Skip to content

Japanese New Year お正月

January 31, 2012

In other words, the natural starting point of our journey.

Like most countries, excluding China of course, the New Year in Japan falls on January 1st. With the date for New Year’s Day being (1月1日) January 1st (1/1), the New Year’s holiday marks the first of the sekku 「節句」, traditional seasonal festivals which are celebrated on particular days of the year wherein the month is the same number as the day of the month. This tradition of celebrating particular odd numbered days originally comes from the Chinese belief that odd numbers are lucky, but, as you will see in coming posts, it remains nonetheless deeply rooted in Japanese history. Because the New Year festival is the first of the sekku, it’s known as the hatsu-zekku (初節句), with the prefix hatsu- meaning first. In Japan, it is important to ring in the New Year with your family. Grown children will return to their hometown, or furusato 「故郷」 in order to take part in the many traditional Japanese New Year festivities (of which there are many). In Japan, the New Year is viewed as an important time to reflect upon the previous year– recount one’s accomplishments, remember the good times,  let go of regrets; It is also a time to look forward– determine future goals, make plans, figure out personal direction.  On New Year’s Eve, just before midnight, bells are chimed 108 times in Buddhist temples to signal the end of the old year and usher in the new one. Each ringing of the bell is a representation of one of the 108 earthly temptations a person must overcome to achieve nirvana. Anyway, without further ado, I present the first of what I hope will be many more posts entailing customs and traditions associated with Japanese cultural holidays and festivals.

Where to start… Greetings come first right?

Shinnen no aisatsu 「新年の挨拶」

Shinnen no aisatsu means New Year’s greeting. In the few weeks leading up to the New Year, it is quite common to hear the phrase Yoi Otoshi Wo 「良いお年を」being said around the office. This phrase, roughly translated to “Have a great year!” is said to someone when you anticipate that you won’t see them again before the new year. Think of it like a final send-off. This phrase however cannot be used after the New Year. The common greeting heard throughout the month of January, much akin to the western “Happy New Year!” is akemashite omedetou gozaimasu 「明けましておめでとうございます」, or in younger circles, the shortened akeome. This is usually followed by kotoshimo yoroshiku onegaishimasu 「今年も宜しくお願いします」, which means “Thank you for your help and support in the coming year”. Variations on the Happy New Year  greeting include the less common kingashinen 「謹賀新年」 and gashou 「賀正」. Unlike the akeome greeting these two are never spoken and are instead found on New Year’s Greeting Cards. Hey, speaking of which…

Nengajou 「年賀状

A nengajou is a Japanese New Year’s Greeting Card. The giving of New Year’s Card giving tradition of Japan is very similar to that of the Western world. These cards are traditionally written and mailed throughout the month of December in order to arrive on the 1st of January 「元旦」and usually contain updates of family activity over the past year. In Japan, a New Year’s Card is a great way to let that extended family you have living on the other side of the country know what you’ve been up to. In December this year, one of my co-workers had the misfortune of losing his mother to cancer. In my chats with him about it, I learned about a tradition in Japan concerning the sending of New Year’s Card in the event of a death in the family. As a form of grieving, families will not send out the nengajou and will instead send out a mourning card, known as a  mochū hagaki 「喪中葉書」. This card lets friends and family know not to send a New Year’s Card this year as a way of showing respect for the dead. This tradition is one way of engaging in what the Japanese call monifukusu 「喪に服す」, the physical mourning process. In the same way that I am not shaving my beard for 2 months in order to mourn the loss of my grandfather and preserve his memory, Japanese people will also traditionally have some physical manifestation of mourning in order to observe the passing of a family member.

And on that happy note, THIS.

Year of the Dragon

Osechi Ryouri 「お節料理」

Osechi Ryouri refers to the traditional foods that are eaten on New Year’s Eve. Osechi usually comes in a bento-like box and contains many different types of customary Japanese foods. Each dish within the osechi meal contains special meaning for the New Year. The big ones in So in no particular order…

Shrimp 「海老」 – Shrimp at the New Year is grilled with sake and soy sauce and is delicious… or so I’ve heard. I can’t eat shellfish, so I wouldn’t know. In Japanese, the phrase associated with the eating of shrimp at the New Year is koshiga magarumade naga-iki 「腰が曲がるまで長生き」. Roughly translated, this means “May you have a long life until your back is bent over”. Pre-World War II, Japan was basically one giant rice paddy. The common man spent his life on the farm bent over planting rice in the spring and harvesting it in the autumn. After about 60-70 years of doing this, their spines inevitably became very crooked. If you spend any time in the Japanese countryside, you will surely run into one of these bent over farmers. While it is common to mistake them for a goblin at first, if you get to know them, you will find that they are an invaluable spring of knowledge and experience.

Seaweed 「昆布」 – Seaweed, or konbu in Japanese, is eaten as a side in the osechi set. In Japanese, the word konbu is almost the second half of the word yorokobu 「喜ぶ」, which means joy. Eating konbu at the New Year is thought to bestow  joy.

Fish Eggs 「数の子」 – The word for fish eggs in Japanse is kazu no ko. kazu means number and ko means children. This food is eaten with the hopes that young couples will be blessed with good fortune in their ability to have lots of children. In Japan, fish are sometimes seen as a symbol of fertility. Fish have lots of babies, so eating their eggs might bestow their baby making power to you? Hmm.. seems fishy to me.

Japanese Orange 「橙」 – Japanese people eat oranges throughout the winter season in an effort  to stave off sickness, but the oranges eaten at the New Year, called daidai— meaning “for generations”, hold a special significance. Similar to the kazu no ko just mentioned above, it represents a wish of fertility and a healthy family.

Black Beans 「黒豆」 – While definitely not as important as rice, beans play an important part to the Japanese diet (daizu… it’s secretly in everything). The black beans eaten at the New Year are called kuro mame (literally “black” “bean”). The significance here lies in the history of the Japanese language. Before the word genki (healthy, fit) was as prolific as it is today, people would use the word mame 「忠実」. With this in mind, the phrase associated with black beans at the New Year, mame ni naru, essentially means the same as genki ni naru, though less commonly heard in normal conversation. Oh, mame ni naru roughly means “I hope you become healthy and energetic”. It’s a wish for fitness.

Dried Sardines 「田作り」 – It wouldn’t be Japan without some salty fish on the menu. For those of you familiar with the Japanese language, the kanji used to create the word for dried sardines, tadsukuri, is comprised of the kanji for “rice paddy” 「田」 and “to make” 「作り」. Despite the fact that to most Westerners, Japan means Tokyo, anime, and J-pop, the majority of Japan is comprised of farm towns and rice paddies. While the rise of the electronics industry in the 80s and 90s changed the economic infrastructure of Japan, agriculture remains a pervasive economic force. Having participated in a few rice harvests and being surrounded by rice paddies myself, I understand the importance of a good growing season for the livelihoods of Japanese farmers. The word for dried sardines, tadsukuri, contains the symbolism of an abundant harvest. Incidentally, so does the name of the mountain town I live in Mizuho 「瑞穂」.

While this is definitely not a comprehensive list of the traditional Osechi meal, I think it highlights the pieces that hold significant meaning in Japanese culture. I know that by now you’re all curious, and yes, it’s just as pretty as you would have imagined…

Otoshidama 「お年玉」

Now, if you’re not jealous of Japanese New Year’s traditions yet, this one will hook you. I don’t know about any of you, but when I was a kid, all I got for New Year’s was permission to stay up a little bit past my bedtime to ring in the New Year (which coincidentally isn’t even a big deal anymore considering most of the little kids I know nowadays aren’t in bed until 11:30ish anyways. Kids these days… wait, does that make me an old man? D’oh!). In Japan, kids get this nifty envelope with fun pictures on it (pochibukuro) from their parents and grandparents (even relatives sometimes) that is full of cold hard cash. Nothing says I love you and Happy New Year like money in the bank. Most of the kids I’ve spoken to find it common to score ¥10,000+ ($115+) per envelope. Apparently, this practice comes from an older (much less lucrative) New Year’s tradition of adult family members giving foods like oranges or rice cakes to kids. If you happen to be one of the lucky ones and come from a big family, it’s not uncommon to walk away with nearly $1,000 at the New Year.  Looks like Tomoki is going to get that new pokemon game this year after all…

Shinnen no ketsui 「新年の決意」

Here’s something we can all relate to: New Year’s resolutions. Japan is no different from the Western world when it comes to New Year’s resolutions. Everyone from kids to adults decide a goal for themselves over the course of the next year and resolve to stick to it. I usually hear kids wanting to be more diligent in practicing their kanji (they think it’s hard too!). Adults tend to share the same goals as we do: lose weight, exercise more, learn something new, study more, save money, reduce stress. They even have the same inability to stick to those goals. (Hey, we’re all human). In Japanese, there is a word that you call someone who is unable to stick with their New Year’s resolution (or any goal for that matter): mikka bouzu 「三日坊主」, literally “three day boy”. The idea here is that once someone has made a goal, it’s only three days until they have given up on it. As with anything, New Year’s resolutions included, you just gotta keep on keeping on! Here’s a song, introduced to me by my 80 year old co-worker Miss Honsei, to help remind you to stick with it, whatever it is!

Japanese Traditional Games 「お正月の伝統的な遊び」

In Japan, there are certain games that are played with the family during the New Year’s family gathering.

There is the kendama 「剣玉」, which, while at first glance appears to be similar to the Western game of ball in a cup, is actually a test of concentration and dexterity. There is a children’s song of that bears the same name that is used to help with the timing of the ball movements. The rules of the game are taught to kids in elementary school (even before that sometimes), and you play it by yourself.

Another game commonly played is the koma-mawashi 「独楽回し」. This activity consists of tying up string around a top and seeing how long you can spin it. You can play with two or more players, and the winner is determined by whose top spins the longest. I’ve tried this game many many times, but I can never beat the superiority of the children’s tight string coiling and perfect throwing.


Karuta 「カルタ」

Karuta is a card game played by Japanese people old and young alike. It is VERY popular amongst elementary and junior high school kids, and it’s even played during class as a Japanese culture study exercise. The basic rules of the game are that you have two decks of cards. One deck is the reading deck called a yomifuda 「読み札」, and is read by a referee. The other deck, which corresponds to the reading cards, is called the torifuda 「取り札」, and is given to the two participants to be laid out between them. There are many forms of karuta, but the form that is traditionally played on New Year’s Day is a form called uta-garuta 「歌がるた」. The cards that are used in this game are the hyakunin-isshu 「百人一首」. There are many sets of cards for hyakunin-isshu, because hyakunin-isshu is a style of tanka poetry writing where one hundred writers each contribute one poem to the anthology, but the set that is used traditionally on New Year’s Day is the anthology chosen by the famous poet Fujiwara no Teika during the Heian Jidai. The reading cards contain one complete poem, and the pulling cards contain the second half of the poem. Elementary school children are challenged to memorize all one hundred poems and compete inkarutacompetitions. If you have the entire poem memorized, you can grab the card quickly, because you can easily recognize the second half of the poem written on the pulling cards. I’ve been playing this game for about two years now, and I’m proud to say that I have even won a couple games. But, I would be no challenge to those children who have actually memorized all of the poems (and yes! they are out there! I have met them! They are tiny geniuses!)

While the above games are also played throughout the rest of the year, there is one game that is only played around the New Year: fukuwarai 「福笑い」.

Fukuwarai, literally “Luck Laugh”, is basically a bigger version on pin the tail on the donkey with no specific winning goal. The whole point is to have fun and laugh, as indicated by the name of the game becuase the kanji, 笑, means to laugh or smile. According to traditional, as you laugh, luck for the new year comes to you. To start out you have a blank face and separate pieces for the eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth, and ears. The participant is blindfolded and handed pieces one by one and much try to make the face. As you can imagine, most of the time you get a crazy looking warped face, which leads to much laughing and fun. The traditional fukuwarai face looks like this (see below), but personally I prefer the Anpanman face! It’s much more fun!


Kouhaku Uta Gassen 「紅白歌合戦」

Once a year, the NHK takes a break from its normal TV programming (shows about people eating food/people watching people eating food and reacting to it/food watching people/oh and anime) to bring the people of Japan a spectacular music competition. This competition brings together the top artists of the previous year and pits them together in the classic boys vs. girls fashion. The word kouhaku means red and white and the teams are divided as such. The red team is made up of female artists and the white team is comprised of the male artists. The show is aired on New Year’s Eve and lasts about 4 hours. The outcome is determined by a panel of judges and votes from audience members and viewers at home. The whole feel of this competition is very much like that of a Sport Day 「運動会」 seen in Japanese schools– wherein two to three teams (usually red and white– sometimes with yellow or blue too) compete in various events to claim victory. Occasionally, foreigners are extended an invitation to participate. This year Lady Gaga made her first appearance on the show, and let me tell you, Japanese kids went gaga for Gaga. Now, everywhere you go you hear 10 year old kids saying Lady Gaga this and Lady Gaga that. I think I’m going to be sick…

Kakizome 「書初め」

A kakizome is a form of shodou 「書道」– Japanese calligraphy. A kakizome is the first writing of the New Year and is written on the 2nd of January. In a conversation I had with Miss Shinmori, the clerk at Iwami Higashi Elementary School, I learned that back in the old days, kakizome were full poems and much longer than they are today. Nowadays, kakizome tend to be phrases with good vibes such as “Eternal Beauty”, “Will to Live”, or “Energetic Child”. Throughout the month of December, kids from elementary school through high school choose their kakizome phrase and practice in their calligraphy class. Last year was my first experience writing a kakizome. Because the winter in Ohnan is so snowy and cold, I decided upon 「春を待つ」 – “Waiting for Spring”. It’s apparently tradition to burn your kakizome on the 14th of January at the Sachigo Festival, thus ending the New Year season in Japan. (In the Iwami area where I live however, this festival is not known by the name Sachigo, but rather the Donto Yaki Festival)

Kagami Mochi 「鏡餅」

Mochi is a sweet enjoyed during times of celebration in Japan. The ceremony for making mochi is called mochi tsuki 「餅つき」. Super sticky rice is first soaked in water overnight and then cooked the next day. After cooking, the rice is then pounded with a giant mallet called a kine 「杵」 in a mortar called the usu 「臼」. It’s a lot more difficult than it looks. One person hammers the mochi with the kine and the other person wets and turns it in the usu. Once it has been pounded to perfection, it gets rolled in into tiny balls.

When decorated at New Year, this mochi in its hammered and finalized form is called kagami-mochi 「鏡餅」, which means mirror-mochi. Two balls of mochi, one small one placed on top of one large one, are placed on a stand called a sanpou 「三宝」。There is a white sheet placed on the sanpou under the mochi called a shihoubeni 「四方紅」. This thin, white sheet has an association with fire and is supposed to be a charm to protect the house from fire for the next year. A tiny bitter orange called a daidai (the same daidai mentioned earlier in the section pertaining to osechi-ryouri) with a leaf attached  is placed on top of the smaller mochi ball. The kagami-mochi is then placed on the Shinto altar of the household. If I had a Shinto altar in my house, I would have done  it myself, but seeing it at a friend’s house was good enough for me. Besides, wouldn’t it rot before the second weekend in January (known as the kagami biraki 「鏡開き」) when it’s supposed to be eaten?

Hatsuyume 「初夢」

Since I arrived in Ohnan almost 2 years ago, my good friend Matsumoto has provided me with a wealth of information about Japan. It was thanks to him that I first heard of the hatsuyume. The New Year is a time for firsts in Japan. The prefix hatsu 「初」in Japanese means first. There are a few firsts in Japanese culture that are considered important. The hatsuyume is the first dream of the new year. (Yes, New Year’s traditions get this deep) Apparently though, even though it’s called the first dream of the new year, it’s actually the dream that you have on the night of January 1st. This is because Japanese people are traditionally expected to have stayed up all night the night of New Year’s Eve. Moreover, there is a hierarchy of specific dreams that are said to bring good fortune. It is said that the best thing a person can dream about is Mt. Fuji. Because Mt. Fuji is the highest mountain in all of Japan, it is considered great fortune. Next on the list is a hawk. Wait, what? Yeah, you heard it right, a hawk comes in at number 2 on the good luck new year dream list. In Japanese culture, hawks are considered wise and powerful, so if you dream about them, you are said to receive good fortune for the next year. Now, if you thought the hawk was an unlikely competitor for second on the list, then you’ll likely find number 3 to be the strangest yet. Coming in at number 3 on the list is an eggplant. (Oh, now you’re just making stuff up…) Seriously though, the word for eggplant in Japanese, nasu 「茄子」, also happens to be the same word for the verb “to succeed”. So the story here is that if you dream about an eggplant, you will have decent fortune and have succeed in your endeavors. Matsumoto has been trying ever since he was a kid, but he has yet to dream of any one of these three. Tonight, I will eat an eggplant in his honor to wish him the best of luck in his dreaming endeavors.

Tanjoubi 「誕生日」

I’d like to end this post on a fascinating birthday tradition that I was lucky to discover in one of my many discussions with a local Buddhist monk. Apparently, before Japan was opened up to the Western world following World War II and all this ♪’Happy Birthday to You’♪ business was introduced to their culture, Japanese people did not celebrate their own individual birthdays. Rather, on New Year’s Day everyone collectively aged 1 year. Everyone had the same birthday! Not only that, but babies were said to already be 1 year old at birth. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, “So what if a baby is born on December 31st?”. Well you’re right. That means that on January 1st, the very next day, that particular baby would be 2 years old! So in addition to its many traditions, the New Year also served as a giant birthday party for the whole nation. As many people use their birthday as a time for reflection on another year passing in their life, this collective birthday tradition tied in very well with the festive and reflective spirit of the Japanese New Year– although because of all the drinking associated with the New Year in Japan, the next day I’m sure the biggest reflection of all was “I wish I wasn’t so hungover…”

Well that just about sums it up for the Japanese New Year. In my next post, I will highlight features and customs of the Setsubun festival. See you then!


From → History

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: