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Happy New Year!

Japan has used the solar calendar since 1873 and the New Year celebration starts on January 1, just as it does in the western world. prior to that, they used the Lunal calendar that put the new year celebration sometime in February, I think. There are two main observances in Japan. Obon and New Year. Most observers agree that the New Year celebrations are the most elaborate and most important.

New Year (Oshogatsu) preparations traditionally begin in mid-December. The observance is similar to our Christmas season rather than a singe day of celebration. While the coming of the new year is a reason for hope and happiness, it is also seen as the end of the current year. This fact grabs the attention of the Japanese for the majority of the season.

The end of the year signals the time to tidy up your life and and tie up any loose ends which could ruin the high hopes for the new year. People also prepare to properly welcome the Toshigami (god of the coming year). Houses get a thorough cleaning and only then can the traditional decorations be put in place. This cleaning is not so much so that guests don't see a dirty house as it is an effort to end the year with a clean slate.

This also applies to business and financial affairs. The tradition is to carry over no outstanding debts into the new year. Of course, with things like car payments and the mortgage these days, most folks don&rquo;t end the year debt-free but the spirit of the custom remains and debts among individuals are satisfied whenever possible.

Shimenawa mark a place considered sacred. You can see Shimenawa hanging from shrines and temples year-round. They are made from straw rope and often have tassles and folded prayer papers hanging from them. They can be quite large. However, during the New Year season, many Japanese will decorate their homes with shimenawa. You will also see them hanging from the front grill of automobiles. These are much smaller than the ones used on temples and shrines. The shimenawa welcomes the Toshigami and wards off evil spirits who may try to sneak in. Many businesses and institutions will feature an arrangement of tree branches or bamboo called kadomatsu on either side of their entrance. Other customs include a toshidama or small alter where you will usually find kagami mochi (tangerine stacked on mochu balls) and special rice cakes, sake and persimmons or tangerines.

Shimenawa on temple

Shimenawa on home

Kagami Mochi


Preparations are concluded by early new year’s Eve. The traditional place to be in the evening or at midnight is the local Buddhist Temple or Shinto Shrine. These days, however, many families gather in the home. There are many special television programs aired and just prior to midnight, the TV stations will switch to a temple for the ringing of the temple bell at midnight. They ring the bell 108 times to remember Japan’s hardships. The passing of midnight and welcoming of the new year is a solemn occasion as opposed to our loud parties and celebrations. People pray for good fortune in the new year.

The New Year celebration lasts from three to six days depending on region of the country. Everything associated with the New Year is symbolic of "firsts". Thus, the New Year gives a sense of renewal. Oshogatsu is a time for peace and resolution. Japanese people rest and celebrate the holiday with the family. They go to temples to pray for a prosperous and healthy new year. The first visit to the temple is called "Hatsu Mohde," which means the first visit.

There are many traditional foods eaten over the New Year period but probably the most significant is Toshi-Koshi soba (year-crossing noodles). These are often eaten on New Year’s Eve but are also popular during on New Year’s Day. These special soba noodles express the hope for extended family fortunes. A sweet rice cake called Omochi is also a traditonal food. These are often prepared in a soup called Ozoni or zoni mochi. If you have the chance to eat zoni, please chew it well. It has the consistancy of a soft taffy and a large amount can be hard to swallow.

About the only folks you may find at work on New Year’ Day are the postal employees. An important custom is the sending of Nen-ga-jyo, a post card with a New Year message that is similar to our Christmas Cards. It will often have a picture or caricature of the animal that is represented by the new year. Others will include a photo of their family. Providing the sender meets the cut off date, these cards will be delivered on 1 January allowing folks to wish friends and associates their best wishes for the New Year in a timely manner.

Visiting temples is an important part of the holiday. From New Year’s Eve through the first week of the New Year, most Japanese will visit a temple. During this visit they will dispose of the previous years religious charms and tokens that protected them from evil during the previous year. New charms are then purchased and wishes for the New Year are made.

The Imperial Family open portions of the Imperial Palace around dawn on January first and the Emperor performs a ritual where he pays reverence in the direction of various shrines and Imperial tombs. He offers prayers for the well being of the nation. The inner palace grounds are open to the public on January 2nd. (The emperor’s birthday is the only other day this is done.)

As you may know from reading About Japan: Newbie to Knowledgeable, the Japanese official year is based on the the Emperor’s reign, 2010 is the 22nd year of the Taisho Emperor’s reign so it is the year 22 in Japan. In the traditional 12-year Chinese Zodiac rotation where animals represent years, 2010 is the year of the tiger. All official documents will use this in their dates instead of 2010.

Here are some valuable phrases you can use during the season:

Yoi Otoshi O (Yo ee - oh toe she - oh)
This is used before New Year’s Day and means have a good year.
Akemashite Omedeto Gozaimasu (Ah kay ma she teh - oh meh deh toe - go za ee mas)
Happy New Year! This can be used from 1 Jan and throughout the new year period.

Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimase (Ko to she - moh - yo ro she ku - oh neh guy she mas)
Please continue our good relationship during the new year

Happy New Year!