Japanese New Year: the Traditional Japanese Culture That You Never Know

The year 2020 will soon be over. As we enter December, Japanese people are getting busy. One of the most commonly heard words in this period is “年末年始(NenmatsuNenshi, the end of the year and the beginning of the year)”. Japan does not celebrate Spring Festival on the lunar calendar, but takes New Year’s Day, January 1, as the start of the new year. So in Japan, Nenmatsu, the end of the year, refers to the end of December, and in Japanese it is also called as年末(nenmatsu)・年の暮れ(toshi no kure )・暮れ(kure)・年の瀬(toshi no se) , and Nenshi, the beginning of the year,refers to the first half of January, which is also called年始(nenshi)・年明け(toshiake)・新年(shinnen, New year)・年始め(toshihajime). In Japan, how is the New Year celebrated? What are the special customs and traditions?

IN THE YEAR END

Greeting・New Year’s Cards

In the past, people would usually write letters to their friends and relatives to send them year-end greetings, but nowadays, due to the advancement of technology, few people have the habit of writing letters. Whether it’s a handwritten paper letter or a high-tech email that is decorated very well, it’s enough to express people’s feelings.

Another thing you can do at this time is to send New Year’s postcards to your friends and family, and if you are already working, to your boss, colleagues, and clients. The most common type of postcard is the one issued by the post office, and the pattern changes every year according to the situation of the year.

End-of-Year Cleaning

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It is said that the tradition of End-of-Year Cleaning in Japan originated from the Heian period and was originally a tradition of the imperial palace, but gradually spread to the general public in the middle of the Edo period.

In addition to the actual meaning of cleaning the house, the End-of-Year Cleaning also has a religious meaning of “sweeping away the year’s filth and welcoming the gods of the New Year”.

There are many Japanese people who set the cleaning schedule in the middle of December, and some companies do it on the last working day before the new year vacation, while others arrange the cleaning schedule in advance like ordinary people do.

New Year Holiday

Actually the only official holiday is New Year’s Day, January 1. However, schools and companies usually take their holidays from January 1 to January 3, and there are cases when the holiday starts earlier. During such long holidays, many Japanese people (especially those who go to big cities to study or work) rush back to their hometowns to reunite with their families, gradually creating a wave of people returning home and returning to work around the New Year. If you come to Japan at the end of the year or the beginning of the year, be careful to avoid the direction of the flow of people (end of the year: big city to local area; beginning of the year: local area to big city) and arrange your trip.

New Year’s Decorations

The Japanese believe that in order for the gods to enter the house, it is necessary to have something to invite the gods and something that will allow them to possess. Therefore, New Year decorations were born.

Generally speaking, there are several types of New Year’s decorations.

Kadomatsu

Kadomatsu, which means the decorations that stand in front of the door, are usually made by placing three bamboo strips in a pot and inserting branches of pine trees around them. It is also called a pine and bamboo decoration.

Since the Japanese pronunciation of the word “matsu” is the same as the Japanese pronunciation of the word “wait,” it is generally considered to be a decoration used to convey the feeling of waiting to God.

Shimekazari

The Shimekazari is a very Japanese decorative item, made of a round straw rope and decorations. Usually the Shimekazari is hung on the Kadomatsu or placed on the Kagamimochi.

The meaning of this decoration is to indicate that the home is a sacred place, matching the spirit of the gods.

Kagamimochi(mirror cakes)

It is a round mochi(rice cakes), usually two of them are stacked and on the top decorated with a Japanese bitter orange. The origin of the name has been described in many ways, such as the round shape resembling a mirror, or the fact that it is related to the Yatsugi mirror, one of the three sacred weapons in Japanese mythology. The orange is because the Japanese word for orange sounds like “generations”, which has the meaning of blessing the health of the family from generation to generation.

It is often thought that the Kagamimochi, or mirror cake is used as the residence of the god in the home after his advent, so it is often decorated in the living room or the room where the family usually lives.

New Year’s Eve(Oomisoka)

The Oomisoka in Japan is December 31, similar to New Year’s Eve.

There are three typical Japanese events that take place on this day.

  • People eat Toshikoshi Soba( a kind of soba noodles) on this day.
  • Japanese TV station NHK will broadcast the Red and White song battle live on this day.
  • Temples ring the New Year’s Eve bell on this night, which is said to be 108 times.

Then the old year ends and a new one is coming.

THE NEW YEAR

Toshi-onna・Toshi-otoko

In Japan, there are branches of zodiac (the Chinese one), and if the branch of your birth year is the same as the year’s branch, you are the year’s female(Toshi-onna) or the year’s male(Toshi-otoko). In Japan, most people believe that Toshi-onna・Toshi-otoko will meet good fortune in this year.

Hatsuyume(the first dream of the year)

In Japan, it is said that the first dream can be used to calculate the luck of the year. The first dream refers to the dream made on the night of New Year’s Eve, or the dream made on the night of New Year’s Day to the next day.

There is a saying that one Fuji, two eagle and three eggplant, referring to the best symbol of the first dream. Mount Fuji means wide, eagle means high flying, and eggplant means no hair, of which the Japanese pronunciation is similar to no injury.

Osechi-ryori

In the New Year, people eat Osechi-ryori.

The original Japanese name for Osechi-ryori comes from the word “god’s offerings”, so this cuisine also represents the power of the gods to be eaten together with the food. The first three days of the New Year are usually considered to be the days when fire is avoided as much as possible, so New Year cuisine is usually prepared for three days, which is a great test in terms of how the food can be preserved and how the taste can be kept for three days.

Today, Osechi-ryori has become synonymous with expensive and high-class food served in a 2-5 layer lacquered food box (called ju-bako in Japanese).

Hatsumode

Hatsumode refers to the first visit to a shrine or temple in the New Year to express one’s gratitude to the gods for the previous year and to express one’s wishes for the new year.

Some people say that you should go to Hatsumode on the first day of the year, while others believe it is acceptable that you go to Hatsumode in the first three days of the New Year or the first seven days of the New Year (Matsunouchi). In Japan, many people go directly to the shrine on New Year’s Eve and visit the shrine as soon as the date changes, while others go to the shrine slowly after having a good night’s sleep and eating Osechi-ryouri.

There is no required costum for Hatsumode, and a slightly formal and unobtrusive costume is basically considered acceptable. However, it is generally understood that taking off the hat and sunglasses is a sign of respect for the gods.

In general, there are several options for the money offering. The most popular one is five yen, which is pronounced similarly to the word “fate” or “chance” in Japanese. Then there is the 500-yen option. Since the 500-yen coin is the largest denomination of the yen coin, and the coin’s pronunciation is similar to the word “effect,” putting in 500 yen means “there is no better coin (effect).

At the end of the Hatsumode, people draw Omikuji and take them home if they get lucky sticks, and tie them to a specific place in the shrine to remove bad luck. Some people also bring in the Omamori they got last year and put it in the Omamori box at the shrine (usually with a 100 yen coin to thank the gods for their help in the past year) and ask for a new Omamori for the New Year.

Come to Japan to experience a Japanese New Year!

The above is the introduction of the Japanese New Year’s tradition.

This year, due to the impact of the new coronavirus pneumonia epidemic, it will probably be difficult to come to Japan to experience the traditional New Year, but if you have the opportunity to come next year, please do come and experience it!

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