It seems that whenever a national holiday rolls around – be it Coming of Age Day, Health and Sports Day, or the ever esoteric-sounding Vernal Equinox Day – there is a percentage of the population who can only glare at the calendar and ask, “if this national holiday is so “national”, why don’t I get the day off as well?”
For those people who are left out in the proverbial cold on such occasions, forced to work as usual while other people enjoy their three-day weekends, the phrase “national holiday” can feel like a bit of a cruel joke. How can a national holiday be a “national holiday” if it’s not a holiday for the entire nation?
WHEN IS A NATIONAL HOLIDAY NOT A “NATIONAL” HOLIDAY?
The answer is language – specifically (in this case), English.
The term for these days in Japanese is “kokumin no shukujitsu” (国民の祝日), with “kokumin” (国民) meaning “nation” and “shukujitsu” (祝日) meaning both “national holiday” and “public holiday“, depending on the source. It’s that dual-yet-nuanced meaning of “shukujitsu” that is more or less is the source of all of the confusion.
Taken literally, “kokumin no shukujitsu” translates to “holiday of the nation” (or even more literally: “holiday belonging to the nation”). However, that doesn’t play well in English, so the more natural translation of “National Holiday” is preferred.
Where the linguistic problem arises is that the meaning of “kokumin no shukujitsu” is (arguably) more akin to “a holiday observed by the (government of the) nation”, rather than “a holiday for the entire nation”. This is how we arrive at the misnomer of a “national holiday” not being a “national holiday”.
A better translation of “national holiday” is “public holiday” – that is, a “public-sector holiday”, applicable only to “public” institutions such as municipal governments and pubic schools.
So, to answer the question: a national holiday is not a “national holiday” when it’s actually a public holiday, which is pretty much all of them.
IF NATIONAL HOLIDAYS ARE PUBLIC SECTOR HOLIDAYS, WHY DO SOME PRIVATE COMPANY EMPLOYEES GET THE DAY OFF?
In addition to public sector employees (such as direct hire ALTs) getting the day off every time a so-called “national holiday” comes around, you may have noticed that some private-sector employees get the day off as well.
If “national holidays” are actually “public holidays”, specifically meaning “public-sector holidays”, then why are some private-sector workers also getting the day off, while other private-sector employees have to work as usual?
The answer to this is simply “because the company said it was a holiday as well”.
The Public Holiday Law (Kokumin no Shukujitsu ni Kansuru Hōritsu, or 国民の祝日に関する法律) of 1948 is, as the name might suggest, the law that determines public holidays in Japan (which sounds like a dumb sentence, but there it is). You may have also noticed that the official translation is “Public Holiday Law”, not “National Holiday Law”, too.
As far as laws go, the Public Holiday Law is fairly short in length.
In fact, about a third of the body of the law is just references to “Supplementary Provisions” that have been enacted over the year to amend the law with various additions (such as the date upon which “Sea Day” shall be observed (Act No. 59 of 2001) and special holidays in relation to the “Emperor’s Retirement” (Act No. 63 of 2017), among other things).
However, there is nothing in the Public Holiday Law that compels private companies to observe public holidays.
Simply put, public holidays are completely optional for private companies, and can be observed or ignored as the company deems fit.
Some companies, such as Interac, often observe public holidays simply because all the public schools are closed and there is nowhere for their ALTs to go.
Other companies might give their employees a “three-day weekend”, but then ask those same employees to work the following Saturday in “compensation” for being allowed to enjoy a said three-day weekend.
Therefore, because they’re not “national holidays”, public holidays are otherwise “business as usual days” for many private companies – much to the annoyance of their employees.
So my company isn’t breaking the law?
Whenever a public holiday comes around, we often get asked questions such as:
“Is my company breaking the law by not giving me the day off?” – No, they’re not breaking the law.
THERE ARE SOME ACTUAL “NATIONAL” HOLIDAYS, THOUGH (KIND OF)
Now that we’ve established that “national holidays” are better understood to be “public sector holidays”, all of which are governed by the “Public Holiday Law” (and not the “National Holiday Law”), there is one more quirk that we have to point out:
There are actually some “national” holidays that even the private sector often adheres to, but these holidays have nothing to do with the laws.
January 2nd, January 3rd, and December 31st, all happen to be “Bank Holidays” (aka “Federal Holidays” in American-English). While these days are not “public holidays” per se, the closure of banks usually results in the closure of all businesses and non-essential services for the day, essentially making those days truer “national” holidays than other “national (but actually public)” holidays.
As a bit of bonus trivia: this is also why ATMs go on holiday for a few days every year.