The year 2014 has already come and gone practically and we now turn our thoughts toward the New Year. In Japan, the New Year (O Shogatsu, お正月) is certainly one of the most important occasions on the calendar. It is a time when people travel back to their hometowns (Furusato, 故郷) and take part in festivities embedded in centuries of culture and meaning. Since 1873, the Japanese New Year has been celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar, on January 1 of each year, however, most businesses and institutions shut down from January 1 to January 3 allowing families more time to enjoy together.
Let’s take a look at some of these traditions that are so common in Japan this time of year.
Each New Year provides a fresh start, consequently all duties are supposed to be completed by the end of the year, including cleaning one’s home and clothes. There are bonenkai (忘年会) drinking parties held at the end of the year for the purpose of leaving the previous year’s worries behind. Bonenkai literally means “forget the year gathering.”
The start of the year is a spiritual time in Japan, when the New Year’s gods are said to descend from the heavens and exist in the earthly realm. In order to guide the gods toward them, many households, businesses and sacred sites put up pine and bamboo decorations known as “kadomatsu (門松),” on either side of entrance ways. The decorations, with multi-tiered bamboo shoots representing heaven, earth and humanity, are believed to attract the gods and draw the lucky spirits toward them. The gods dwell in the pine until Jan 7, after which time the decorations are taken to a shrine to be burnt, releasing the spirits back to their realm.
The New Year’s rice cake, called kagami mochi (鏡餅), is another festive item said to contain the spirit of the gods. It is made using two round cakes of mochi with a tangerine (daidai) placed on top. “Daidai” are considered lucky as the meaning of the word can be translated to “generation after generation,” representing the family’s wish for a long and prosperous bloodline. The word “kagami” means “mirror” in Japanese and the round shape of the mochi is said to symbolize the mirror of the sun goddess Amaterasu. According to Japanese mythology, the earth went dark when Amaterasu retreated from the world and hid in a cave. The sun goddess was eventually drawn out from the cave with a mirror, ultimately bringing light back into the world. With its round, mirror-like shape, “kagami mochi” symbolizes the renewal of light and energy present at the start of a new year.
Although today the tradition of eating “Osechi ryori,”is not as common as it used to be, there are still many families who include this traditional New Year’s dish at their tables. Osechi (おせち) as it is commonly called has a long tradition dating back to the Heian Period (794-1185). Originally, it was considered taboo to cook meals during the first three days of the New Year, so stackable boxes filled with long-lasting food items were prepared by Dec 31, for consumption over the first three days of the New Year. Today, even though cooking during the New Year is no longer considered taboo, many families still enjoy osechi during the New Year.
Another food item known as, toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodles), are served on New Year’s Eve. These long noodles symbolize longevity, and are eaten for that purpose at the end of the year.
It is a tradition to visit a shrine or temple during the New Year. The most popular temples and shrines, such as Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine, attract several million people during the three days. The most impressive turnouts are at midnight on December 31, when temples all over Japan ring their bells a total of 108 times to symbolize the 108 human sins in Buddhist belief. The Japanese believe that the ringing of bells can rid their sins during the previous year.
Another very popular custom is the sending of New Year’s cards (Nengajo, 年賀状) , which are specially marked to be delivered on January 1. Even with the rise in popularity of email, the Nengajo remains very popular in Japan.
Finally, on New Year’s Day, Japanese people have a custom of giving money to children. This is known as Otoshidama. The money is handed out in small decorated envelopes called Pochibukuro. The amount of money given depends on the age of the child but is usually the same if there is more than one child so that no one feels slighted. It is not uncommon for amounts greater than ¥10,000 to be handed out.
Visiting Japan during the New Year is a great time to take part in some unique events and learn more about the finer aspects of Japanese culture.
Happy New Year! 明けましておめでとうございます！