Some New Years I go to someones else’s house for a party and such, sometimes we just stay home and my mom cooks us dumplings that she made. About the earthquakes I think children should learn about them to get a better sense of how the world works. I don’t really remember how Korea does birthdays but I’m pretty sure it’s just like America and Japan.

  34. Jolie says:

    I think they have all those festivities because they are fun people!! One festivity happens on my birthday. It’s called Tana Bata. I don’t know much about it. But my Obasan says that many people in Japan celebrate it. : )

    • autofact says:

      Jolie, thanks for the great comment and thanks for sharing! Tanabata is an interesting and fun festival! Since you are talking about Korean and Chinese influence in class, you should tell the whole class and your teacher about Tanabata – it is a festival that was originally celebrated in China as the Qixi Festival. The Imperial Palace in Kyoto began celebrating it as Tanabata during the Heian Period. It’s origins have to do with the meeting up of stars in the lunar calendar. Thanks again! You can read more about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tanabata

  35. Anna says:

    The celebrations both sounded really fun! I think the earthquake stimulator is a good idea because young kids will know what it’s like to be in an earthquake. In my family on birthdays we all give the person presents and are really nice to them. For parents we bake them a cake and sing happy birthday, and the kids get to have a party. What does Japanese birthday cake taste like?

  36. Aaron says:

    “Hannah-chan” looks kind of like Hello Kitty. And by the way, you do not look at all like Tom Cruise.

  37. Julie says:

    Every year we celebrate Tết Trung Thu we dress up in formal dresses and dance to celebrate the full moon. We create lanterns that are so much fun! I think it cool that the candles are bigger than the cake, also does it taste different?

  38. Greta says:

    sadly my family are kind of boring when it comes to celebrations. We only have the usual holidays with the usual things, except the smorgasbord but i already mentioned that. But i guess if i had to pick something specific about a Holiday it would be the great Christmas tree of tacitness.

  39. Rebecca says:

    Have you ever been to OMSI? There is something called the ‘Earthquake house’ which is kind of a abstract sculpture of a small house that shakes. It plays ‘I felt the earth shake under my feet’ and then there is an alarm and it starts shaking. All the little kids shout and get under the table. I always thought it was kind of dumb especially since we get next to no earthquakes in Portland. It must be scary though to have a real earthquake and not even a catchy song to cheer you up.
    You said the little girl mascot was called ‘hannah chan’ but that was also the word you used for the dog, and I guess it means cute. Still I don’t know if a character just called Cute Hannah would have much popularity here…seems kind of stereotypical. However we do have other characters who have their personalities right in their names, like Judy Moody, Daffy Duck, Wile E coyote, all seven dwarves, Cruella de vil, and many others. Do a lot of Japanese characters have the same thing? It certainly makes it easier for little kids to understand the characters if they have such simple brands on them. Do you think this is stereotypical, or just trying to help out four-year-olds?

  40. Life in Tokyo looks fantastic!

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