The Story of Japanese New Year

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The Story of Japanese New Year

Since 1873 when Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar, Japanese New Year or Oshogatsu is celebrated on January 1. The celebration lasts three days. Prior to 1873, the start of the New Year depended on the cycle of the moon.

New Year's Day is a national holiday in Japan and one of the largest events on the calendar of annual festivities. Oshogatsu (the first three days of the year) is celebrated nationwide. Schools close for approximately two weeks of winter holiday before and after New Year's. Most companies close for the New Year break from around December 30 to January 3.
The final day of the year, December 31, is called omisoka (New Year’s Eve). In order to usher in the New Year feeling fresh, families clean their houses and make preparations for the New Year holidays by omisoka. Some believe that the gods visit the house on New Year's Day, so the house must be thoroughly cleaned. It is also customary to pay off all debts and settle all disputes before the start of the year in order to begin the New Year with a clean slate.

Many college students and working people who have moved to the big cities return to their hometowns to spend the New Year with their families, friends, and relatives. On New Year's Eve, many families gather around the TV set to watch special omisoka programs and eat toshi-koshi-soba ("year-crossing" buckwheat noodles) in the hope that their lives will be stretched out as long as those noodles. New Year's Eve is the one day of the year when children are not scolded for staying up late.

As midnight approaches, Buddhist temples around the country begin ringing out the old year, sounding the temple bell 108 times. This practice is based on a belief that humans have 108 earthly passions they have to overcome in order to attain enlightenment. Each ring is thought to drive away one such passion. Reverberations from each bell toll must completely die down before the next strike is made. It takes about an hour to complete the 108 strokes. The tolling of the bell at some of the nation's most famous temples is broadcast live on television and radio. Many people welcome the New Year by listening to the calming sounds of these bells.

The breaking of dawn the next morning is much more than just the beginning of a new day. The New Year's Holiday is not a religious holiday. However, people, regardless of their religious affiliation, flock to temples and shrines to pray for a healthy and prosperous year. This is called hatsu-mode and is one of the most important rituals of the year. When they greet their acquaintances, they say "Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu" (a happy new year) to convey wishes that the year to come will be full of hope and good health. Trains and buses that normally stop running late at night operate on a 24-hour basis between omisoka and New Year's Day. Today, a visit made by January 7 is considered part of hatsu-mode.

Special meals called osechi ryori, prepared at the end of the year before, are eaten on January 1-3. They consist of traditional dishes like boiled beans, broiled fish, and su-no-mono (sliced vegetables and seafood dressed with sweet vinegar). The meals are served in a nest of boxes, which are used because they can easily be preserved by stacking, freeing people from the need to do any cooking over the holidays.

For the Japanese, New Year's Day is a time to start anew.  People don new clothing and wish each other "Akemashite Omedeto Gozaimasu," Happy New Year!  They use three graduated cup sizes of sake (rice wine) to share their best wishes.  Otoso, the sake that is prepared with cinnamon and other spices is usually consumed after it is warmed.  The cups symbolize heaven, earth, and people.  Each member of the family takes three

ips from each of the cups. Mochi, sweet rice, is also commonly consumed on New Year's Day.  It is sprinkled with a mixture of sugar, salt and kinako (soybean flour), filled with sweet black beans, or served in a special soup called Ozoni.
Until a few decades ago, children spent New Year's Day engaged in such traditional pastimes, as flying kites, koma (spinning tops), and playing iroha karuta (a traditional Japanese card game). They also engaged in hanetsuki (a type of badminton played with wooden paddles and shuttlecocks), fuku warai (a contest where blindfolded players take turn arranging parts of a face), and sugoroku (Japanese variety of Parcheesi.) Nowadays, these traditional pastimes are not as prevalent. On the morning of the New Year, children look forward to reading nengajo (New Year greeting cards) from friends and acquaintances, but, their favorite treat is receiving otoshidama (money given as a gift at the beginning of a year) from parents, relatives, and other adults they meet during New Year.

Although not as popular as in previous times, the custom of visiting relatives, neighbors, and those who bestowed kindness over the preceding year during the first few days of the new year is still observed. After the post office began issuing postcards in the Meiji period (1868-1912), people began sending these cards as a form of greeting. The tradition of sending special postcards (nengajo) has become very popular. These postcards are delivered on New Year's Day. People usually begin to prepare those cards at the end of November or at the beginning of December.

The post office initiated a service where it delivers the nengajo on January 1, if they were posted by a certain date in December. Postcards carrying lottery numbers went on sale in 1949, with the holders of winning numbers receiving prizes. As a result, the popularity of nengajo increased immensely and the practice of sending postcards took root. Today the post office prints up more than 4 billion prize-carrying New Year's cards every year.

In addition to inscribing standard phrases like Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu (Happy New Year) on the nengajo cards, people often write about their lives and their New Year resolutions. They also decorate the cards with color markers, oil or acrylic paint, black ink, montages of colored paper, paper cutouts, or woodblock prints. Recently, people have been creating original cards on their personal computers.

Symbols of Japanese New Year

One of the symbols used in the homes of the Japanese is the kadomatsu, an arrangement of pine and bamboo.  It is suppose to chase away evil spirits and bring blessings to the home.  Another symbol is rope which is either stretched across the doorway (shimenawa) to keep the homes purified, or encircled (wanawa) and placed at the front entrance of the home or at a sacred location, such as their family altar.  

Kagami mochi is another symbol used to bring good fortune.  A large mochi is placed on a piece of white paper with a smaller mochi placed on the large one resembling a mirrored image.  A mandarin orange is usually placed at the very top, creating a three tiered display.  The kagami mochi, like the other symbols, is used with the hope that the New Year will be happier and luckier than the year before.

Popular graphic elements include New Year motifs, such as kadomatsu, kites, plum flowers, and the sun rising against Mount Fuji on New Year's Day. Even more popular are illustrations of the animal for the coming year under the Chinese zodiac, which moves in a 12-year cycle. The Chinese zodiac is not referred to that often in Japan anymore, but it is still a popular item on New Year's cards.

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