3 Fun(?) Facts About May in Japan

An image of koinobori (koi carp streamers) with the text "3 Fun(?) Facts About May in Japan".

Posted: 29th May 2023

Welcome to the latest post in this series about Japanese cultural events, traditions and more throughout different months of the year!

As you may have guessed from the title, this month's post includes one fact that doesn't fall neatly into the category of "fun" facts, but I hope nonetheless that you're going to enjoy learning more about life in Japan in May.

So: let's dive straight into it! Here are some links in case you'd like to skip ahead to any particular part of the article:

Note: none of the links in this post are affiliated, which means I don't make money when you click them.

Happy reading!

The Japanese Word for May

As with all other months of the year, the most common Japanese word for May is a numerical one: 五月 (go gatsu), which can also be written as 5月。

However, did you know there's another word for May?

Japan has only followed the Gregorian calendar since 1873, and as such, you may still occasionally come across older names of the months.

For May, this is 皐月 (satsuki), meaning "the month of planting rice seedlings". If this word sounds familiar, my bet is you're probably a Studio Ghibli fan! Can you think of a character called Satsuki? What's her little sister's name? (Bonus points for working out this extra fun fact.)

If you're interested in learning more about the (quite detailed and fascinating) Japanese calendar, I recommend this nippon.com page as a place to start.

Now that we're all clued up, let's have a look at three fun facts about March and April in Japan.

1. The 5th of May is Children's Day

As mentioned in my post on 3 Fun Facts About March & April in Japan, the end of April and beginning of May is a busy time in Japan due to Golden Week. This is a string of national holidays that (usually) combine to form one of the longest public holidays in the Japanese calendar.

The last of these holidays is 子どもの日 (kodomo no hi): Children's Day.

There are all sorts of traditions associated with 子どもの日 (kodomo no hi), one of the most famous being 鯉のぼり (koinobori): the carp streamers you can see pictured at the top of this post.

鯉のぼり (koinobori) are typically flown from poles or strung out across rivers, with each fish resembling a different member of a family:

  • Black fish are fathers
  • Red fish are mothers
  • Other fish are children

However, it appears that the history of what each colour represents has fluctuated over time. You may notice this if you listen to the famous 鯉のぼりの歌 (koinobori no uta - carp streamer song), in which the lyrics only describe the black fish being the father, with all smaller fish being the children (i.e. with no mention of the mother).

Here's a version of the song with both Japanese and English lyrics:

子どもの日 (kodomo no hi) originally comes from an imperial court ceremony called 端午の節句 (tango no sekku), a day on which women would purify homes by thatching their roofs with irises. However, when the Japanese government fell into the control of the samurai class in the Kamakura period (1185-1333), it became a day to celebrate boys.

There's more on the history of this development on Wikipedia, but in 1948, Children's Day was changed to celebrate all children and to recognise mothers as well as fathers.

Incidentally, there is still a day intended just for girls: 雛祭り (hina-matsuri). Click here to find out more about this in my previous post on life in Japan during March and April.

Read About 子どもの日 (kodomo no hi) in Japanese

If you fancy learning more about this day while practising your Japanese, click here for a blog post by Kazue Ono-sensei, a Japanese teacher based in London. The post even comes with an audio version and quiz!

2. May Is a Great Time for Flower & Tea Lovers

If you know just one thing about springtime in Japan, it's almost certainly that it's the perfect time to see 桜 (sakura - cherry blossoms).

While I personally would still describe May as spring, unfortunately by this time in the year it's generally too late for cherry blossom viewing - though you may have some luck in colder, more northern areas of the country.

However, if you're a nature lover in search of some beautiful flowers - or a tea fanatic yearning to visit a real-life tea plantation - there is hope for you yet!

As it turns out, May is in fact a brilliant time to enjoy the outdoors in Japan - especially if you're keen to avoid the heat and humidity of the summer months.

For Flower Lovers

Wisterias:

  • In Fukuoka Prefecture, visitors flock to the gorgeous 河内藤園 (Kawachi Fujien Wisteria Garden). If you've spent enough time on the internet looking at pretty pictures of Japan, you're almost certain to have seen photos taken inside one of this garden's two famous wisteria tunnels, which measure around 100 metres in length each. If not, check out the video linked below.
  • For something a little closer to where you're likely to be, you can also check out Ashikaga Flower Park, which is doable in a day trip from Tokyo.

Pink moss:

  • If you plan on going anywhere near Mount Fuji at this time of year, it's worth checking whether the 富士芝桜まつり (Fuji Shibazakura Matsuri - Fuji Pink Moss Festival) will be taking place during your visit. 芝桜 (shibazakura) refers to the hundreds of thousands of pink moss (aka phlox moss) plants that spring up over a huge area within the 富士五湖 (Fujigoko - Fuji Five Lakes) area at this time of year.
  • The festival features local food and drink, so even if you're not a big flower fan, I definitely recommend looking it up - although apparently it is best avoided during the weekends and Golden Week due to its overwhelming popularity.

Nemophila (baby blue eyes):

  • If you're willing to travel a little further off the beaten track to the north of Tokyo, you may wish to pay a visit to ひたち海浜公園 (Hitachi Hitachi Seaside Park - Kaihin Kōen), located in Ibaraki prefecture. While the park is home to all sorts of different flowers throughout the year, late April to mid-May is the perfect time to witness millions of nemophila at their peak.
  • You can click here to view the official Hitachi Seaside Park website, which should let you know which flowers are available to view when.

For Tea Lovers

As a big tea drinker, something I wish I had realised during my time in Japan is that May is an ideal time to visit the tea plantations around Mount Fuji. (Confession time: I'm still yet to visit Mount Fuji at all!)

Thanks to the high quality and abundance of water welling from Mount Fuji, 富士市 (Fuji-shi - Fuji City) produces nearly 40% of all tea grown in Japan. As tea plantations are of course places of work for tea farmers, many are not open to visitors, and you may find you're only able to observe the fields from adjacent walkways. A lot of people try to visit at this time of year, so be sure to do your research beforehand (apparently mornings are the time to visit) and be respectful of tea farmers by not entering areas closed off to visitors.

Due to the first tea season of the year being between mid to late May, this is a wonderful time of year to witness luscious green fields on the brink of being harvested.

My personal recommendation for visitors to this area? Consider looking up a local guide to help you get the most out of your visit. (Once again, I haven't actually visited Mount Fuji myself, but from what research I've done, this is what I'd do!)

3. May Has its Very Own Sickness: May Malaise (五月病)

Finally: the reason this post got a question mark in the "Fun(?) Facts" part of the title.

If you spend much time in Japan at this time of year, you may start to hear about something called 五月病 (go gatsu byō).

With 五月 (gogatsu) meaning "May" and 病 (byō) meaning "illness" or "disease", 五月病 (go gatsu byō) translates to something like "May Sickness", "May Disease" or (my personal favourite) "May Malaise".

So: what is 五月病 (go gatsu byō)?

According to にほんごカフェ (Nihongo Cafe), 五月病 (go gatsu byō) is a psychological illness caused by the stress of not being able to keep up with the demands of daily life. Specifically, this is something that happens to people in May when they have to return to work or school following the extended break of Golden Week. The Tokyo Mental Health website goes on to explain that 五月病 (go gatsu byō) is often linked to the pressures of entering a new environment or role, as the period from March-May is a big period of transition for many in Japan due to the timing of the academic year and the fact that many new jobs also begin around April.

While 五月病 (go gatsu byō) may sound like an official diagnosis, this article (taken down since the time of this post, so no link - sorry!) by Japan's Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour emphasises that rather than an official illness, 五月病 (go gatsu byō) is generally rooted in depression, dejection or maladjustment.

While "May Malaise" is one of those things that Western news sources often jump to portray as a supposedly quirky or weird Japanese phenomenon, I'm sure many of us can empathise with how hard it can be to adjust to a new work or school environment. Some similar phenomena in the English-speaking world would perhaps be the "back to school blues" or the "Sunday scaries".

In trying to find materials through which to cover 五月病 (go gatsu byō) with my students, I came across this video, which is a spoof trailer for a film featuring students struggling with 五月病 (go gatsu byō). Although mental health should of course be taken seriously, if you're in the mood for a more humorous take on this topic (in Japanese only - no English subs), you can watch it here:

You've reached the end of this post! I hope you enjoyed it.

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