Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

Japanese New Year

A New Year Drum Session (tanakawho/flickr)

A New Year Drum Session (tanakawho/flickr)

On New Year's morning, we would all dress in our festive kimonos and gather in the living room for the special first meal of the year. For the occasion we would use lacquerware bowls and dishes, which were set out on small individual tray-tables. Each member of the family would use a pair of wooden chopsticks reserved especially for the New Year's holiday. As part of the "blessings from the mountains."

After exchanging New Year's greetings, we would eat the New Year's foods, along with a special soup, called ozoni, containing pounded rice cakes. The other ingredients of ozoni vary depending on the region and the family. My mother used to make hers Kyoto style, with white bean paste, and I make mine the same way. After breakfast, all members of the household, including the employees of the shop, sat in front of father, waiting for their turn to tell him their New Year's resolutions and receive the traditional New Year's gift money called otoshidama. Around this time the postman would come around delivering the New Year's postcards.

Many people pay a visit to the local shrine on New Year's Eve, but we usually went the next morning after breakfast, when it wasn't so crowded. At the shrine we would say a prayer and draw a sacred lot to learn our New Year's fortune. We would also bring our old good luck amulet and exchange it for a new one.

New Year's Day is traditionally spent with family members and close relatives. In our family, all the aunts, uncles, and cousins gathered at my grandmother's house to eat, drink, talk, and play games. This was one of the few times during the year when we would see all of our cousins at once. There were nearly twenty children in the house running around, playing, and fighting.

Traditional belief holds that engaging in a lesson or hobby on the second day of the New Year will improve one's skills in it, and so on that day we had to do our first calligraphy of the year and show it to our parents. My father would fetch fresh water from the well, which we used to make ink by rubbing it with the solid ink stick on the ink stone. The smell of the fresh ink would make me think about the plans and dreams I had for the New Year. We would write auspicious words, our New Year's resolutions, or just words we liked, and the resulting calligraphy was displayed in the house until January 15, the day that marks the official end of the New Year's celebration.

After we did our calligraphy, we were allowed to go out and play with our friends while the adults visited friends and neighbors, exchanging the traditional New Year's words of greeting. We children would show off our hagoita and compete with kites and tops.

The three days of New Year's celebrations passed quickly. Before we knew it, we were back in school, and the adults had gone back to their old routine. Today, not as many people go through such extensive preparations for New Year's, and a lot of the things that were familiar to me as New Year's customs are gone. Pre-prepared New Year's foods are sold at department stores and have become very popular because women now often lack the time or ambition to prepare the traditional foods themselves but still want to be able to serve them. Stores now reopen on the second or third day of the New Year. In the city, I rarely see people pounding rice anymore, and the kadomatsu decoration is out of fashion.

I believe, however, that the spirit and significance of New Year's continue to survive in Japan. People still get together with family and friends, giving thanks for the past year, wishing each attitude and feelings. I hope that my children will cherish their childhood New Year's memories and pass on to the next generation the customs I taught them. And I hope that I will eventually be visited by my children and grandchildren on New Year's and have a big family gathering like those my grandmother used to have.

Discussion Questions

What religious beliefs are reflected in the traditional Japanese New Year's celebration?

Describe some Japanese New Year's traditions, explaining the background of each. In what respects has the Japanese New Year's celebration changed? How has it remained the same?

Are any aspects of the Japanese celebration similar to an American holiday celebration? Different?