Many countries have their cultural habits to celebrate New Year’s Day, Japan has some unique traditions. Since 1873 Japan has been following the Gregorian calendar, so New Year’s Day is January 1st. Before the Meiji period the date for the Japanese New Year followed the Chinese lunar calendar. January became the official and cultural New Year’s Day.
The First Sunrise of the Year
Many Japanese people go out to watch the first sunrise of the year because people believe something good will be happen during the year if they watch the first sunrise. In the past Japan was a thriving agricultural country, and they believed that Toshigami, a god of grain fertility comes with the first sunrise. They prayed the god to show appreciation for the passing year and to pray for a good harvest during the new year.
Decorating the House
Japanese people usually decorate their houses with festive and traditional decorations on New Year’s day, and this shows traces of rituals our ancestors did for Toshigami in the past. Kadomatsu, kagamimoshi, and shimekazari are traditional decorations.
A figurine mainly made with pine branches, bamboos, and plum branches is made or bought for New Year’s. This is usually put at the entrance of the house because this is a symbol to welcome Toshigami into the house. The pine branches symbolize “eternity” since pine never dies down and it is believed to keep evil spirits away. The bamboos symbolize a “strong life force” because they grow in a straight line towards the sky, and the plum branches are a symbol of spring, all of these items express the New Year. People usually put two of them (male and female) on each side of the entrance.
Photo Credit: Banzai Hiroaki@Flickr
Kagami Mochi is an offering to the gods and the most traditional items that symbolizes the three imperial regalia of Japan. The two flat rice cakes represent “mirrors” (sun and moon) meant for steadiness during the year. The orange on the top represents a magatama, a coma shaped bead from the Jomon period. The dried persimmons symbolize a sword. Kagamimochi is placed at the highest point in the house.
Shimekazari is made with rice straws, which means crops are plentiful, this decoration is places in a high place and it shows that the house is a sanctuary. It is usually placed at the entrance of the house, in the kitchen, or at the mini shrine at home. In addition, this is hung up to show the house is purified by god.
Most people go to shrines to make a prayer to the gods. In the past, people made wishes about their plentiful grains, but people in modern society pray for anything they want. Before you make a wish, there are a few basic steps. First, throw a coin into the box in front of the shrine and ring the bell above the box. Then they bow twice, crap your hands twice, and make a wish. After that, then bow once at the end. Other than greetings, people usually buy paper fortunes, amulets for their house, and street food.
Osechi and Ozoni
Many Japanese people eat traditional food on New Year’s Day. Osechi is a special food in boxes for New Year’s Day. There are many kinds of food in the box such as seafood, beans, and vegetables, each food has a meaning. For instance, black beans represent the “state of perfect health”.
Ozoni is a kind of soup with rice cakes. There is other stuffed added to the soup but if differs from region to region. People eat ozoni to show the appreciation of a good harvest and hopes that the new year will bring peace.
Nengajo or New Year’s Card
A nengajo mean New Year’s card is a greeting letter with words celebrating the New Year. People send New Year’s cards to those close to them and it is usually sent a few days before New Year’s Day so that the letter will arrive on New Year’s Day.
Otoshi-dama or New Year’s Money
This is what Japanese children really want on New Year’s Day. In Japan, adults give money to their children or relatives usually under age 20. This practice didn’t happen in the past. This culture originally started in the Kamakura period, and the otoshi-dama was a small bag of mochi with a mandarin orange. Now money is given as an otoshi-dama, the amount usually doesn’t exceed 10,000 yen (about 83 US dollars).