New Year's In Japan
December is synonymous with celebration across much of the world, with holidays like Christmas, Yule, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Boxing Day brightening the winter for millions of people. Most of these holidays, though, are based on religion or shared cultural identity. Japan is among the least religious nations in the world, so they don’t really partake in Christmas celebrations past a superficial level.
But Japan definitely celebrates with the rest of the world on December 31st—in fact, they probably do it bigger and better than anybody else. The new year, or Oshougatsu, is the most important holiday of the whole year in Japanese culture, with several days devoted to family, friends and festivities.
History and Tradition
Japanese celebrations of the new year date as far back as the 6th century, when they made their way into Japan alongside many other Buddhist values and traditions, but it wasn’t until 1873, after the Meiji Restoration, that they switched from the Chinese calendar to the Gregorian calendar. Thus, instead of celebrating the Chinese New Year on a different date every year, they started celebrating it starting on December 31st like Westerners.
The driving philosophy behind basically all Japanese New Year festivities is: “Out with the old, in with the new”. For Japanese people, the new year is a time for reflection on the passing year, anticipating what the next year holds, and getting ready to begin anew with good health and fortune on your side.
I may have said before that Japan is not a religious country, which is true! However, Japanese culture is very spiritual, and many people see the new year as a time to get in touch with the spiritual world.
One of the most famous Oshougatsu traditions is the Joya no Kane, or Ringing of 108 Bells. Buddhist temples ring their bells a total of 108 times to represent both 108 paths to enlightenment, and 108 earthly desires that trouble us. Each bell rung washes away an impurity and clears the path to contentment.
In accordance with Shinto traditions, many families also celebrate with hatsumode, or the first shrine visit of the year. Usually within the first three days of January, people migrate in droves to Shinto shrines, pray for good fortune in the coming year and offer thanks to the gods.
In a similar vein, people take the new year as a chance to clean out their homes, in a practice called oosouji. Like spring cleaning in the west, Japanese people give their houses a thorough cleaning to make room for what the oncoming year will bring. In a spiritual sense, oosouji also cleanses the house of leftover negative energy and evil spirits.
Many Japanese also believe in a guardian deity of the new year called Toshigami-sama. To welcome him in and ensure blessings from ancestors in the coming year, people put out decorations called kadomatsu made of bamboo stalks, pine and plum branches. You’re also likely to see kagami-mochi—literally, “mirror rice cake”—inside Japanese homes. The mochi atop a small box is shaped like an old-fashioned mirror, which represents the spirit world and celebrates a new year being watched over by the gods. A small orange called a mikan sits on top of the mochi, to represent a wish for prosperity spanning generations.
Wishes for good health and fortune are absolutely everywhere in the days surrounding Oshougatsu. Even the greetings, “Yoi otoshi wo” and “Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu” translate to wishes of goodwill and prosperity. There are also plenty of rituals for good luck that many Japanese people take part in around the new year.
One ancient Buddhist tradition that may be familiar even to westerners is the daruma. A distinctly Japanese version of a New Year’s resolution, people will paint one eye of a hollow, brightly painted daruma doll with black ink when they set a goal for themselves. Then, they set it in the open in hopes that seeing the daruma every day will push them towards their goal. Then, when the goal is achieved, they fill in the other eye.
At hatsumode during the first days of the new year, people often buy good luck charms and fortune telling papers, looking to ward off bad luck and see what the new year holds for them.
Another trademark Oshougatsu tradition is the trading of nengajo, or cards with well-wishes for the coming year. They usually come with art displaying the upcoming Chinese zodiac animal. 2021 is the year of the Ox, and there are already plenty of nengajo with cute ox characters ready to be sent out on January 1st. Nengajo also come with lottery numbers, so anybody who gets one in the mail can check those numbers and try their luck at winning money and other prizes.
Food and Fun
Of course, when people aren’t welcoming the new year with prayer, cleaning and decorating, they’re partying! Oshougatsu is a time for celebration of the potential that the new year holds, and lots of Japanese people like to go all out hosting parties with coworkers, family and friends.
Traditionally, Japanese host a party called bounenkai, or a “forget-the-year-party”, where they celebrate the good fortune of the past year with food and friends, and then ideally drink enough to forget all of it. Bounenkai are often organized by companies for their employees, who go out as a unit and set aside their ranks for the night to build camaraderie. They are also usually followed up with shinnenkai, literally a New Year’s party, with just as much food, booze and fun. Just hope your hangover from the bounenkai goes away in time for the shinnenkai.
Like with almost every Japanese holiday, food plays a major role in Oshougatsu festivities. Very commonly, people eat buckwheat noodles that symbolize a long and healthy life. And no Japanese new year would be complete without eating osechi ryori on the first day. Osechi ryori is an assortment of carefully arranged traditional Japanese foods that all symbolize different wishes for the new year. Lotus roots represent good luck without obstacles, shrimp and prawns represent longevity, sweet golden chestnuts symbolize wealth—all artfully arranged in bento boxes and served on the first day of the new year. Itadakimasu!
Finally, one thing that’s very much modern, but that nearly all Japanese people associate with Oshougatsu, is NHK’s Kouhaku Uta Gassen. It’s a yearly program broadcast on national TV, a lot like the Big Apple dropping in Times Square. The year’s top musical performers compete against each other in teams with huge, spectacular performances. The show ends just before midnight so everybody can ring in the new year with the traditional 108 bells.
We in the west love the new year, and will definitely take any chance we have to light fireworks and pop champagne bottles. But in Japan, Oshougatsu is more than just a reason to party. It’s a chance to let go of the last year’s burdens, look back fondly on good memories, and wipe the slate clean for whatever the coming year brings. 2020 was a wild ride, to say the very least, and a lot of us would like to forget about it. But as we leave this last year behind, let’s look forward to the future and make it a year we’ll want to remember. We’ve still got a little ways to go before 2021, but I’ll go ahead and say it now: “yoi otoshi wo!”
Rowan Thompson - December 31, 2020
Masumizu, Haruka. “A Guide to New Year Traditions in Japan.” Japan Today, 30 Dec. 2017, https://japantoday.com/category/features/lifestyle/new-year-traditions-in-japan.
Masumizu, Haruka. “Osechi Ryori: The Hidden Meanings Behind Japanese New Year Food.” Savvy Tokyo, 26 Dec. 2016, https://savvytokyo.com/osechi-ryori-hidden-meanings-behind-japanese-new-year-food/.
Suzuki, Krys. “The History and Traditions of New Year's Celebrations in Japan.” Unseen Japan, 18 Feb. 2020, http://unseenjapan.com/japan-new-year/.