Japanese Traditions of New Year in Japan

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Japanese Shogatsu

The Japanese culture has many traditions and is supported by many unique holidays and celebrations. There exist countless festivals and celebrations that the Japanese celebrate on both a local level and national level honoring their country and the Shinto and Buddhist religions. Typical local festivals, also known as Matsuri, include celebrations such as Gion in Kyoto, and Sanja in Tokyo. Some nationwide festivals include Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival) and Tanabata (Star Festival). Among all the traditional holidays observed in Japan, the most widely celebrated is Shogatsu, the New Year.

Shogatsu is not treated like the typical holiday in Japan. It is considered by some to be the most important festival of the year. It is a day that is celebrated nationwide and is rich with tradition. Hundreds of years ago, the Japanese celebrated their New Year when winter began to subside in the early spring. This typically fell in and around the middle of January to the middle of February. Practices continued this way until the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in the year 1873, which moves the start of the year to January 1st. During Shogatsu, most businesses shut down for three days, January 1st – January 3rd, and families spend this time together commemorating the previous year, while also welcoming in the new year with many old traditions (Gunsaulus).

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The New Year is a special occasion that is taken very seriously by the Japanese, and there are many activities that are completed prior to New Year’s Day as preparation for the coming festivities. A celebratory stew, known as Okoboji, is prepared on the 13th day of the month prior to the New Year. This stew is comprised of red beans, potatoes, mushrooms, sliced fish, and a root. A second important tradition done for preparation is known as Osouji in Japanese. It is similar to a “spring cleaning”, and is when a top to bottom cleaning of the house is done in preparation for the new year. This cleaning symbolizes a new beginning and is a way to start the new year fresh. Susuharai, “soot-sweeping” in English, is the specific cleaning of soot and dirt in commonly neglected areas of the home and offices. It is an important ritual that symbolizes the successes and blessings of the past year, while also cleansing the space in preparation for the coming year. It is a way to start the year with your best foot forward (Source). If a homeowner were to have servants, it is common for them to be given a vacation of a few days and gifts of either money or other valuables. These many different traditions help to prepare for the coming of the new year, and all the many celebrations and festivities that come with it (Gunsaulus) (“Japanese New Year Customs”).

In Japanese culture, years are seen as very separate periods of time, as well as a chance for redemption. For instance, a project that has been started this year should be completed before the new year begins. Additionally, moving from one year to the next offers a chance to start fresh and have a better year, forgetting previous struggles and letting go of last year’s burdens. If this year was unsuccessful and came with its challenges, next year is a clean slate and offers the hope of a better year. These principles are celebrated through parties and ceremonies called Bonenkai, also known as “year forgetting parties”. These parties are traditionally held throughout the month of December and typically are not family gatherings. Bonenkai is parties between friends and coworkers, or other important people that aren’t family. In a survey administered to assess the popularity of Bonenkai, company workers were shown to go to an average of 2.6 Bonenkai, while students went to an average of 1.6 Bonenkai (“Bonenkai and Shinnenkai.”). These results show that Bonenkai is popular among Japanese citizens, and is a large part of their culture. While Bonenkai is not directly associated with Shogatsu festivities in and of themselves, they are important to understand as they lead up to the new year, as well as give a glimpse into the perspective and attitude that the Japanese have on the coming of the new year (“Japanese New Year Customs”).

Before heading into the Shogatsu holiday, families gather together on the eve of New Year’s Day, known as Omisoka, and prepare for the coming days. Families will spend time together under a table called a kotatsu, which sits low to the ground and is usually covered with a heated blanket. Underneath, families watch special Japanese programs on television and eat noodles called Toshi Koshi soba. These noodles are long and are believed to provide long life to those who eat them. These festivities will typically go on until at least midnight when the new year officially begins, similar to how all other cultures celebrate new year’s eve (“Japanese New Year Customs”).

Before Japan switched over to the Gregorian calendar, all of the New Year’s celebrations were started off with a traditional ceremony called Oniyarai, or “demon-driving”. This ceremony is a part of Setsubun, which was originally celebrated at the start of the spring season when the Japanese used to celebrate their New Year. Ever since Japan switched over to the Gregorian calendar, Setsubun has typically been celebrated at the same time in the late winter/spring. There are some parts of the country however that celebrate Setsubun on New Year’s Eve, December 31st, to keep it together with the New Year’s traditions. Many still celebrate it around Shogatsu because of the importance of getting rid of all the evil before starting off the new year. Setsubun consists of putting special beans in each of the four corners of the house and shouting “Out with the devils, in with the good luck” (Gunsaulus). Occasionally this ritual is performed by a professional who will do this for many households. In addition to the already mentioned components of Setsubun, certain parts of the country, as well as individual households will all have some of their own, unique traditions that they incorporate into the celebration. This may include things like certain ways to prepare the beans, as well as other rituals to drive away the evil spirits. Although now Setsubun is sometimes considered a completely separate holiday from Shogatsu, it is still important to include since throughout Japan’s history, it has been celebrated in conjunction with all of the other new year’s festivities (Gunsaulus).

Japan has a rich culture of special food dishes, but this is especially true when it comes to Shogatsu. During the celebrations of Shogatsu, it is common to eat Osechi Ryori, which is a food that can encompass many different dishes. Typical osechi-ryori include things such as fish cakes, mashed potatoes, sweetened black soybeans, and marinated herring roe. Below are examples of many of the important dishes.

Kazunoku – The traditional dish of kazunoko is Herring Roe, which is essentially fish eggs marinated in a variety of seasoning and sauces. The eggs are very salty and have a unique texture as they break apart in the mouth. For most, it is an acquired taste and is considered a New Year’s delicacy (“Kazunoko (Herring Roe)”).

Kuromame – Kuromame is a dish consisting of black soybeans with sugar and soy sauce, and is considered to have a sweet and savory taste. It is often served on New Year’s Day along with the rest of the Osechi Ryori and is considered to be good for your health (“Kuromame (Sweet Black Soybeans)”).

Kamaboko – Kamaboko is fish cakes made from mashed fish and other seasonings, then rolled into a semi-cylinder and either steamed, fried, or grilled. Kamaboko may be served by itself, or with ramen or other noodles. This is one of several Osechi Ryori that is very common to eat outside of Shogatsu celebrations and is a mainstream dish (“Kamaboko (Fish Cake)”).

Ozone – Ozone is a soup made with a rice cake, and is supposed to be eaten on New Year’s Day as the first thing a person eats to guarantee good fortune for the coming year (“Ozoni お雑煮”).

The preparation of these dishes dates back to the Heian Period, which was from the years 794-1185 (“Japanese New Year Customs”). This is a tradition from long ago and is one that is still kept up today. These foods are specifically for the Shogatsu holiday and are all foods that can be kept without refrigeration. The reason for this is that at the beginning of this tradition when a lot of households had servants and cooks, it gave the cooks a break for the holidays, as these were all easy dishes to prepare, and didn’t need to be looked over and kept cold. Also, it allowed the women to prepare these dishes before New Year’s Eve, as nobody is supposed to cook at the beginning of the new year (Gunsaulus).

While Osechi Ryori is the type of traditional dish prepared for the Shogatsu festivities, other foods are made as well. Mochi, a rice cake made of special rice is used in several ways during Shogatsu. Mochi, as mentioned above is used to make ozone, but another popular dish consists of two rice cakes stacked on top of each other. The dish sits on a special stand called a sanpo, and the stand rests on a sheet called a shihobeni. This celebratory setup is very intentional, and it is believed that through the powers that the sheet possesses, fires will be prevented from occurring in the house for the entirety of the following year. The secondary meanings of these mochi rounds are that there are always two stacked on top of each other, representing the continuation of families, as well as their health and longevity. Many families have several of these in either a small Shinto altar or in a tokonoma, which is a Shinto shrine or cabinet that is small and within the house (“For Every Journey.”). These mochi dishes will be deconstructed and eaten typically midway through January in a tradition called Kagami Biraki (“Japanese New Year Customs”).

One popular drink is otoso/toso, which is a sweetened rice wine, or sake, that is made specifically for celebrations of the new year. This sacred drink is made from many different medicinal herbs soaked in sake, as well as other common ingredients like cinnamon and rhubarb. The concoction is believed to drive away evil spirits and any misfortune associated with them. According to Hisgo, “A famous saying in Japan dictates that “if one person drinks otoso, that person will not fall ill, if a whole family drinks otoso, nobody in the village will fall ill”” (“For Every Journey.”). The traditional way to drink otoso is using sakazuki, which is three cups of three different sizes. The otoso is drank out of each cup starting with the smallest and working up to the biggest. Each person around the table should get a sip from each cup. This was a meaningful tradition, and unfortunately is only practiced in certain parts of Japan today, but illustrates the intentionality of every single tradition the Japanese take part in (“For Every Journey.”).

Shogatsu is a time when many Japanese people, especially children, play New Year related games. Minoru Matsutani writes “As sung in the Japanese traditional song “Oshogatsu,” in which the lyrics, “Let’s fly a kite and spin a top during Oshogatsu,” the Koma, or top, is traditional entertainment over New Year’s in Japan, along with kite flying” (Matsutani).

  • Koma-mawashi – Tops, or Koma-mawashi, originated hundreds of years ago, but recently became very popular during New Year’s celebrations due to the song mentioned above. Tops carry positive images in Japan and are often associated with transitioning into adulthood (Matsutani).
  • Tako-age – Kite flying, or Tako-age, is another popular form of entertainment for children during New Year’s. They became popular due to the fact that during the Edo Period, they were only allowed to be flown during New Year’s for safety reasons. Because of this, everyone would participate given the short opportunity to enjoy it. Today, there are no such restrictions, but it is still viewed as a special way to celebrate the New Year (Matsutani).
  • Fukuwarai – Fukuwarai is a game that consists of the player being blindfolded and charged with attaching certain features of a face to a blank face. Typically, this includes features, such as lips, nose, and eyes (Matsutani).
  • Hanetsuki – A Japanese version of badminton, Hanetsuki is traditionally played by girls, with the purpose of keeping the shuttlecock in the air as long as possible. This can be played alone, or with others. If the game is played with others, the loser gets their face painted with black ink (Matsutani).

All of the aforementioned games and activities are part of the traditional Shogatsu festivities and have been practiced for hundreds of years. Despite this, in recent times, some of these games have become less popular due to the rise of the internet and technology in general. Children these days typically favor other kinds of entertainment, such as video games. Even with the decline in popularity of a few of these games, however, they are still important to acknowledge, as they are a big part of Japan’s Shogatsu history.

Decorations are an important part of Shogatsu traditions, and there are numerous decorations that people in Japan use to celebrate the New Year. Many of these decorations include things such as pine gates, special ropes, and wreaths. Along with many of the traditional Japanese decorations, there are countless variations that people use to celebrate with that aren’t so common. Many of these decorations may have originated within the family, or are prevalent in a certain part of the county. The following are some of the more common decorations used throughout the nation.

  • Shimenawa – Shimenawa is roped that are typically hung at religious temples or other important places, and are for the purpose of warding off evil spirits. The hanging of a Shimenawa signifies that the space is pure. These ropes are usually very thick in the middle and get small as they go out to each side. Throughout the rope, many tassels may be attached (“‘Shimenawa’: The Sacred Rope.”).
  • Shimekazari – Shimekazari is a specific type of Shimenawa that is typically hung outside of homes on doors and other entrances. They can be decorated with a variety of different objects, and everything that is hung on the Shimekazari has a different meaning and purpose to the family (“Japanese New Year Customs”).
  • Kadomatsu – Kadomatsu is a collection of three cut bamboo sticks that are kept outside of homes and offices for the first week of the New Year. Like the Shimekazari, they may include various ornaments and other fixtures that the owner decides to include (“Japanese New Year Customs”).

There is a myriad of different types of decorations used in Japanese culture. Shimenawa, Shimekazari, and Kadomatsu are some of the most common and meaningful types of decorations used in Shogatsu celebrations.

Works Cited

  1. “The Meaning of Oshogatsu.” All In Japan, 3 Jan. 2019, www.allinjapan.org/the-meaning-of-oshogatsu/.
  2. “Bonenkai and Shinnenkai.” Survey: Bonenkai and Shinnenkai, www.japan-guide.com/topic/0101.html.
  3. “For Every Journey.” Osechi, Otoso, and Kagami Mochi, www.hisgo.com/us/destination-japan/blog/osechi_otoso_and_kagami_mochi.html.
  4. Gunsaulus, Helen C. “The Japanese New Year's Festival, Games and Pastimes.” Leaflet, no. 11, 1923, pp. 1–18. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41433622.
  5. “Japanese New Year Customs - Everything You Need to Know.” Notes of Nomads, 26 Dec. 2017, notesofnomads.com/japanese-new-year-customs/.
  6. Matsutani, Minoru. Celebrating New Year’s, Japanese Style 2019 Shogatsu*. 1 Jan. 2015, www.shinzenjapanesegarden.org/assets/cbc-sjg_newyearsgames_2018_opt-rd.pdf.
  7. Matsuyama, Hiroko. “Oshogatsu: Joyful Japanese New Year Celebration.” Japanese Patterns of Design, 21 Nov. 2019, www.patternz.jp/oshogatsu-Japanese-new-year-celebration/.
  8. Name. “Kazunoko (Herring Roe) 数の子 • Just One Cookbook.” Just One Cookbook, 8 Feb. 2019, www.justonecookbook.com/kazunoko/.
  9. Name. “Kuromame (Sweet Black Soybeans) 黒豆 • Just One Cookbook.” Just One Cookbook, 15 Jan. 2019, www.justonecookbook.com/kuromame-sweet-black-soybeans/.
  10. “New Year.” Japanese New Year, www.japan-guide.com/e/e2064.html.
  11. Shinzato, Milagros Tsukayama, and Kora McNaughton. “Nikkei New Year: A History of Oshogatsu Since the Time of the Issei.” Discover Nikkei, www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2017/1/11/ano-nuevo/.
  12. *. “The Meaning of Oshogatsu.” All In Japan, 3 Jan. 2019, www.allinjapan.org/the-meaning-of-oshogatsu/.
  13. “Bonenkai and Shinnenkai.” Survey: Bonenkai and Shinnenkai, www.japan-guide.com/topic/0101.html.
  14. “For Every Journey.” Osechi, Otoso, and Kagami Mochi, www.hisgo.com/us/destination-japan/blog/osechi_otoso_and_kagami_mochi.html.
  15. “Japanese New Year Customs - Everything You Need to Know.” Notes of Nomads, 26 Dec. 2017, notesofnomads.com/japanese-new-year-customs/.
  16. “Kamaboko (Fish Cake) • Just One Cookbook.” Just One Cookbook, 14 Nov. 2018, www.justonecookbook.com/kamaboko-fish-cake/.
  17. Matsutani, Minoru. Celebrating New Year’s, Japanese Style 2019 Shogatsu*. 1 Jan. 2015, www.shinzenjapanesegarden.org/assets/cbc-sjg_newyearsgames_2018_opt-rd.pdf.
  18. Matsuyama, Hiroko. “Oshogatsu: Joyful Japanese New Year Celebration.” Japanese Patterns of Design, 21 Nov. 2019, www.patternz.jp/oshogatsu-Japanese-new-year-celebration/.
  19. Nami. “Kazunoko (Herring Roe) 数の子 • Just One Cookbook.” Just One Cookbook, 8 Feb. 2019, www.justonecookbook.com/kazunoko/.
  20. Nami. “Kuromame (Sweet Black Soybeans) 黒豆 • Just One Cookbook.” Just One Cookbook, 15 Jan. 2019, www.justonecookbook.com/kuromame-sweet-black-soybeans/.
  21. Nami. “Ozoni お雑煮 - Japanese New Year Mochi Soup (Kanto Style) • Just One Cookbook.” Just One Cookbook, 30 Jan. 2019, www.justonecookbook.com/ozoni/.
  22. “New Year.” Japanese New Year, www.japan-guide.com/e/e2064.html.
  23. Shinzato, Milagros Tsukayama, and Kora McNaughton. “Nikkei New Year: A History of Oshogatsu Since the Time of the Issei.” Discover Nikkei, www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2017/1/11/ano-nuevo/.
  24. “‘Shimenawa’: The Sacred Rope.” Nippon.com, 6 Mar. 2019, www.nippon.com/en/views/b05204/shimenawa-the-sacred-rope.html.
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