Japanese New Year Facts

New Year (oshogatsu or shogatsu) is the most important holiday in Japan. Business usually shut down from 1st to 3rd January and families typically gather to spend the days together. Japan has adopted the solar calendar since 1873 and therefore the celebration always starts on January 1. New Year’s Eve (omisoka) is the second-most important day because it is the final day of the old year.

Preparation of the New Year in Japan begins during the middle of December. People will prepare New Year’s postcards that is usually purchased from the postal service called as nengajo. Those cards are sent to family members, friends, business clients and acquaintances. Those destined for businesses are often printed commercially at a print shop while those sent to friends and family tend to be handmade. Cards are not sent to people who have had their relative pass away during the old year. Nengajo are mailed before the New Year’s eve, although it is still considered within etiquette to send them out until 15th of January. The last day of the old year and the first day of the new year are the busiest times for the Japanese post offices.

Homes and entrance gates are decorated wih ornaments made of bamboo, pine and plum trees. Houses and clothes are cleaned, even temples dust off their Buddhist images. Since turtles and cranes are symbols of happiness and longevity, houses are deorated with origami cranes in order to bring happiness and peace. On New Year’s eve, buckwheat noodles (toshikoshi soba), symbolizing longevity, are served. At midnight on December 31, Buddhist temples ring bells 108 times to remember Japan’s hardships. This is also done to symbolize 108 human sins in Buddhist belief as well as to get rid of the worldly desires regarding sense and feeling in all Japanese citizen. Some Japanese believe that the ringing of these bells can rid off their sins during the previous year.

January 1 is a very auspicious day. It is a tradition to visit temple or shrine during shogatsu (hatsumode, meaning first visit). Various kinds of special dishes are served during shogatsu including ozoni (a soup with mochi), otoso (sweetened rice wine) and osechi ryori. The most popular shrines and temples, such as Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine can attract several million people during the three days. Japanese people dont go to work on the New Year’s day. Like Chinese New Year celebration, adults will be giving money to the children (this is known as otoshidama). The money is handed out in a decorated envelope called pochibukuro, similar to the Chinese red envelope. The amount of money given will depend on the age of the child but is often the same if there is more than one child, this is to prevent anyone feeling slighted. The New Year celebration lasts for five to six days.

There are a few games traditionally played during the New Year, however, their popularity has decreased in recent times. Karuta (a card game), takoage (kite flying) and hanetsuki (Japanese badminton) are some of them.

However, in rural Japan, villagers still using the lunar calendar. Prior to the Meiji Period, the date of the New Year in Japan was based on the Chinese lunar calendar.

Japanese New Year Bell Ringing Ceremony
Oshogatsu Festival in Tokyo