Sunday, December 30, 2018

Oshogatsu: Japanese New Year

In this blog post I'm going to post about Japanese New Year traditions.

This year is a very important one in Japanese history, because it marks the last year of the Heisei era. In Japan, along with the Gregorian Calendar, the year according to the current reigning emperor is observed. When an emperor is enthroned, an era marking his reign begins, and it is given a special name. When the emperor dies, the name of the era of his reign becomes his posthumous name. For example, the era before this one (平成 Heisei) was Showa (昭和), which lasted from December 25, 1926 until the emperor's death on January 7, 1989. In life, the emperor's name was "Hirohito," but after his death, his name became "Showa."

 Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko

The current emperor, Akihito, has decided to abdicate and end his reign before his death, marking the end of the current period of Heisei. A new emperor will be enthroned, and a new era in Japanese history will begin. The Japanese government has announced that he would abdicate on April 30th, this year, so the Heisei period will continue until then. At that time the name of the new era and posthumous name of the next emperor will be announced, and when emperor Akihito passes on, his name will become Heisei.

New Year Observance and Traditions
In ancient times, the Japanese New Year (お正月: o-shōgatsu) was based on the Chinese calendar, and it was celebrated at the beginning of spring. However, in 1873, Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar, and January has been Japan’s official New Year’s Day ever since. In Japan, the Japanese New Year is the most important festival of the winter season, unlike in the West, where Christmas is usually given the most importance. Most businesses are closed from the end of December through January 3rd.

Preparations for the New Year celebration begin a few days before, as people traditionally clean their houses in order to welcome the toshigami (年神), or deity of the incoming year. This special cleaning is called ō-sōji (大掃除). Generally everyone from students to salary workers will spend their last day before the New Year's break cleaning their schools or offices.

Houses are decorated with traditional ornaments. A sacred rope of straw (注連縄: shimenawa) with dangling white paper strips (紙垂: shide) is hung over the front door to prevent evil spirits from entering and to show the presence of the toshigami. I would liken this to the western wreath.
 A shimenawa ornament

It is also customary to place kadomatsu (門松), an arrangement of tree sprigs, beside the entrance of a home. A special altar, known as toshidana (年棚: "year shelf"), is piled high with kagami mochi (鏡餅: flat, round rice cakes), sake (酒: rice wine), persimmons (柿: kaki), and other foods in honor of the toshigami.

 "Kadomatsu" arrangements are often placed outside of homes.
Apartment buildings often place just outside their entrance as well.

A traditional "kagamimochi" arrangement consists of two large rice cakes,
a skewer of dried persimmons and other auspicious items.

The eve of the New Year is called "Ōmisoka" (大晦日), and it is typically spent watching a special hours-long televised event called the "Kohaku Uta Gassen" (紅白歌合戦), or the "Red and White Song Battle," where singers of different genres get together and "fight" for a team. Female singers are placed in the red team (紅組, akagumi), male singers are put in the white team (白組, shirogumi). The show ends shortly before midnight, where judges decide which "team" performed the best.

 "Kohaku Uta Gassen" (紅白歌合戦)

Just before the old year ends and the new year begins, it is a Japanese custom to eat a bowl of toshikoshi-soba (年越しそば), or "Noodles for Crossing Into the New Year." Noodles symbolize "long life," and particularly in the case of toshikoshi-soba, it has this connotation of "connecting one year with the next." The bowl is eaten in hopes that the new year will also bring good luck and long life. Even in present-day Japan, it is considered "bad luck" for the next year not to finish all your toshikoshi-soba before the New Year begins.

Bowl of "toshikoshi soba."
The night of New Year's Eve, called joya (除夜), is often marked by a trip to a Buddhist temple. Just before midnight, people gather at temples to hear the tolling of a large bell, rung 108 times. This is because of the Buddhist belief that human beings are plagued by 108 earthly desires or passions (煩悩: bonnō). With each ring, one desire is dispelled. The low tolling of these bells can be heard throughout the country, welcoming the New Year.

 People gathered for the ringing of Joya no Kane
(除夜の鐘, The Bell of Cleansing Even)

The morning of January 1st is called gantan (元旦), and the kanji character used in the word looks like the sun rising over the horizon. New Year’s Day is also filled with all kinds of traditions. In most families, special dishes, called osechi ryōri (お節料理), are eaten. Many of these dishes are sweet or sour, and are served in special boxes. Traditionally, enough food is cooked to feed the family for a 3-day holiday period, since traditionally cooking was not allowed during this time.


Eating rice cakes, or mochi (餅), made at the end of the year is also a Japanese New Year tradition. Although it can be bought at the store or made with a machine, many people still make mochi the old-fashioned way for o-shōgatsu. Pounding rice into mochi is called "mochi tsuki" (餅つき) in Japanese. Special mochigome rice (もち米) is boiled and put into a shallow bucket-like container made of wood or stone. Then it is patted with water by one person, while another person hits it with a large wooden mallet. By mashing the rice, it gets sticky and it forms a sticky white dumpling, which can be pressed and cut into flat cakes or filled with bean paste to make a sweet treat.

Pounding mochi in a mortar

 Mochi is also made into a New Year's decoration called kagami mochi (鏡餅), formed from two round cakes of mochi with a daidai (橙: bitter orange) placed on top.

 Nowadays, people don't have the time to make a kagamimochi arangement,
so people often sell little plastic kagamimochi with prepackaged rice cakes inside.

Another important custom is sending New Year Postcards (年賀状: nengajō) to friends and family. Instead of sending Christmas cards, like in Western countries, Japanese send New Year’s Cards that are guaranteed to arrive on the 1st of January by the Japanese postal service (provided you submit them a week before, of course). The purpose of these cards is to let friends and family that you don’t get to meet often, know that you are doing well.

 Various nengajo from past years.

Nengajō often feature drawings or pictures of an animal, according to the year of the Chinese Zodiac. (2019 will mark the year of the wild boar.) As the new year approaches, the post office begins to sell post cards in various designs, and even special blank post cards for people who would rather create their own design. Post cards are also available at grocery and convenience stores. Some portrait stores will print out cards with pictures of your choice. Some companies even offer online services for people who would like to design their own post cards. Some allow you to use your own family pictures.

 Small nengajo selection at a convenience store

All post cards have a special number in the back. The cards that are sent through the Japan Post are registered, and come the new year, the post office holds a drawing with special prizes awarded to the holders of the cards with the numbers drawn. Prizes include cash, travel packages, electronics, food or stamps.

The bottom of every nengajo card looks like this.

New Year’s Day is also a fun day for children, as they play many games associated with the New Year celebration. They also look forward to receive a small decorated envelope that contains a certain amount of money called an o-toshidama (お年玉). Normally, the amount of money depends on the age of the child, but often the same amount is given, if there are more than one child in the family, and parents might even give them to adults who are well over-age.

 Girl getting otoshidama from her dad.

Otoshidama envelopes come in many shapes, colors and sizes. There is so much variety that during the New Year season, stores dedicate entire sections to otoshidama envelopes.

 Otoshidama Envelopes

Otoshidama envelope section

Almost as soon as the New Year has been rung in, it is customary for Japanese to head for a shrine or temple to pray for the first time in the year. This "first pilgrimage" to a shrine is called Hatsumōde (初詣). Many believers are already there at a shrine or temple, ready to make their first prayer of the year. This is very popular, so temples and shrines are extremely crowded.

 People gathered at a shrine for Hatsumode.
People pray for continued health and safety, and often buy protective good-luck charms (お守り o-mamori ), and return the ones they bought the previous year.

 "Omamori" charms

At Shinto shrines, many people write their prayers and wishes on wooden placards called ema (絵馬), or pull strips of paper called omikuji (おみくじ) from a large box which have a prediction of one's fortune for the new year written on them. The omikuji predict how your luck will run in various aspects of life. After reading the fortune on an omikuji, a Japanese person typically ties it somewhere in the shrine, usually at a designated area.

Ema placards

Tying an omikuji fortune

The crane (鶴: tsuru) and the turtle (亀: kame) have been long-standing good luck symbols for the Japanese New Year. Traditionally, these creatures are believed to live long lives, the crane living 1,000 years, and the turtle living 10,000 years. These creatures symbolize long life, and for this reason they appear on much New Year decoration, collectively known as "Tsurukame."

 On New Year's Day, turtles and cranes are everywhere.

Also symbolic of the New Year, are the pine tree (松: matsu), bamboo (竹: take), and plum blossom (梅: ume). Collectively, these symbols are called by their old Chinese names, "Shōchikubai." Winter is a harsh season in Asia, being bitter cold and bringing with it heavy snow, so these symbols represent endurance through hardship. The pine tree is said to grow in very harsh conditions, growing on rocky cliffs where few things can survive, and staying green throughout the year. Bamboo is tough, strong and flexible, bowing under heavy snow, and bending, but never breaking, in harsh winds. It also thrives in any kind of soil and is continuously green throughout the year. The plum blossom is said to be the first tree that blossoms at the end of winter, even when snow covers its branches, heralding the coming of spring. Since the pine, bamboo and plum blossom manage to thrive in harsh conditions, they have come to be symbols of strength, endurance and hope.

Shochikubai - Pine, bamboo and plum

Imported from China around the 8th century, the Lion Dance, or “shishi-mai” is often performed around New Year’s to ward off evil spirits, pray for peace, bountiful harvests, and good health. The "lion" consists of a wooden head, or "shishi-gashira" (獅子頭), and a body made up of green cloth with white patterns. Depending on the style, one or two performers wear the costume, dancing to the sounds of flutes and drums.

It is a custom around the Japanese New Year for stores and merchants to sell what are called "fukubukuro," (福袋) or "lucky grab-bags." They are filled with unknown, random contents that are sold at a substantial discount, usually 50% or more off the list price of the items contained inside. Now a lavish New Year custom used to attract customers, fukubukuro started out as an ingenious strategy to get rid of last year’s merchandise. Today, fukubukuro contain a mix of random merchandise from the store they’re sold in. They may contain random prizes, such as vouchers for electronics, expensive jewelry, or tickets to far away places, truly making them "lucky grab-bags."

"Fukubukuro" or "Lucky Bags" at a store

Games Children Play at New Year's
 達磨落し Daruma Otoshi
In Daruma Otoshi, children use a mallet to try and knock out stacked wooden blocks from under a Daruma doll one by one without knocking him over. The person who can knock out the last block successfully, wins.

Daruma Otoshi
福笑い Fuku Warai
Similar to "Pin the Tail on the Donkey," Fukuwarai is a game where children take turns arranging parts of an Otafuku (お多福: Lucky Laughing Lady) face while blindfolded. The face usually comes out looking ridiculous, and the players can't keep from laughing.

Children playing "fuku warai"

 羽根突き Hanetsuki
Hanetsuki is a kind of Badminton game played with ornate wooden boards called "hagoita" (羽子板) and a shuttlecock made from feathers and a bean. Hitting the shuttlecock with the boards causes loud popping noises. There is no net, and the point of the game is just to keep the shuttlecock in the air as long as possible.

"Hagoita" racket and "hanetsuki" shuttlecock

百人一首 Hyakunin Isshu
Hyakunin Isshu is a Karuta game where a caller reads half of a Japanese poem, and players must search for the card with the latter half from among cards spread on the floor or a table. The cards are very ornate with poems written in calligraphy and beautiful pictures. It is a game of skill and speed, as players compete to see who can snatch up the correct card the fastest.

 Hyakunin Isshu cards

 People playing hyakunin isshu

Other long-standing Japanese New Year pastimes include top spinning (独楽回し: komamawashi) and kite flying (凧揚げ: takoage).

Japanese Top

Boy spinning a top on new year's day

 凧 – tako kite

Related Post:
Setsubun: Japan's Old New Year