All the rest of the time: drag-racing
(Namakemono no sekkubataraki; “A sloth’s holiday labor”)
On a day when most people are resting, someone who is usually lazy becomes a whirlwind of activity. (The concrete image is of a lazy person who, for some reason, makes a show of working on one of the sekku holidays – see below.) More generally, this phrase is used to express contempt for someone who normally doesn’t work.
This saying is one long noun phrase, comprising a pair of conjoined noun phrases.
We begin at the end, with the verb 働く (hataraku) in conjunctive form and acting as a noun. This is compounded with, and modified by, the noun 節句 (sekku), the name of a specific group of seasonal festivals. This compounding forces the h at the start of hataraki to become voiced and sound like a b.
Moving several steps back, we find the verb 怠ける (namakeru), “to be idle,” “to neglect (work),” in conjunctive form, also acting as a noun. This is followed by and compounds with the noun 者 (mono), “person.” And in the middle, the associative particle の (no) tells us that the “idle person” is telling us an important detail about the “holiday work.”
Traditionally there were five 節句 that punctuate the Japanese calendar: the seventh day of the first month, the third day of the third month, the fifth day of the fifth month, the seventh day of the seventh month, and the seventh day of the ninth month. They had roots in imperial court rituals (which in turn had roots in Chinese court rituals, because the Japanese imperial court modeled itself quite deliberately after China for a very long time). Several still exist today in the form of modern holidays, although the dates have been transplanted from the old lunar calendar to the modern solar (Gregorian) one.
In practical usage the phrase 節句働き will often leave the specificity of the 節句 behind and simply indicate work done on a day off… in some cases this may be as “crunch” or a make-up day for time lost. But in this case, the implication is that the person is working on a day of rest specifically in order to create a (false) impression of industry. In other words, this saying isn’t simply poking at an “exception that proves the rule”; it also carries an accusation of ugly dishonesty. “You’re not only lazy,” it says, “you’re also trying to take credit that you don’t actually deserve.”
A variant written form replaces 節句 with the much more obscure, but still valid, 節供 without any change in meaning or pronunciation. However, replacing 句 with 季 (ki), “season,” is an error.
This phrase supposedly appears in some iroha karuta sets, although not one of the big three (Edo, Kyoto, or Osaka/Nagoya).
(Ashita no deeto wa tanoshimi da kedo, sono junbi de sannen buri ni kuruma no naka no souji wo shiteiru jibun wa, masa ni namakemono no sekkubataraki wo shiteiru to mitomezaru wo enakatta.)
[I was looking forward to the date. But as I got ready for it by cleaning out my car for the first time in three years, I couldn’t help but feel lazy and dishonest, like the kind of person who only ever works on holidays.]