New Year's in Japan

New Year's in Japan

By Billy Hammond

The Japanese celebrate the New Year in a big way. The official New Year falls on January 1st, however, in actuality the season itself runs from the 31st of December through the 3rd of January.

Preparation for the New Year begins during the middle of December, with people preparing New Year's postcards usually purchased from the Japanese Postal Service known as nengajo. These cards are sent to business clients and acquaintances, friends, and family members. Those destined for businesses are usually printed commercially at a print shop while those sent to family and friends tend to be handmade. For people with large mailing lists, though, the trend is to have all the cards prepared commercially.

The nengajo often have caricatures of the animal representing the coming year on them, together with a standard New Year greeting. The person sending the card will usually add a brief, handwritten message to the back of the card to express his or her thanks for the assistance received during the past year with wishes for continued support in the new year. Cards are not sent to people who have had a relative pass away during the old year. People who have suffered the loss of a loved one during the year send out postcards asking that they not be sent nengajo beforehand, so a list is usually kept of who to send and who not to send cards to.

Nengajo are mailed before the end of the year, although it is considered within etiquette to send them out until the 15th of January. This is important because quite often cards are received from people to whom cards have not been sent.

The cards are delivered on New Year's day by the Postal Service, which employs students part-time to help distribute the huge volume of cards which come in each year. When you consider that each Japanese person sends anywhere from 20 to several hundred cards, the need for the added assistance in delivering the cards becomes apparent.

As the year's end draws near, people begin cleaning their homes and workplaces in preparation for the New Year. This is a time of major cleaning and even temples dust off their Buddhist images. News programs often show the cleaning of major Buddhist images such as the Nara Great Budda ( Nara Daibutsu ) with monks climbing the images to clean them.

New Year's Eve is a big occasion and one of the highlights of the season. Buckwheat noodles are eaten during the day or the evening to ensure prosperity and longevity. The noodles are called toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodles for passing the year) and are eaten at a buckwheat noodle shop ( sobaya ) or at home.

Many people gather with their families on New Year's Eve to watch the Red and White Song Festival ( Kohaku uta gassen ) broadcast by the national television station, NHK. The Song Festival features singers whose songs enjoyed the most popularity during the past year and is almost a New Year's institution, completing its 48th broadcast in 1997. Another popular New Year's Eve program is the Record Awards show (39th broadcast in 1997). As the evening goes on, some families will make an early start for the local Shinto shrine to welcome in the New Year. Others who want to visit more famous shrines will have arrived at their destinations and will be examining the wares of the many stands set up on the walkways of the shrines.

At midnight, the Buddhist temples toll out the requisite 108 peals on their bells summoning in the New Year. T.V. stations broadcast the centers of activity at the various major shrines around the country and show the ringing of the massive temple bells at famous temples. People at the shrines get as close as they can to the main altar and cast coins and paper money at the doorsteps of the shrine. After making their offering, they clap their hands to summon the gods, then pray. At the local, less popular shrines where people can get close to the entrance, people toss their offering into the offeratory box, pull the cord attached to the bell hanging from the rafter in front of the box, then clap their hands and pray.

Having offered their prayers, many people will draw their fortune from one of the stalls staffed by shrine maidens in white kimonos. After paying a small sum to be allowed to draw one's fortune, a box containing bamboo sticks with numbers is shaken until the tip of a stick with a number pokes its way through the hole at the top of the box. The shrine maiden looks at the number then gives the drawer a paper with a fortune printed on it corresponding to the number on the stick. After reading the fortune, many people tie it on a branch of a tree near the shrine.

Before going home, the visitor to the shrine might buy an amulet for good luck or other charm such as an arrow. The charms are usually good for a year and there are places in the shrine compound to deposit the old charms from the year past, which are ceremoniously burned after the New Year's season.

After going home, or having welcomed in the New Years at home, the tired New Year's celebrant goes to sleep, hoping to dream of a hawk, Mt. Fuji, or an eggplant, which are considered as auspicious omens for the New Year.

Awakening before sunrise is also considered important, as viewing the first sunrise of the year is thought to be a good and proper start for the New Year. Again, the T.V. networks which have been broadcasting continuously throughout the night, show pictures of the first sunrise breaking at various locations in Japan.

New Year's day is a quiet day, with most adults staying at home, watching T.V. or writing New Year's cards. Children receive monetary presents on New Year's day so young children often visit the local toy or candy stores which are open in anticipation of this. The children are given money in special small envelopes. Amounts are carefully noted by the parents, who have to keep track of the obligation toward the giver.

On the 2nd and 3rd days of the New Year, people start to visit friends, go shopping (many retail stores have begun to open on the 2nd due to the economy), or just continue to watch television. Visits to teachers of traditional cultural art forms (flower arrangement, martial arts, etc) are often made during this period.

Food during the New Year's tends to be special as well. Traditionally, New Year's food is placed in nestable, laquered boxes. These boxes contain food which does not spoil easily and which can obviate the need for cooking for the holidays. Contents vary from region to region, but popular items include candied black beans, fish eggs attached to seaweed, dasheens, kelp, and fish. Another popular New Year's food with a regional flavor is the New Year's soup known as ozoni. In West Japan, it tends to be made with a soybean paste base giving it a whitish appearance, whereas in East Japan it tends to be made of fish stock making it more like a clear broth. This soup is usually eaten on New Year's Day, making it more of a family-oriented dish.

Visitors during the New Year's can be expected to be treated to a saucer of Japanese sake. Lovers of alcoholic beverages are encouraged to drink as much of whatever they favour and it is not unusual to find many inebriated folks making their way home on the trains and streets during this period.

Variations of welcoming in the New Year are too numerous to be taken up in this short article, which is meant to be a brief introduction to the Japanese New Year's. Some people celebrate the holiday by going abroad (although this year's statistic of the number of Japanese spending the New Year's overseas is the lowest in 17 years), others hit the ski slopes, and yet others enjoy the ever-popular 'neshogatsu', which literally translates as 'sleeping through the New Years' and is a New Years spent quietly sleeping and lying around the house.

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Copyright 1997, Billy Hammond