Japanese American Traditions

Autumn in Japan

Because a harmonious connection with nature has always been particularly important to the Japanese, observing the distinct seasons of the year is a valued part of the Japanese culture. The customs and traditions used to observe the arrival of each season convey the spirit and beauty of Japan.

Japan is known for its uncomfortably humid summers and the threat of typhoons that looms large from the end of summer through September. Given these conditions, it is not surprising that autumn is a welcome change in seasons. In fact, autumn is considered by many to be the most beautiful season in Japan. Autumn is marked by an invigorating crispness in the air, clear skies, and the rich harvests of fruits, vegetables, and delicacies from the sea. Festivals of harvest and thanksgiving prevail. It is time for rice farmers to give thanks for the abundant harvest that will result from their carefully and laboriously tended fields. Rice is offered to the gods, showing that the farmers themselves feast on the same foods as the gods. In this way, they believe that they will receive power from the gods.

September 23rd or 24th is Autumnal Equinox Day, a national holiday. It is the day when the sun crosses the equator from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere. As a result, on that date, the day and night become the same length of time. A seven-day period, including the three days before and after the Autumnal Equinox Day, is known as higan, which means “the other side of the river of death.” During this period, families pay their respects to deceased family members who now dwell on the “other side of the river” inhabited by the souls of the dead.

Children are also included in these rites of autumn. Children are given the opportunity to enjoy the season through undokai, a field day, where elementary and middle school students participate in runs, relays, and tugs-of-war. Families plan special outings to enjoy kouyou, the colorful foliage of Japan. Momiji-gari, the viewing of autumn leaves, is a treasured pastime in the scenic regions of Japan. Urban dwellers often travel to mountainside resorts with their families to view the glorious colors—gold, russet, and crimson—of the trees. It is said that the colors are more breathtaking when the trees are growing in the mountains rather than on flat land. In addition to their aesthetic value, these viewings of the maples, beeches, and larches allow families to go to the countryside to enjoy box lunches, to gather matsutake (a wild mushroom) and chestnuts, and to enjoy time for quiet reflection, away from the hectic pace of urban communities.

August 2002

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