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Shogatsu or Oshogatsu - Japanese New Year Celebrations and Traditions

        Japanese New Year celebrations are some of the most major and involved in Japanese custom - one of the two major holiday periods in Japanese culture. New Year in Japan is both an introspective, spiritual event as well as a family and national celebration. Christmas is not marked in Japan, other than privately among the few Christians in the country; commercialism has invaded Japan to the point where most households with young children DO mark Christmas Eve with a visit from Santa, in a completely secular way. The "party" is strictly limited to Christmas Eve and, of course, Santa will come only to those who believe.... everyone goes to work or school per usual on December 25.

        New Year's on the other hand, is a major happening. November and December mark the occurrence of many fairs and markets where special holiday decorations and items are available... symbolic household items like a new wooden bucket to draw the first water of the year from the temple well; a special sake set to serve both the New Year's god and New Year's visitors; kumade (good luck rakes), hagoita (decorative shuttlecock battledores), kites, pine, bamboo and rope, food needs, and more.

       Households and families will have been preparing for much of the month of December - traditionally, preparations begin on December 13. Many rituals and traditions are representative of the atonement and starting fresh practices that appear in many cultures and belief systems; others are celebratory and playful. The house is cleaned both literally (susuharai) very well, with the dust and cobwebs swept from every nook and cranny to rid the home of the dirt and errors of the past year, and spiritually to welcome the toshigami (god of the New Year) along with ancestral spirits. While in normal days keeping the home is usually the job of women, during this time all able-bodied members of the family pitch in. When the cleaning is done, there is a ceremonial sip of sake and the family takes a ritual bath to cleanse body and soul. A traditional soup - okotokiru - is had.

        During December the nengajo will be prepared - New Year's cards. However, none of these will be delivered until New Year's Day by special delivery through the Japan Post (who hires students to help). It is required protocol to send these cards, to business clients and acquaintances, friends, and family members. However, they are not sent to people who have had a relative pass away during the ending year.

       A special rope (shimenawa) is hung over the door to symbolize purity and denote it from the pollution outside. Decorations of pine boughs (kadomatsu) to welcome and provide rest for the toshigami - (the name literally means god of rice. Rice is still considered the sustenance of life) - when he arrives at the house. The tokonoma (family home altar), has been prepared with decorations of white cut paper (which are usually quite intricate), flowers, and an arrangement of  two flattened pounded-rice balls (kagami mochi) stacked on each other topped with an orange or tangerine (citrus fruit has many sections - symbolizing many generations to the family). The mochi are placed on pure white paper and surrounded by objects with auspicious meanings for the family. Persimmons and lobster are also included (each meaning joy and long life, respectively).  Other decorations of red, white and green are used in the home, along with more pine and bamboo. Unlike western ways, almost all of these decorations are made or purchased new each year.

       Mochi are used both symbolically in decorating and offerings as well as for eating; historically, making them was a day-long  extended-family affair that was usually done around December 25 or 26. (Mochi are prepared by pounding rice to bring out the stretchy, starchy texture - similar to kneading bread dough but much more labor intensive, using a special large mortar and pestle.) While, especially in urban Japan, mochitsuki (mochi making) has faded, the tradition is kept alive through schools and neighborhood associations so that families and children can at least experience it. Some families may still make their own, but the majority are special-ordered at this time of year.

       New Year is indeed celebratory with special decorations, foods and gift giving. Traditionally it was a 7 day holiday; now more likely it's three (Shogatsu Sanganichi). But, those three days are complete "days off": every business and service is closed. Gifts will have been purchased and prepared ahead of time; likewise, everyone from business man to child takes stock of their lives and settles old debts, arguments, makes apologies and ends the year free of burden. Food is prepared ahead of time so that the women likewise need not labor during the holiday.

       Each year is believed to be "separate" so each new year is a fresh start, free of burdens. There may be bonenkai (year-forgetting) parties to leave old troubles behind. In the days running up to New Year's Eve, businessmen as well as people of all ages and walks of life would have examined their life actions for the past year, settled old or outstanding debts, ended arguments, offered apologies, and made amends for any transgressions, so that the old year ends free of burden, and the New Year starts out with a clean and fresh slate. New Years greeting cards (nengajo) would have been sent in the same manner as holiday cards at Christmas, and they are all made with specially marked envelopes so that regardless of the time of mailing, the post office holds them all and delivers them on New Year's Day. This is only public service (other than absolute essential) in action, since all businesses, stores, schools and services are closed down for the three day celebration. In some areas, the New Year celebration is still the traditional seven-day (or even 14) period it was in older times, but most urban and suburban areas now mark it as a three day event. Many people, especially on New Year's Day, will still dress in formal traditional kimono.

       By tradition, families will gather (this is one of the two festival times when everyone tries to return to their family "homestead" - so travel is usually very busy) and have traditional meals (for New Year's Eve, soba (buckwheat) noodle is most popular since it symbolizes longevity). It is a quiet, family time and they would have gone to their neighborhood temple to help ring the temple bell 108 times... with the 108th striking at midnight (Joya-no-Kane). The first 107 strikes are to rid the transgressions of the previous year, with the 108th ushering in and celebrating the arrival of the new year. Watching the first sunrise of the year (hatsu-hinode) on New Year's Day is a customary start. It is traditional for coals from the fire at the temple to be brought home to kindle the hearth at home; on New Year's Day the head of the household would often draw first water from an auspicious well, with it being brought home in a new bucket and dipped with a new ladle. This water is used for the day's tea and also Ozoni ( New Year mochi  ball soup. This is also eaten with caution, since mochi are a very chewy texture, and it's not uncommon for people to choke on a mochi "going down the wrong way"). The "first" of almost everything is considered auspicious. Otoso, sweetened sake with herbs  is offered to the toshigami and then the family drinks of it. It's served in special cups and decanter, and also offered in this manner to adult visitors. It's believed that whatever happens or is done on the first day of the year will be indicative of the year to come, so the day should be free of stress and anger, full of joy and happiness, everything should be clean and pure - and no work done.

       The mom of the household will have prepared at least three days of osechi - celebratory bento box meals (very handsome boxes!) - enough to see her family through the relaxing days so that she too can enjoy the celebrations and not have to be in the kitchen preparing meals. There are special foods included in these New Year bento boxes, that not only have special meanings for the New Year but also carry on centuries-old recipes to stay well preserved through the time of celebration. Most of the foods made and packed into the osechi also have symbolic meanings as offerings to the toshigami.

      Everyone goes to bed on New Year's night looking forward to dreaming - it's believed that the first dream of the year will give clues to the events of the coming year, and whether it will be lucky or not. It's perfectly acceptable to try to sway this first dream to be something good - so people may place pictures of good or auspicious events or symbols under their futon to ensure a lucky dream.

       Children especially await the New Year celebration time - no school of course, and also their otoshidama - presents! Given by parents and adult friends and relatives, they are usually monetary (In specially created cards and envelopes) but modern day can also find things like bicycles (or presumably Nintendos, etc) showing up. Monetary gifts are allowed to be spent on the children's desires, along with banking a portion of them - but this is the one time when the "shopping splurge" comes first (New Year is usually a quite generous time, and these otoshidama can add up to considerable sums).

       The celebratory time starts out as quiet family time for New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, with perhaps another visit to the shrine; then games. Traditional games and toys that may not be seen any other time of the year make their annual appearance now. Toys such as spinning tops, kites (for boys), battledore & shuttlecock (for girls), and games such as Hyakunin Isshu (a memory game about historical Japanese poems), Fuku warai (Funny face game), and Sugoroku (something like Parcheesi) come out to be played during the New Year's days. There are also family sharing times and activities, and visiting (nenshi) in the neighborhood  - usually in fine formal dress (this is when, especially given modern times, you will see many kimono on display, especially for women and younger children).  Day four finds most people in urban areas going back to work - be it job or household tasks, though this is more symbolic as the first efforts of the year are to be blessed. Most offices open only to have their staffs come in for a traditional sake toast and to exchange good wishes (usually again, in formal Japanese dress). How much longer the celebrations go on will vary by area and degree of urbanization, but by day 7 things are usually wound down (very rural areas may continue through the end of the month). A special rice gruel that contains the seven herbs of spring is eaten, and the decorations are burned as a beacon to light the gods' way home, and life returns to its usual pace.

       By about the fifth day of January most business and services have returned to normal operations and schedules as has life in general. Schools are generally on recess for about 2 weeks, since this may also be a time when a family may take a short family vacation together. Mid January finds most of Japan back to regular life tasks for both children and adults, after a long, festive and restful New Year transition.

Last updated 11/2013 © 1998 - 2014 G. Thompson/PuffinStuff, Inc.