Japan started to celebrate the New Year on January 1 at the end of the 19th century. It is, without a doubt, the most important family celebration in the country and still retains some aspects of traditional Japan.
The period of the end of the year is called Oshogatsu (御正月). Public administrations, many tourist attractions, and even shops are closed during Oshogatsu, usually from December 29 to January 3, and the holiday can be extended if a weekend precedes or follows these dates.
The traditions before the New Year
As soon as December 25 has passed, the Japanese people forget Christmas and focus on the preparations for the coming year.
The end of the year
The tradition is to mail greeting cards called nengajo (年賀状), which must be delivered on the morning of January 1. Japan Post ensures a timely delivery of the greetings, if the cards are entrusted to the agency no later than December 28. The card can be a postage-paid postcard, or nenga hagaki (年賀葉書), with a stamp bearing the image of the animal for the New Year in the Chinese horoscope. This type of card also displays a lottery number, which is very popular with Japanese people. The number allows participation in lottery games to win trips or money. In 2003, a record number of 4,4 billion of the postcards were sent; however, the number has been decreasing, with only 3,3 billion printed in 2015.
At home, the front door is decorated on each side with a pair of kadomatsu (門松), an ornamental floral composition of bamboos and pines, which is a symbol of welcome to the deities. A rice straw rope, or shimenawa (しめ縄), is suspended on the door and is a Shintoist ritual practice to protect the interior of the house from demons.
The last days of December are dedicated to Osoji (大掃除), a rite of purification consisting of a thorough cleaning of the house. Everything is washed from the floor to the ceiling, not only at home, of course, but also in schools and even at work! The susuharai (煤払い) tradition is a full day dedicated to washing off the dirtiness of the past year and is performed between December 13 and 28.
The week before New Year’s Eve is devoted to bonenkai (忘年会), parties with friends or colleagues to "forget the year". At this time of the year, izakaya pubs are very busy, and it can be difficult to book one. Many shops also take the opportunity to organize huge bargain sales.
New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve on December 31 is called Omisoka (大晦日) and is a rather traditional family gathering, except for young people who may go partying with friends. Everybody eats a soba or udon noodle soup called toshikoshi (年越し), meaning "up to the new year", which everyone must completely eat.
People usually watch TV, especially variety shows that broadcast skits and traditional or modern songs. The most popular program is Kohaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦), "The red vs. white song contest" (front picture), a music show where a team of female singers in red and a team of male singers in white compete to win the audience’s votes. However, the show’s popularity has been decreasing recently; for the 2015–2016 show, the audience score was only 39,2%, the lowest since its creation.
At approximately midnight, Japanese people go to the Buddhist temple (or the Shinto shrine) for the first temple visit, called hatsumode (初詣). It is then customary to pray by ringing a bell. Temples and shrines are so overcrowded that the queue to perform the first prayer of the year can be several hours long.
Some temples and shrines are extremely popular and receive more than a million visitors during the early days of the year:
- Meiji Jingu or Sensoji in Tokyo
- Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto
- Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka, and
- Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura.
After the visit to the temple, everybody goes back home to eat the first meal of the year, called osechiryori (お節料理). It is composed of various dishes served in the jubako (重箱), a compartment box. The tradition dates back to the Heian period (794–1185). The boxes are usually prepared by the mother, but the tendency to buy osechiryori boxes already made from supermarkets is growing.
Children receive decorated envelopes called otoshidama (お年玉), which contain gifts of cash. The otoshidama are usually given by the grandparents or older relatives. The gift depends on the child’s age and can amount from ¥500 to ¥10,000 (~US$ 4.70 to ~US$ 93.50); children can receive the gifts until they become adults. Most of the envelopes display traditional ornamentation, but it has become possible to find envelops decorated with popular culture themes, such as cartoons (i.e., One Piece, Snoopy).
In Tokyo, several train or metro lines continue their services during New Year’s Eve, whereas the lines do not usually run during the night. This is the case, for example, for the Yamanote line, where the trains run every 10 minutes, on average, all night long.
Since 2019, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages are forbidden from 6 p.m. on December 31 to 5 a. m. on January 1, in the same way as during Halloween.
The beginning of the year’s customs
On January 1, the Japanese get up early to watch the first sunrise of the year, called hatsuhinode (初日の出). Hatsuhinode can be enjoyed from several wonderful tourist locations:
- the observatory of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku
- Mount Fuji, especially from the Five Lakes; it is also possible to hike the mountain with a guide to enjoy New Year’s Eve or goraiko (ご来光)
- the Port Tower in Chiba
- Mount Moiwa in Sapporo
- Miho no Matsubara Beach in Shizuoka
- Uppama Beach in Okinawa, and
- Katase Higashihama Beach in Kanagawa (Enoshima).
At 9 a.m., it is time to drink the first sake of the year (toso 屠蘇), along with eating a generous breakfast. Then, people return to the temple to receive predictions of good fortune (omikuji 御神籤). It is also usual to practice traditional games, such as flying kites.
January 1 (ganjitsu 元日) is a holiday, and many shops and companies are closed for one to three days. Most konbini, however, stay open. It’s like a mini Golden Week, during which the Japanese can relax, go on trips to meet their families, or go abroad. Train stations and airports are really crowded and booking accommodations can be difficult. So, plan accordingly if you wish to visit Japan during this time of the year. Big cities, on the contrary, become empty and visiting tends to be more interesting and enjoyable.
The following days
On January 2, the Emperor of Japan presents his greetings to the visitors of Tokyo Imperial Palace. Aside from the anniversary of the Emperor (from 2020 on, on February 23), this is one of the rare occasions when the public can see the Emperor in person. The imperial family welcomes the very dense crowd several times during the day from a balcony protected by glass.
On the first days of the year, the tradition is to avoid cooking, but eating treats is encouraged. The favorite desert at this time of the year is mochi (餅), a Japanese delicacy made of glutinous rice. Delicious though it may be, it is the cause of numerous deaths by suffocation each year, especially among elderly persons; from 2014–2015, nine people died, and 128 were injured.
From January 1, many shops sell lucky bags or fukubukuro (福袋). From ¥3,000 (~US$ 28.10) to as much as ¥5,000 to ¥10,000 (~US$ 46.80 to ~US$ 93.50), the bags contain a set of products that often cost twice their purchase prices! Japanese people love this tradition and the astonishment it involves. Apple’s lucky bag is one of the most famous: available on January 2, it offers devices for sometimes five times the purchase value.
After New Year’s Eve, night parties can also be organized to celebrate the New Year, they are called shinnenkai (新年会). Less frequent than bonenkai, these parties are animated by the same kind of festive mindset.
Japan follows the Gregorian calendar; however, each new year is associated with a sign of the Chinese horoscope:
- 2010: Tiger
- 2011: Rabbit (or Cat)
- 2012: Dragon
- 2013: Snake
- 2014: Horse
- 2015: Sheep
- 2016: Monkey
- 2017: Rooster
- 2018: Dog
- 2019: Pig
- 2020: Rat
- 2021: Ox
- 2022: back to the Tiger and so on.
In Japan, Chinese New Year is not celebrated (except among Chinese expatriates, of course!)
Kanpai wishes you all a Happy New Year!