What Is So Special About Japanese New Year?
The government official documents say, new years in Japan is written as 年末年始 or nenmatsunenshi which literally means year end-new year as its preparation usually starts around December. In daily life, it is called osyougatsu (お正月) and is one of the most awaited holidays in Japan. So, why is Japanese new year so special?
10. Kotoshi no Kanji
Kanji of the year or kotoshi no kanji（今年の漢字）marks the approach of the year end and the beginning of new year preparations. Since 1995, The Japanese Kanji Proficiency Society carries out a national ballot to select which kanji character represents that year. The selected kanji is announced on December 12th, which assigned every year at Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto. This year’s kanji is (金) as Japan won 12 gold medals in Rio Olympic.
This Year's Kanji Representing the 12 Gold Medals Japan Won at the 2016 Olympics. Photo by Tatsuo Yamashita on Flickr
Nengajo (年賀状) literally means new year cards, are new year postcards which are usually sent by Japanese people to their friends and relatives, or companies to their precious customers. It usually contains New Year’s greetings, thank-you notes for the past year, and hope for the next year. The post office launches these cards every year and work hard to deliver them right during January.
New Years Cards or Nengajo. Photo by Kyōto Bōken
Japanese people usually start to live separate from their parents when they found work or have their own family. New Year holiday is the moment to go back home to gather with their family in their hometowns. Traditionally families used to conduct mochitsuki (餅つき) or pounding mochi (sticky rice cake) from the steamed rice with the large bowl made of wood or stone and a hammer-like tool called a kine to pound the rice. The strong man in the family does the pound while the women shifted the rice until it became mochi.
7. Joya no Kane
On New Year’s Eve, Buddhist temples in Japan will ring the bell for 108 times or called joya no kane (除夜の鐘). It is believed that by ringing the bell in the temple, human’s minds will be purified from the evil’s bad desires. There are many myths and stories about the reason behind this number. One of these is by taking the number of months, plus the ecliptic path’s plane which is divided into 24, plus 72 which is resulted from a calculation by the old Chinese calendar.
Joya no Kane Bell. Photo by Kyoto-Picture on Flickr.
6. Toshikoshi soba
As the first meal in the new year, soba is believed as the symbol of 長寿延命 (choujuenmei) which means long life or longevity.
The first meal of the year. Photo by Kanko* on Flickr.
5. Kohaku Uta Gassen
While waiting for New Year’s Eve, people in Japan shall enjoy this television program which is broadcast live on NHK once a year on December 31st. This song festival is a prestigious event for the invited singers as it is said that being invited to Kohaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦), means you have a great singing career. On this show, singers are divided into two groups based on their gender, and compete against each other.
On the morning of January 1st, Japanese people go to the shrine to do New Year’s praying or hatsumode (初詣) in the shrine or temple. Not only full of people who want to pray, sometimes there are also yatai (屋台) around the shrine who sell warm food such as jagabata (じゃがバター) or steamed potato with butter and yakitori (焼き鳥) or skewered grilled chicken.
3. Osechi ryori
Since almost every supermarket and grocery store is closed on January 1st, many mothers in Japan prepare osechi ryori (おせち料理) or New Year’s food for their family. This set of dishes usually consists of foods that have meanings or symbolize the hope of the New Year such as grilled sea bream or tai (鯛) which has the same syllables with medetai (愛でたい) or auspicious for the promising year, rolled egg which symbolizes joyful, and herring roe which is related to number of children.
This one is the one that makes children very happy. Yes, otoshidama (お年玉) is the money in a small decorated envelope for the children. It is such a custom for adults or elderly people to give it to their children and grandchildren. In some cases, a grandparent does not feel hesitant to give otoshidama to their grandchildren, even though they are already adults and have a job.
This New Year item is also used by department stores or brand stores to gain profit by selling fukubukuro (福袋) or lucky bag. In this event, shops sell a bag with several items in it with a certain price. Sellers take the opportunity to sell outdated goods, yet buyers take this event as a chance to get items with lower prices. Both sides are happy, that’s why it is also called happy-bag.