Happy Good Meat Day! In case you missed it, November 29 is Ii Niku no Hi, or Good Meat Day, in Japan. But why?
The first thing you need to know is that the Japanese language has a relatively small sound inventory, a whole lot of homophones, and a mostly non-phonetic writing style that allows for multiple pronunciations of the same character. For those who don’t speak linguist or Japanese, that means that the structure of the language makes it a fertile breeding ground for wordplay. And although cracking a pun at a party in Kyoto would probably inspire just as many groans as it would in Kansas City—in fact, pun-based jokes are known as oyaji gyagu, or “old man gags”—Japanese speakers just can’t resist punning.
Japanese numerals are perhaps the punniest of all. That’s because, just like English has cardinal numbers and ordinal numbers (“one” and “first”), there are many different ways to say the same number in Japanese. Depending on whether you’re counting geisha, ordering three plates of sushi, or talking about a karaoke bar on the third floor, for example, the number three can be read as san, mitsu, and mi. So the calendar, which is basically all numbers, is a Japanese pundit’s dream. Which is how 11/29 becomes Good Meat Day; the 11 looks like ii, which means good in Japanese, while the number two can be pronounced ni, and nine ku. Niku means meat, and there you have it—one more reason to treat yourself to some beef sashimi this time of year.
If you follow this logic, there’s actually an opportunity to celebrate Meat Day 12 times per year, and many Japanese supermarkets and BBQ joints ring in the 29th of the month with meaty discounts. But the punning doesn’t stop in the butcher section—there are so many more of these Japanese unofficial pun holidays, practically one for every day of the year. Here are some of the punniest.
One of the first pun holidays of the year falls on January 5. One in Japanese is ichi, five is go, and ichigo means strawberry—so 1/5 becomes Ichigo No Hi, or Strawberry Day.
Actually, the holiday is not just about celebrating the cute red fruit. Since mid-January is when Japanese 15-year-olds suffer through the nation’s notoriously grueling high school entrance exams, Ichigo No Hi is also a day for cheering on these members of the so-called “Strawberry Generation” (overprotected youth who bruise easily, like their namesake). Strawberry-lovers can honor the actual berry all year round, because the 15th of every month is also technically Ichigo No Hi. Some retailers, like the Lawson chain of convenience stores, have taken the pun a step further by promoting the sale of strawberry shortcake on the 22nd of the month. That’s because if you look at a calendar organized by week, the 15th is always on top of the 22nd—just like the strawberry on top of a cake.
Other gastronomical pun holidays include Honey Day on August 3 (eight is hachi, three is mitsu, and hachimitsu means "honey"), and Banana Day on August 7 (eight can also be read as ba, and seven as nana).
Perhaps you’d like to pencil in a daring meal on September 9, Pufferfish Day (nine can be pronounced both fu and gu, and fugu is what the Japanese call the potentially poisonous pufferfish).
Or if you’re not into risking your life for a fish, just play it safe with Sardines Day on October 4 (one is i, zero is wa, four is shi, and sardines are called iwashi).
Not all Japanese pun holidays are about food. In 1955, the guys over at the Japanese Otolaryngological Society noticed that not only can the two 3s in March 3 be read as mimi (which is how you say “ear” in Japanese), they also kind of look like two ears—and thus Ear Day was born.
Ear Day is just one of the body-part themed pun holidays created by medical associations to remind people to take care of themselves. For the health-conscious, there’s also Cavity Prevention Day on June 4 (six is mu, four is shi, and mushiba means “cavity”) and Eye Protection Day on October 10 (because if you turn your head to the side, the two 10s look like a pair of eyes and eyebrows).
November, perhaps the best month for punning, kicks off with Dog Day on the 1st. Did you know that Japanese dogs don’t go woof woof but rather wan wan wan? Now say “one one one” (11/1) with a Japanese accent—get it?
In this vein, it’s easy to see why November 11 would be even more rife with punny possibility. Some call it Battery Day, because the characters used to write 11/11 look like + - + -.
Football fans call the 11th Soccer Day (because soccer is played 11 vs. 11), and visual thinkers can choose between Geta Day (because the footprint left by traditional wooden sandals, or geta, looks like four parallel lines), Noodle Day, Beans Sprouts Day, or Chopsticks Day (because 1111 resembles four noodles, beans sprouts, or chopsticks).
The Glico Corporation, though, would prefer if you saw those four ones as chocolate-covered sticks of their well-loved snack Pocky—and in recent years, Pocky Day has been branded as the most popular celebration on November 11 by far. Kids trade boxes of chocolate-, matcha- or strawberry- flavored Pocky, and teens get in the spirit by playing the Pocky Game, where two people bite opposite ends of a Pocky stick, Lady and the Tramp style, until they end up in a kiss.
Finally, there’s Good Married Couple Day on November 22; again, because ii means good, and 22 can be pronounced fufu, which means married couple. Since 1999, a pair of celebrities has been picked annually as Partners of the Year, and women’s magazines, radio, and TV shows delight in interviewing twosomes about their secrets to marital bliss. And really, what better marketing idea than to give husbands and wives yet another day to be guilt-tripped into buying something expensive for their spouse?
This wouldn’t be a complete list of puns without at least one innuendo. The Japanese have that covered with Gomu No Hi on May 6—go is five and mu is six. Gomu means rubber, but Rubber Day doesn’t sound that exciting, does it? Not unless you follow the example of the Japanese youth and use the holiday to promote safe sex by posting selfies posing cheekily with a condom in your mouth.