Japanese New Year Customs

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Japanese New Year Customs


In Japan, New Year or Oshōgatsu, is considered the most important day of the year. Unlike what people usually think of New year- with countdown or drinking until dawn, Japanese New Year celebration customs are more of traditional sense, noted as a family holiday. Below is everything you should know about Japanese New Year customs and traditions.

When do Japanese people celebrate New Year?

Long ago, Japanese people celebrated New Year followed the lunar calendar; however, ever since they adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1873, they started to celebrate New Year on January 1st as much of the Western world.

As mentioned above, the Japanese New Year is a family holiday. This is an occasion for family reunion. Those who depart their hometown to work in big cities will make their journey back home after a long year away from home. Meanwhile, other people coming from big cities themselves may take the chance of having a long vacation to go on some trips.

The holiday period varies upon each company’s policy but typically, it will start a few days before New Year and last until January 3rd.

During this time of the year, some attractions, restaurants, and shops close or have limited working hours. Therefore, if you happen to travel in Japan during the New Year period, be sure to check in advance.

Japanese New Year Traditions

Bonenkai – “Forget the Year” Parties

People throw “Forget the Year” parties (Bonenkai in Japanese) throughout December with the idea of forgetting the past year’s hardships.

Generally, in a Bonenkai, there is a plentiful amount of alcohol is served and for people, they will let their hair down, release the stress they bare for all year long, especially for employees who have had hard hours of working. If you are working in Japan, you can expect to see a different side of your usually shy co-workers. On this occasion, acting a little crazy will be forgiven.

Such parties are usually held at the izakaya, which are Japanese drinking houses that sell small shared dishes.

Osouji – Ritualistic New Year Cleaning

In English, there is a term called “spring cleaning” which refers to the traditional big clean-outs or weekends of de-cluttering that are usually carried out when the cooler months pass. Similarly, in Japan, there is a term called “osouji” which describes the ritualistic cleaning of homes and offices before the New Year.

Although “osouji” may mean the major clean-outs that take place in any time of the year, Japanese people take New Year “osouji” as a complete and thorough cleaning affair, not just selective tasks like cleaning out cupboards or wardrobes.

“Out with the old, in with the new”; Osouji is not simply getting the house ready for New Year celebration. It is, in fact, symbolizes a fresh, new beginning. The practice of clearing of soot and dust is known as susuharai, which means to show the gratitude towards last year’s blessings, whilst purifying the space to welcome the new coming ones. For this reason, “osouji” is a ritual of great cultural and religious importance. The Japanese will set aside several days carrying out this annual custom with extra time and care. They pay attention to those neglected areas around the home or office. For office workers, they usually finish Osouji on the last couple of their working days.

It should be noted that this task is not easy at all since the cleaning of windows, balconies and outdoor spaces are done in cold winter days. Yet, the motivation of putting the best foot forward into the New Year is big enough to courage people.

Omisoka – New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve – Omisoka is dedicated to family. People usually stay at home, in their fresh and anew house thanks to osouji, gather together with other members and enjoy Kōhaku Uta Gassen, which is Red and White Song Contest, a special TV program aired annually on New Year’s Eve. (in this program, famous male and female music artists will compete against each other. The males represent the ‘white’ team while the female represents ‘red’ one – two traditional colors of New Year in Japan.

Around midnight, people eat “Toshikoshi soba” – the “year-crossing noodles”. This a custom to welcome the new year with the wish for a long life as soba noodles are long and fine.

Japanese New Year Food

For the first 3 days of New year, Japanese people enjoy eating “osechi-ryōri” dishes which, as suggested by Note Of Nomads, include “marinated herring roe (kazunoku), boiled seaweed (konbu), fish cakes (kamaboko), mashed sweet potato with chestnut (kurikinton), simmered burdock root (kinpira gobō), and sweetened black soybeans (kuromame).” The presentation of these dishes, in terms of their colors and arrangement, matters and addresses different aspects of good fortune.

These “osechi-ryōri” dishes are specially made for the New Year. They are basically sweet, sour or dried, can store up to the duration of the holidays without staying in the refrigerator. The history of “osechi-ryōri” started from the Heian Period (794-1185) when there was not yet mod-cons. As the stores closed over the New Year period, Osechi was there to help since the dishes were prepared and eaten over several days. Also, this feature of Osache suggests that the cooks of the family can enjoy a well-deserved break during these holidays.

One of the keynote dishes of New Year celebrations is ozōni, a soup that contains rice cakes. People believe that to ensure a good fortune in the coming year, one should eat ozōni as their first meal of the New Year. However, when enjoying this dish of tradition, people have to be careful with the glutinous rice cake may get stuck in their throats, causing unexpected incidents.

Japanese New Year Decorations

There is a variety of New Year decorations in Japan.

People decorate the front of house gates or buildings with a pair of Kadomatsu (Pine-gate) for the first 7 days of the New year, from January 1st to 7th. Kadomatsu refers to a set of three bamboo poles diagonally cut to different lengths tied with pine tree branches using straw rope. The design may also have sprigs of other foliage and flowers. It is believed that bamboo is a symbol of growth and strength, while pine represents longevity. Alternatively, sprigs of pine can serve as a smaller and simpler version of the kadomatsu.

Another type of decoration for New Year in Japan is Shimenawa. They are sacred straw ropes that are used to indicate a purified space and to protect it from evil spirits. Large Shimenawa can be seen in temples and shrines.

Shimekazari is a special type of shimenawa. Shimekazari is decorated with other lucky and auspicious objects. People hang Shimekazari at the entrances to their homes and businesses during New Year to ward off evil spirits. Each object attached on Shimekazari has its own special meaning. For instance, the Japanese bitter orange is a good omen since its literacy meaning when translated is “generation to generation”. Meanwhile, a lobster stands for a long life because of its lean looks similar to that of an elderly person.

The mochi can also play as a New Year decorative item. Kagami mochi is made of two mochi; the smaller one is placed on top of the larger one while standing on the very top is a “generation to generation” bitter orange. “The mochi represents the past year and the new year to come; when combined with the orange, they symbolize the continuity of the family over the years. People place Kagami mochi in the miniature elevated Shinto shrine in homes and businesses (kamidana).” – as stated by Note of Nomads. The name of this decoration is said to derive from the stacked mochi‘s resemblance to the copper round mirrors (Kagami) that were used during the Muromachi period. On January 11th (or on the second Saturday or Sunday in January), a ritual called Kagami-biraki (meaning “the opening of the mirror”) is carried out in which the Kagami mochi are split by hand or hammer, then cooked and eaten with sweet red beans. People don’t use a knife to cut the cake since that represents the severing of family ties.

Except the mochi’s getting eaten on completing their duty, other decorations are typically brought to shrines and burned after the New Year period is over.

New Year’s Day In Japan

“Kemashite omedetou gozaimasu” is what you say when you want to wish your Japanese-speaking friends a Happy New Year. Noted that this sentence is only used from January 1st. Before then, prior to New Year Eve, for example in December, if you want to say Happy New Year, it should be “Yoi otoshio”. Typically, people say “Yoi otoshio” as they say goodbye to other people on the last meeting of the year.

First Sunrise and Other Firsts

As part of the customs, Japanese people drive to the coast or climb up a mountain to watch the first sunrise of the year which is known as Hatsuhinode.

Another important first is Hatsumōde which is the first visit to the shrine in the year.

Basically, to Japanese people, any first of the year important as it marks a good beginning for the new year to come.

Hatsumode – First Shrine Visit

The first shrine visit is a particularly important New Year custom in Japanese culture.

Many people embrace the cold weather to visit the temples at midnight to witness the bells be rung a total of 108 times (Joya no Kane Ritual). In Buddhist belief, these bell rings represent and ward off the 108 worldly sins. If a person comes early enough, he or she can be one of those 108 people who get to ring the bell.

Meanwhile, most people go to a shrine or temple on January 1st. People may have to line up to pray, this wait sometimes lasts up to hours with a crowd of millions of people! (Harajuku’s Meiji Jingu Shrine in Tokyo is a good example of this). Therefore, many food and drink vendors set up to relieve the hunger and monotony, creating a festive atmosphere.

In this first shrine visit, Japanese people return their “lucky charms” from the past year. If you are visiting a temple or shrine during this period, you may get to see people carrying wooden arrows with bells and other good luck charms along to the shrine. These arrows, called “hamaya” (which means “arrow that destroys demons” in Japanese), are kept in the house to ward off evil spirits. People returned these items to the shrines at the start of the new year and purchase the new ones. There are places set aside to collect the old items which are later burnt by the shrines.

Another activity is writing the wishes on wooden plaques and getting the fortune on the little white paper strips (omikuji). The paper will tell people some outlook on things like business or relationships. If the fortune is good, people will take the paper with them. If it turns out not so promising, people will fold then tie it to the dedicated string to ward off bad fortune and hope that they will get a better one next time.

Daruma Dolls – New Year Goal Setting

Daruma are the round and hollow Japanese dolls. They are made modeling after Bodhidharma, who is the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism. Daruma is believed to represent the perseverance and good luck associated with goal setting. For this reason, the dolls are popular during the New Year since this is the time when people set their plans and resolutions for the coming year.

A daruma is sold without the pupils in its eyes. Those who receive the doll as a gift will first draw one pupil upon setting their goal. And once they successfully achieve the goal, they will fill in the other pupil. The one-eyed daruma reminds them of the goal they have set out to do and helps to keep them on track to achieving it.

In New Year, people return the used daruma to temples to express their gratitude for the wish coming true. Like other items of good fortune, daruma are also burned later, in a ceremony called Daruma Kuyo. Nishi-Arai Daishi Temple (Tokyo) and Dairyuu-ji Temple in (Gifu) are the two most well-known temples to practice these ceremonies.


JAPANESE NEW YEAR CUSTOMS – EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW https://notesofnomads.com/japanese-new-year-customs/ Accessed February 28th 2019