New Year's or ō-shōgatsu (お正月) is one of the most important and most elaborate of Japan's annual observances. There are regional differences in customs, but what is in common is that at this time homes are decorated, and families gather to spend the holidays together. Shrines and temples are visited, and formal calls on relatives and friends are made. Officially, New Year is observed from 1 January through 3 January, during which time public offices and most companies are closed. In contrast to previous decades, supermarkets, convenience stores as well as many department stores remain open during the holidays.
O-shōgatsu could be compared to what Christmas is to many other cultures. The countdown to the New Year festivities starts in mid-December, only briefly interrupted by Christmas festivities which are mostly observed by young couples and families with children and are not public holidays in Japan.
Osōji and decorating the house
Preparations for seeing in the New Year were initially undertaken to greet the Toshigami (年神), Shinto deities of the year thought to bring with each New Year. Toshigami are also believed to be the spirits of ancestors. The countdown to the new year used to start on 13 December, the day of commencement being called ōshōgatsu hajime or shōgatsu kotohajime, when the house was given a thorough clean-up (お掃除 o-sōji). Nowadays, that clean-up - the equivalent of a "spring cleaning" - is performed closer to the end of the month. Once cleaned and swept, the house is then decorated in the traditional fashion: often a sacred rope of straw (標縄・注連縄・七五三縄 shimenawa, lit. "enclosing rope") with dangling white zigzag-shaped strips (紙垂・四手 shide) is attached over the front door to demarcate the temporary abode of the Toshigami and to prevent bad spirits from entering the house.
Above: typical shimenawa found above the entrance during the New Year holidays. The inscription refers to a Japanese proverb:
笑う門には福来たる (Warau kado niwa fuku kitaru)
Literally: "Good fortune comes to a laughing gate."
Meaning: Good things come to positive people.
It is customary to place kadomatsu (門松, lit. "gate pine") consisting of pine sprigs, bamboo stalks and, in some areas, plum branches at the gateway to ensure prosperity and good health in the coming year. Sometimes, a special New Year altar, the toshidana (年棚) is piled high with flat, round cakes made of pounded rice (鏡餅 kagami mochi, lit. "mirror rice cake"), bottles of sake, persimmons, tangerines, and other foods in honour of the toshigami. Usually, around 28 December, the toshidana are set up, and the mochi (rice cakes made of pounded glutinous rice) is pounded.
Other activities before the New Year's Eve include shopping for these holiday items, preparing the toshiki (年木, "year wood"), firewood offered to the toshigami for use during the season, writing and sending the New Year cards (nengajō, see below) as well as preparing the traditional holiday dishes (御節料理・お節料理 osechi ryōri). December also sees other flurries of activity such as bōnenkai (忘年会, "forgetting-the-year parties"), Christmas parties and, in January, shinnenkai events (新年会, "new year gatherings").
Children receive otoshidama (お年玉, "gem of the year"), gifts usually given in the form of cash by parents, grand-parents, other close relatives, or neighbours. Formerly gifts in the form of food and sundries exchanged among families, they have lost their religious meaning. Children look very much forward to the New Year, as it is the only occasion when they receive significant amounts in cash gifts.
New Year's Eve
The night before New Year's is called ōmisoka (大晦日). In the olden times, days were reckoned from sundown to sundown, so that ōmisoka was part of the New Year's Day. On this night, families would share a traditional New Year's meal. Nowadays, many people visit a Buddhist temple to hear the temple bells toll 108 times at midnight in a ritual called joya-no-kane (除夜の鐘), each bell ring symbolising one of the 108 vices in the Buddhist belief, to dispel the evils of the past year or to watch this event on television. TV plays an important role that night: a popular programme watched is Kōhaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦), a music competition between two teams, the White and the Red one, of singers across many music genres. Another famed New Year's show, Nihon Rekōdo Taishō (日本レコード大賞, Japan Record Awards, an event similar to the Grammy Awards), was moved to 30 December in 2006.
Further, it is customary to serve toshikoshi soba (年越し蕎麦, "year-crossing noodles") in the hope that one's family fortunes will be lengthened and extended like the long, thing buckwheat noodles.
In some rural areas, costumed performers enact visits by the toshigami on New Year's Eve, going from house to house and performing the harukoma mai (春駒舞, "pony dance") or the lion dance (獅子舞 shishi mai).
New Year's Days
Ganjitsu (元日), the first day of the new year is spent with the family. Traditionally, in the country the toshiotoko, the designated "year man", usually the head of the household, would rise before dawn to draw the first water from the well (若水 wakamizu, lit. "young water") to prepare tea and a special soup called o-zōni (雑煮). He would then set out to heat the bath with the fresh water, prepare a New Year breakfast consisting of osechi ryōri and make an offering to the toshigami.
In both urban and rural areas, throngs of people visit Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines on New Year's Day to offer their first prayers (初詣, hatsumōde, "first visit") in the year, sometimes queuing up over several hundred metres. Some of the most popular locations are the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, the Kawasaki Daishi, the Shinshōji temple in Narita, the Sumiyoshi Taisha in Ōsaka, the Atsuta Jingū in Nagoya, the Dazaifu Tenmangū in Fukuoka, the Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyōto, the Hikawa Jinja in Saitama, the Tsurugaoka Hachimangū in Kanagawa, and many others. Most people will perform their hatsumōde during the first week of January. During this visit, they will dispose of the previous year's charms, in a ceremony said to release the old evils. New charms are then purchased and wishes for the New Year made.
Early on the morning of the 1 January, the emperor performs the shihōhai (四方拝), the prayer to the four quarters, in which he offers reverence in the directions of various shrines and imperial tombs and prayers for the well-being of the nation. Once the shihōhai is completed, the New Year celebrations may begin at the palace and in the shrines. On 2 January, the general public is allowed to enter the inner palace grounds (the only other day this is possible is the 23 December, the emperor's birthday).
On the second and third days of the New Year holidays, friends and business partners visit one another to extend greetings (年始の挨拶 nenshi no aisatsu). On the seventh or fifteenth day, depending on the area, the kadomatsu and the shimenawa are taken down and burned as a beacon fire to light the toshigami's way back.
Ōshōgatsu and Koshōgatsu
Ōshōgatsu, literally the "Big New Year", refers to the first month of the new year as well as the period of the New Year holidays. All the events described above refer to those festivities. The "Small New Year" however, known as Koshōgatsu (小正月), is not based on the Gregorian, but the lunar calendar and was traditionally celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month in mid-February. It is still observed in rural areas where people pray for a bountiful harvest, usually around 15 January.
New Year Cards
Japanese send New year's greetings to almost all of their relatives, friends, and acquaintances; businesses send out cards to their customers, too. The Japanese New Year's card (年賀状 nengajō) is the equivalent to the Western Christmas card, but it is typically sent out in larger quantities. It is not uncommon for a family to send out cards in the dozens or even hundreds. The card itself is different from Christmas cards: they are not folded and placed in an envelope, nengajō are often preprinted and offered in a considerable variety of motives: usually the Chinese zodiac sign of the year and other designs symbolising the turn of the year. Many families, however, design their postcards, either having them printed or printing them by themselves. The cards are usually posted between 15 and 28 December and delivered by 1 January.
New Year cards for 2016, the Year of the Monkey
New Year cards for 2017, the Year of the Rooster
New Year cards for 2018, the Year of the Dog
If a family member died during the year, it is customary not to send out nengajō. The family of the deceased would send mochū hagaki (喪中葉書, "mourning postcards") to all friends and acquaintances who would refrain from sending New Year's greetings to the bereaved family.
Osechi-ryōri (御節料理 ・ お節料理) are types of Japanese food served during the New Year holidays. O-sechi originally referred to a particular season. In the old days, people were not supposed to use their hearth in the first three days of the new year, so most of the food, except for o-zōni, had to be prepared in the last days of the old year. While the former symbolism of osechi-ryōri has mostly faded away, many new variations of New Year's food have appeared: Chinese o-sechi (中華風お節 chūkafū osechi) and even Western-style o-sechi (西洋お節 seiyō-osechi), to mention just two. Many department shops and even convenience shops offer ready-made osechi-ryōri.
Some of the most common New Year dishes include:
Zōni (雑煮), a typical New Year's dish: either a clear broth or a miso broth with a variety of ingredients and mochi (pounded rice).
Kuro-mame (黒豆), sweetened black beans; mame also means "health," thereby symbolising a wish for health in the New Year.
Kazunoko (herring roe) symbolises a wish to be gifted with numerous children in the New Year (kazu means "number" and ko means "child").
Datemaki are sweet rolled omelettes mixed with fish paste or mashed shrimp. They symbolise a wish for many auspicious days.
Kōhaku Namasu (紅白なます)
Kōhakunamasu (紅白なます), lit. "red-white vegetable kuai," is made of daikon (white radish) and carrot cut into thin strips and pickled in sweetened vinegar with yuzu (Japanese citrus fruit) flavour.
Tazukuri ("rice paddy maker") is dried sardines cooked in soy sauce. They were used to fertilise rice fields and symbolise an abundant harvest.
Phrases related to the New Year:
Yoi otoshi-o omukae kudasai.
Happy New Year! [Used before the New Year]
Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu!
Happy New Year! [Used on and after 1 January]
[Happy New Year]
Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu.
Thank you for all your support for this year in advance.
Sakunen wa taihen osewa ni narimashita. Kotoshi mo douzo yoroshiku onegaiitashimasu.
Thank you for your support this past year. And for your continuing support this year. [Used by employees or business partners during year-end parties]