New Years is one of the most important holidays celebrated almost universally throughout the world. In Japan, New Years, or oshougatsu, is not just the biggest and most important holiday, but also the oldest and one of the longest.
The Unknown Origin of Oshougatsu
Oshougatsu, which means New Years in Japanese, is the oldest known holiday celebrated in Japan, recognized from as early as the 6th century. Because of this long history, the exact origins are not known, however it is believed to have been introduced along with Buddhism, beginning with originally Buddhist traditions, and has evolved to also include Shinto rites and rituals.
Because it was brought in together with Buddhist customs, New Years was originally celebrated according to the Chinese Lunar Calendar up until the Meiji Period. However in 1873, Japan adopted the Gregorian Calendar, thus switching the main date of celebration to January 1st.
Though New Years Eve and New Years Day are the most important dates of the holiday, many in Japan view the entire month of January as a special festive month, similar to how many people in the West enjoy Christmas traditions for the entire month of December. Much of the last few days leading up to the January first are important in terms of preparation, keeping people busy with final year-end errands, cleaning, and decoration.
Preparing for the New Year: Out with the Old, In with the New!
Bounenkai (忘年会; Year End Parties)
Forget ugly sweater parties. In Japan, the end of December is all about bounenkai, or “End of the Year Parties”. Bounenkai roughly translates to “a party to forget about the old year.” At these events, usually organized by companies for their employees, and by groups of friends and families, people gather for a night of food, drinks, and games for the purpose of letting go of the worries and cares that the past year has brought, and looking forward to a fresh new start.
An important food to eat before the end of the year is soba, or buckwheat noodles, which are also symbolic of clearing out any negativity left behind from the old year. Practiced since the Edo Period, soba noodles are an important meal to include because they are easily broken down. Because of this it is believed that by eating them at the end of the year, you will easily break down and clear away any remaining stresses and negativity, thereby entering the New Year with a fresh, clean slate.
Oosouji (大掃除; House Cleaning)
Cleaning out the home in preparation for the new year is a worldwide concept. But the Japanese take it to another level with oosouji. The word itself translates into “house cleaning,” but is seen as a much bigger event, similar to the Western idea of spring cleaning, and symbolic of preparing the home to welcome the Shinto deities of the New Year. Because of this, oosouji is viewed as a sacred ritual, in which you clean out not just physical dust and debris, but also clear away negative entities and evil spirits. This tradition is said to have originated in the Heian Period as a ritual of praying for an auspicious new year.
(JP) Link: Five Ways to Prepare for the New Year
よい年を迎えるために。お正月までにやっておきたい5つの準備 | キナリノ
Japanese New Year Traditions
In the West, people decorate for Christmas with pine trees, snowflakes, and all kinds of cute, sparkly ornaments. In Japan, people decorate for the New Year in a similar fashion.
Kadomatsu is a decoration of bamboo and pine that is displayed to welcome Toshigamisama, the Shinto deity that represents a rich and abundant harvest for the new year. The pine used in the decoration is said to represent prosperity, longevity, and vitality, and is therefore regarded as an important symbol.
Shimekazari is another important decoration for welcoming the Shinto gods and warding off evil spirits. It is an ornament made of sacred Shinto straw ropes called shimenawa and mandarin oranges, and usually hung on the front door of the home. The importance of this decoration is that it is said to mark the border between the outside world and a pure and sacred space.
(JP) Link: How to Decorate for the New Year
Osechi-Ryori: Symbolic Food & Treats
Foods and feasts are an important part of any holiday, however none are as essential and symbolic to a new year as Japanese traditional Osechi-ryori. Dating back to the Heian Period, osechi was traditionally served on special bento boxes called jubako, with each food representing a special wish for the new year.
Some of the most common foods you will find in a typical osechi set are the following:
Chestnuts, which represent wealth; kobumaki, or kelp rolls, which represent happiness and fertility; shrimp, which represent longevity; black beans for health and wellness; renkon, or lotus root, for purity and a happy future; and gobo, or burdock root, for strength.
(JP) Link: The Meaning and Origin of Osechi-Ryori
Otoshidama and New Year's Greetings
Another tradition especially popular with children is the giving of small monetary gifts called otoshidama. However, originally it wasn't money that was exchanged, but rice cakes!
In Shinto tradition, rice cakes were prepared and offered at shrines to Toshigamisama, and later handed out to the people in attendance at the shrine. As the years passed, this tradition eventually evolved as well, becoming similar to the Chinese tradition of giving small red envelopes to children by the adults in the family on Chinese New Year. otoshidama are usually given out to young children from around toddler age until about 20 years old, in amounts of ￥500 to ￥10,000, gradually increasing as the child gets older.
(JP) Link: The Origin and Meaning of Otoshidama: Not Money, but Rice Cakes!
Adults may not exchange gifts, however New Years cards, or Nengajo, are a very important part of the tradition. Similar to the western tradition of sending Christmas cards to family and friends, these New Year’s greetings are often sent as post cards. This tradition was said to have originated from the exchanging of letters back in the Heian Period between noble families who lived too far away to offer New Years greetings in person. When the postal system was established in the Meiji Period, the tradition evolved with the times and people began to send these greetings cards as postcards.
(JP) Link: New Year’s Cards in Japan: What They Are and How They Began
New Years Eve Celebrations
In the west, many of us spend New Years Eve at home with family watching the ball drop in Times Square. The Japanese have a similar modern-day television tradition, however instead of watching the ball drop, they will most likely be watching one of (or both of) the following popular New Year’s Eve shows.
Joya no Kane: Ringing of the 108 Bells
Joya no Kane (除夜の鐘), or the ringing of the shrine bells on New Years Eve is originally a Buddhist tradition. In accordance with the Buddhist beliefs holding 108 as a sacred an auspicious number (representing 108 paths to God, as well as 108 impurities that we must strive to avoid and clear away), the bell is rung 108 times. Some TV stations broadcast this Tolling of the Bell Ceremony live for comfortable viewing from one’s own home. However, some shrines also hold the ceremony for the public, and offer the opportunity to ring the bells by oneself.
(JP) Link: Joya no Kane: Ringing of the Night Bell
NHK Kouhaku Uta Gassen
NHK's Kouhaku Uta Gassen (NHK紅白歌合戦 ), sometimes known simply as Kouhaku, is the most popular New Year’s Eve TV program, and comparable to America’s Times Square Ball Drop. It is broadcast live every year on both TV and radio by the NHK, and is a musical event in which the most popular artists of the year compete with each other in teams of male and female artists, respectively grouped into white and red teams.
Started in 1951 as a radio-only broadcast, Kouhaku has become one of the most popular and looked-forward to event of the year, and is a huge honor for any artist to perform on given that participation is strictly on an invitation basis only. The show runs in the evening and ends just before midnight, so that viewers can fully enjoy both the entertainment and the following tradition of watching the Bell Tolling Ceremony mentioned above.
This year's Kouhaku carries extra heft, as it's the last one of Heisei, the current Imperial Era; later in 2019, a new Emperor will be inaugurated, and a new Imperial Era will begin. You can follow the event online on the official NHK website and see participating artists. Don’t forget to root for your favorite!
(JP) Link: The 69th NHK Kohaku Uta Gassen: Participating Artists & Songs
Hatsumoude: First Shrine Visit of the Year
As previously discussed in our article on Japanese Shintoism, many of us are aware of the importance of shrines in Japanese culture. However no shrine visit is as big an event as hatsumoude, or the first shrine visit of the year.
Traditionally held exactly at midnight, at the very start of the first day of the New Year, hatsumoude is usually performed within the first three days of January. Many people go together as a family, though some people choose to make it a personal event and go either by themselves, or as a couple.
During this visit, it is customary to offer thanks, and pray for your new intentions for the New Year. As with any shrine visit, it is important to follow the same etiquette you would at any other time, beginning with purifying yourself, and ending with giving thanks to the gods. It is also common to purchase omikuji, or fortune papers, to predict your luck for the New Year, as well as various protection amulets.
It is also viewed as auspicious to watch the first sunrise of the year, called hatsuhinode. So if you manage to visit one of these shrines at midnight or before dawn, don’t forget to turn your eyes towards the sky and make a wish upon the sun!
(JP) Link: Let’s Go to Hatsumoude!
Japan’s Take on New Years Resolutions: Goal Setting & Celebration
No New Year’s tradition is complete without the setting of new intentions. The Japanese also set their resolutions, but in the form of goals. Many people keep track of these goals with the help of cute, traditional dolls called Daruma (達磨), which are round, hollow figures modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, and usually red in color. The doll gets its unique shape from a famous legend surrounding Bodhidharma, who was said to have spent so many years in meditation that his arms and legs fell off.
Daruma are small figurines with blank eyeballs, in which you fill in the pupils yourself with a black marker. The first pupil is drawn once you set your resolution, usually in the form of a goal you want to accomplish. Then, you set your one-eyed daruma in a place where you can see it often as a reminder to stay focused on that goal. Once the goal has been achieved, you fill in the second pupil as a symbol of having accomplished your goal.
While the red daruma is the form traditionally associated with this figure, Wikipedia JP documents no less than 11 different types of daruma, including the black Takasaki daruma, the colorful Matsukawa daruma, and even a female version, the Hime daruma.
(JP) Link: ''Lucky New Year! Origin of Daruma Dolls and Drawing Eyes
お正月の縁起物！だるまの由来と目を書くタイミング【達磨】 - うみさちたより
Shinnenkai: New Year Parties
Similar to the Bonenkai parties mentioned above, it is also customary to welcome the New Year with Shinnenkai, or New Year Parties. These are celebrated in a similar fashion, usually by companies or in groups of families and friends, and serve the opposite purpose of the year-end parties.
Now that the old has been cleared out it is time to welcome the new year and all the luck and fortune that you pray it will bring!
Fukubukuro: Japanese Black Friday
Finally, one of the most anticipated shopping events of the year, especially by young people, is the selling of fukubukuro (福袋), or “lucky bags.” On New Year’s Day, many shops and retailers put together huge discounted bags of random items on sale. Many people gather early to get their hands on these limited-time sale items, similar to how people in America line up the day after Thanksgiving for Black Friday sales. However, the big difference in this event is that the buyer usually has no idea what they will get until they open the bag, making it a kind of shopping lottery.
Merchandisers usually group together related items of a certain value, and sell them at a set price. The most popular of these lucky bags are from clothing stores, in which you choose a bag based on your size, and pay a certain amount for a random selection of items in that size, usually in the $100 range. For example, one lucky bag might include a surprise top and bottom combination, with an accessory or two to match.
However, if you would like to get your hands on one of these special bags, it is important to prepare ahead of time and have an idea of which bags you want. Some locations are extremely limited and may require having a special voucher in order to purchase one (not unlike needing a VIP ticket). Another thing to keep in mind is that these are generally non-refundable and non-exchangeable, so make sure you will be satisfied with the outcome. Or if you are still uncertain, grab a couple of friends who are willing to split the cost with you, and divide the contents equally, each person choosing their favorite item.
(JP) Link: The Origin of the Fukubukuro
The age of Japan's culture, and its rich religious tradition grounded in the syncretism of Buddhism and native Shintoism, has helped craft a body of New Years' traditions that are as diverse as they are beautiful. If you ever have the chance to ring in a new year in Japan, I urge you not to pass it up!
Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher and translator for several Japanese companies, Krys now works full time as a freelance artist, writer and translator with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture.
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