Welcome to the second instalment in my new Japanese culture blog series for 2023! If you missed the first post about January, you can find it here.
While I often write about Japanese language on this blog, learning about Japanese culture is an essential part of understanding the language - not just because it's often hard to understand the language without the culture, but because it's simply a lot of fun to explore!
Here are some links in case you'd like to skip ahead to any particular part of the article:
- The Japanese Word for February
- ① February Marks the Start of Spring
- ② Japan Celebrates Valentine's Day Too
- ③ February is the Month of Mount Fuji Day
- Bonus Fact: Cat Day in Japan
Two quick notes before we kick off:
- This post covers three fun facts that I thought you'd enjoy, but don't forget there's plenty more to learn about Japanese life and culture at this time of year. If you're interested in seeing what kind of events and festivals you could experience in Japan during February, check this list.
- None of the links in this post are affiliated, which means I don't make money when you click them.
The Japanese Word for February
Do you know the Japanese word for February?
The most common Japanese word for February is 二月 (ni gatsu), also written as 2月. This follows the normal pattern in Japanese, in which each month takes a number (1月、2月、3月 etc).
However, did you know there's another word for February?
Japan has only followed the Gregorian calendar since 1873, and as such, you may still occasionally come across older names of the months. For February, this is 如月 (kisaragi), the believed original meaning of which is "the month of bundling up against the cold".
If you're interested in learning more about the (quite beautiful!) 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 this month's fun facts.
1. February Marks the Start of Spring
When do you think of spring starting? For me, living in Scotland, February still feels pretty wintery.
In Japan, the first day of spring is traditionally called 立春 (risshun). This usually takes place on the 3rd or 4th of February in the Gregorian calendar, with 立春 (risshun) traditionally forming the first division in the 二十四節気 (nijuushi sekki: 24 divisions of the solar year).
While 立春 (risshun) is an important part of the Japanese calendar, the day you're most likely to hear about at this time of year is in fact 節分 (setsubun): the day before 立春 (risshun).
As 節分 (setsubun) means "seasonal division", there are actually four 節分 (setsubun) throughout the year, falling not just before 立春 (risshun), but also one day before 立夏 (rikka), 立秋 (risshuu) and 立冬 (rittō) - the first day of summer, autumn/fall and winter respectively.
So: what might you expect to see taking place during 節分 (setsubun) while visiting or living in Japan?
One thing you might spot while out and about in early February is shops selling 鬼 (oni) masks. Within family homes, these masks are worn by a family member as part of a tradition called 豆撒き (mame-maki), in which families throw beans at the "demon" in order to chase away evil spirits trying to enter their home at the start of the new season. In the absence of a someone to play the demon, people can also throw the beans out the front door.
If you're in Japan during 節分 (setsubun), the most audible evidence of this tradition will be the shouts of 鬼は外！福は内！(Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! - Devils out! Fortune in!) that accompany this tradition. If you're lucky enough to be involved in the festivities - or feel like celebrating 節分 (setsubun) yourself - you may also experience the custom of eating roasted soybeans: specifically, one for each year of your life plus one more for luck - although this number can vary depending where you are in Japan.
What's with all the beans, you ask? Apparently, the Japanese word for bean (豆 - mame) can also be written with the kanji 魔目, meaning "devil's eye". As this looks - and sounds - similar to 磨滅 (mametsu - to destroy the devil), some theorise that this is how the tradition of throwing beans during setsubun started.
While 豆撒き (mame-maki) is commonly carried out in people's homes, this tradition can also be witnessed at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. When out and about, you may also spot other items used to ward off evil spirits during this time. Some households, for example, attach roasted sardine heads tied to holly sprigs to their gateways to ward off evil spirits with the smell of the fish and the thorns of the holly.
In the video below, you can see 豆撒き (mame-maki) and more being carried out at a temple in Tokyo, 2020:
Another 節分 (setsubun) tradition is eating 恵方巻 (ehōmaki). While this is said to have originated in Japan's Kansai region, it's a custom that has now spread to elsewhere in Japan.
恵方巻 (ehōmaki) are a special type of 巻き寿司 (makizushi - sushi roll), with 恵方 (ehō) meaning "lucky direction".
There are a few rules to eating 恵方巻 (ehōmaki):
- You have to face the current 恵方 (ehō), e.g. south-southeast in 2023
- You mustn't cut the 恵方巻 (ehōmaki) into pieces
- You mustn't speak whilst eating
- Whilst eating, you should make a wish for the coming year
In the following video, you can hear these instructions in Japanese.
If you'd like to try reading about 節分 (setsubun) in Japanese, check out these posts by Meika-sensei:
節分(せつぶん) | Japanese Setsubun (Beginners version)
節分(せつぶん) | Japanese Setsubun (Intermediate version)
Find out more about 節分 (setsubun) here:
- Setsubun (japan-guide.com)
- Setsubun: Celebrating the Arrival of Spring in Japan (MATCHA)
2. Japan Celebrates Valentine's Day Too
Did you think you might be able to avoid Valentine's Day by escaping to Japan? Sadly you're out of luck!
That said, Japanese Valentine's Day (バレンタインデー or just バレンタイン - barentain dee or just barentain) is likely to be a bit different from what you're used to.
In Japan, Valentine's Day is an occasion on which women give chocolate to men - but not the other way around. (If you're nonbinary like me, I guess we get to make up our own traditions!)
If this seems one-sided to you, it's worth bearing in mind that Valentine's is followed one month later by White Day on the 14th of March, when those who received chocolate can give reciprocal gifts.
But to return to Valentine's Day for now: while you may assume that women are only expected to give chocolate to those they have romantic feelings towards, there are in fact many different types of chocolate that may be given on this day. The main ones are:
- 本命チョコ (honmei choko): with 本命 (honmei) meaning "first choice" or "one's heart's desire", this is chocolate that's given to a romantic interest or partner
- 友チョコ (tomo choko): chocolate given to 友達 (tomodachi - friends)
- 義理チョコ (giri choko): "obligation" or "duty" chocolate given to male colleagues
As you may guess from the last item in this list, this part of this post doesn't fully fit under "fun facts", as while some women certainly do enjoy giving out chocolates to those in their lives, it can be an uncomfortable and stressful time for many others. Not only can it take a lot of time and money buying - or even handmaking - chocolates for so many people, but due to the pressure to take part, Valentine's Day is increasingly seen as an example of gender inequality in Japan. The biggest reason for this is because while White Day does equate to a kind of equivalent day for men, there is no obligation on them to reciprocate - especially if the chocolate they received wasn't 本命チョコ (honmei choko).
If you're interested in this topic, Unseen Japan have a great article on it here.
Finally, if you'd like to have a go at reading about Japanese Valentine's Day in Japanese, check out this graded reader by TADOKU Supporters.
3. February is the Month of Mount Fuji Day
As was the case in last month's post about January, let's finish up with a bit of a silly - and hopefully fun! - fact.
Did you know the 23rd of February is Mount Fuji Day? In Japanese, this is 富士山の日 (Fuji-san no hi). Note: the "san" after Fuji means "mountain", not "san" as is used after a person's name!
As with Strawberry Day (see my January post), the reason for this choice of date comes from a wordplay based on different pronunciations of numbers in Japanese. Specifically:
- ふ (fu) = 2
- じ (ji) = 2
- さん (san) = 3
Hence: 2月23日 (23rd February) is Mount Fuji Day!
While 富士山の日 (Fuji-san no hi) is not a national holiday of any sort, it is an opportunity to appreciate the beauty of Mount Fuji. For example, the video below shows a TV trailer for a special feature in which Katō Ryō, a Japanese actor and entertainer (タレント - tarento) from Shizuoka Prefecture explores the region surrounding Mount Fuji as well as the mountain's status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you happen to be in Japan on the 23rd of February, bear in mind there are likely to be some Mount Fuji Day events or mini festivals taking place around the mountain, so perhaps this would be a good day to go and explore!
Bonus Fact: Cat Day in Japan
Did you know that the 22nd of February is Cat Day in Japan? I did a whole separate post about this occasion that you can read here!
You've reached the end of this post! I hope you enjoyed it.
For updates on posts like this sent straight to your inbox, sign up to my fortnightly newsletter:
Support Me on Ko-fi
If you've enjoyed this post and would like to see more like it in future, please consider sending a donation - however small! - via Ko-fi. I don't include any affiliated links or ads on my blog, so every little helps!
Please donate via the portal below or by going directly to the Ippo Ippo Japanese Ko-fi page.