What is the New Year in Japan?
The New Year is a period of days at the start of the year. The first 3 days at the start of the year (January 1st – January 3rd) are called “Sanganichi“, or ”the first three days”, while the period until January 7th is called “Matsu-no-uchi*”. It includes New Year’s events and celebrations about the previous year passing smoothly. This is what is known as the “New Year” in Japan.
*Matsu-no-uchi – a period when “matsu kazari” (pine decorations) are displayed in the New Year.
New Year’s Origin
Originally, the New Year was an event to welcome a god referred to as “Toshigami*” (or “Toshitoku-jin**” and “Shogatsu-sama***”) who brings grain harvest and protects children’s prosperity in the new year.
In the Japanese language, the word for the New Year consists of two characters – “正” and ”月”. “正” means “the beginning of the year”, “the year begins anew”. There is a phrase “the beginning of the new spirit year”, which can be interpreted as the first month (月) of the year when “a spirit rejuvenates and renews”. People also “aged” together on New Year’s Day instead of their birthdays in Japan until around year 1945.
In other words, the New Year is a time when people welcome the new year with their ancestors and a turning point when everything starts anew.
*Toshigami – a Shinto god (lit. “toshi” – year/age, “gami”- god)
**Toshitoku-jin – a goddess of (lucky) directions
*** Shogatsu-sama – lit. “Mr./Ms. New Year”
New Year’s Content
There are a lot of traditions for the New Year in Japan, including special dishes particular to New Year’s period (“Osechi Ryori”, “O-zoni”, “O-toso”, “Nanakusa Gayu”), decorations (“Kadomatsu”, “Shime-kazari”, “Kagami-mochi”), games (“Hanetsuki”, kite-flying, “Koma-mawashi”, “Sugoroku”, “Fukuwarai”, “Karuta”, “Hyakunin Isshu”), events (“Otoshidama”, “Hatsuyume”, “Kakizome”), and more.
A detailed explanation for their meaning and origin follows below.
Osechi Ryori* were originally offered to the god during the five seasonal festivals throughout the year (“Nanagusa (seven kinds of vegetables) Festival” on January 7th, “Puppet Festival” on March 3rd, “Shobu (Japanese iris) Festival” on May 5th, “Tanabata (Star Festival)” on July 7th, “Kiku-no-sekku (Chrysanthemum Festival)” on September 9th). However, they are just common dishes served to Toshigami during the New Year these days.
Eating Osechi Ryori for the New Year is believed to be an act of receiving a part of god’s power by eating the same kind of food as they do. Additionally, another reason for eating Osechi Ryori is not to make the God of Fire angry. A custom of avoiding the usage of fire to boil and cook something in the kitchen during the New Year period started from the late Heian period (794-1185). It is said that this is why people started making and eating Osechi Ryori that can be kept for a long time for the New Year. Osechi Ryori include dishes that symbolise longevity and offspring prosperity, food ingredients that are associated with something good. People give them auspicious names and mainly put together foods that represent celebration symbols.
*Examples of Osechi Ryori include: Japanese bitter orange, sweet rolled omelette, broiled fish cake, herring roe, seaweed, black soybeans, red sea-bream, skewered prawns, and more. They are usually packed in special boxes called “Jubako”.
O-zoni stands for food eaten together with Toshigami which is vegetables and rice cakes. Eating the same food as the god is believed to give you a part of god’s power.
If you look at the celebration chopsticks* used when eating O-zoni, both ends are quite thin. This is because one end is for people while the other one is for the god.
There are different ways to eat it depending on the region in Japan. Kyoto’s o-zoni, for example, often uses white miso paste and round rice cakes wishing for peace/happiness.
*Celebration chopsticks – thick round chopsticks used on festive occasions.
O-toso is drank on New Year’s morning to express gratitude for the past year ending smoothly with vermillion lacquered New Year’s sake cups and pray for passing the current year happily.
O-toso is a kind of medical drink that came to Japan from China in the Heian period (794-1185). It carries a meaning of slaying/defeating So (a spirit that causes illnesses). It is said that this beverage originally was a cold remedy, but people also believe that it kicks a cold out of one’s body and brings longevity. A tradition of drinking O-soto for the New Year started in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and was brought to Japan in the Heian period (794-1185).
Japanese people eat Nanakusa Gayu in the morning on January 7th (Nanakusa Festival), when New Year’s Matsu-no-Uchi ends. This custom of eating to ward off evil spirits and all diseases came from China. People can rest their stomach that got tired from Osechi Ryori. There is also the wisdom from ancient people that eating Nanakusa Gayu can restore the nutrients that are deficient during winter, when there are not enough vegetables. The seven spring flowers that got established in the Edo period (1603-1867) now are water dropwort, shepherd's purse, cudweed, chickweed, nipplewort, turnip, radish.
Kadomatsu is also called “a pine decoration” or “a pine tree at the gate”. These decorations welcome New Year’s Toshigami and are used as a sign to indicate festival places. People put them at gates or entrances to welcome Toshigami to their houses. This tradition also came from China in the Heian period (794-1185) and received its current form during the Muromachi period (1336-1573). People wish for Toshigami to come to their house every year, so they use pine trees and bamboo for Kadomatsu. The reason why pine trees are used particularly often is based on a play on words: in the Japanese language, the word for “to wait” sounds as “matsu” and is written as “待つ”, while the word for “a pine tree” also sounds as “matsu” and is written as “松”.
It is better to decorate Kadomatsu either on December 28th or on December 30th. The reason for that is another play on words. The word for the “29th” day in Japanese is “ni-jyu-ku”, while the word for “double suffering” also sounds as “ni-jyu-ku”. It is believed that one who decorates Kadomatsu on the 29th of December will have bad luck. Additionally, decorating it on December 31st is called a “one-day decoration”. If you hurry to decorate it one day in advance, it is believed that you will not be able to welcome the New Year in a sacred way, so it is a rule not to do that on the 31st.
The meaning of “shime” in Shimenawa is “not allowed to enter”. It is put up at sacred places to separate them from the rest.
For the decoration, it is made of gleichenia japonica (fern), yuzuriha (daphniphyllum macropodum), daidai (an Asian variety of bitter orange) etc.
Shimenawa’s origin is a myth about Amaterasu (Goddess of the Sun). She was trapped in a rock cave once and managed to escape. In order not to fall there again, she blocked the entrance with a Shimenawa rope (butt-kneed rope).
People write “Shimenawa” (using the original characters標縄) to indicate sacred and clean places. They also sometimes lower the straw of three, five, and seven stripes, and then it can be written as “Shimenawa” with 七五三縄. The first three characters here stand for 7, 5, and 3. They can be read in the same way (“shi-me-na”).
In the Japanese language, “kagami” stands for a “mirror”, while “mochi” means a “rice cake”. The name for “kagami-mochi” came from the fact that its form is similar to the old-style mirrors. A mirror was thought to be one of The Three Sacred Treasures where gods could dwell, they were used for various Shinto rituals. This is how Kagami-mochi became a decoration to welcome Toshigami.
Additionally, its round shape represents family happiness. The piled-up form carries a meaning of piling up all the good things in the year ahead. Kagami-mochi got decorated in its current form after the Muromachi period (1336-1573). The way to decorate it is to 1) put a piece of Japanese votive paper or a piece of Hashi (another kind of Japanese paper) on a stand called Sanbou (a stand used for Shinto rituals); 2) then, you place Kombu (edible kelp) on a bed of fern and Yuzuri-ha; 3) On top of that, you pile two flat round rice cakes of different sizes on top of each other from the bottom; 4) Put Daidai on the very top.
Hanetsuki’s origin goes back to the 14th century China where there was a game about kicking a coin attached to a feather. This game came to Japan in the Muromachi period (1336-1573). For Hanetsuki, people play with the feathers by splashing them into the air with battledores. The fruit from a plant called Reetha are used to make the feathers. Reetha’s Japanese name is “Mukuroji” and is written as “無患子” which means “children(子) do not (無) suffer (患)”. This is why Hanetsuki became widely popular as a wish to get rid of bad luck and a pray for children to grow healthily. If you miss a shot and drop the feather, there is a rule to get your face inked as a spell to ward off evil.
Kite-flying was used in ancient China as a tool for fortune-telling and fighting. It was considered to be nobleman’s game in the Heian period (794-1185), but became popular among general mass in the Edo period (1603-1867). Originally, parents used to celebrate their son’s birthday at the beginning of the year and used these toys in a ritual to pray for his healthy growth. There used to be a meaning of putting one’s wishes in a kite and sending them to heaven. Additionally, kite-flying is called “Tako-age” in Japanese. This game uses the word “tako” in the Kanto region*, while the word “ika” (“ika-nobori”) is used in the Kansai region’s** dialect. This is because a silhouette of a “kite” lifted into the sky is similar to “tako” (Japanese for “octopus”) and “ika” (Japanese for “squid”).
*The Kanto region - a geographical area of Honshu, which is the largest island of Japan. The region includes the Greater Tokyo Area and encompasses seven prefectures – Gunma, Tochigi, Ibaraki, Saitama, Tokyo, Chiba, and Kanagawa.
**The Kansai region – lies in the southern-central region of Honshu. The region includes prefectures of Mie, Nara, Wakayama, Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo, and Shiga (sometimes Fukui, Tokushima, and Tottori).
Koma-mawashi was a form of entertainment for the annual events in the imperial palace. Then, it became nobleman’s game in the Heian period (794-1185), a toy for kids in the late Heian period, and finally got popular among common public from the Edo period (1603-1868). The name came from the Tang Dynasty though the Goryeo Dynasty (because “Koma” refers to Northwest Korea). It got its characters (独楽) from the original Chinese notation.
Sugoroku is one of the oldest forms of entertainment. Its origin comes from India. It was introduced to Japan through China in the Nara period (710-794) and was popular among the nobles. The “Road Trip Sugoroku” in which you have to eventually pass fifty-three station of the Tokaido Highway and other real-life related things or some “picture Sugoroku adjustments” to play it easier like “successive generations of Sugoroku” were popular in the Edo period (1603-1867) and became well-loved for the New Year time. Any number of people can participate and have fun, which is why families enjoy playing it together during the New Year and also try their luck for the upcoming year.
This is a game where a blindfolded player has to put a mouth, a nose, a pair of eyes and eyebrows on a mounting paper where only an outline of a face or a mask is drawn, such as Hyottoko* and Otafuku**. Because the player cannot see where they put the parts, they sometimes turn out to be in crazy places, so people laugh together at the results. There is a saying “fortune comes to those who smile”, so the early New Year laughs are considered to be joyous. The game also became a kids New Year play from the Edo period (1603-1867).
*Hyottoko – a comical Japanese character, portrayed through the use of a mask.
**Otafuku – a kind of Japanese masks.
Karuta’s origin lies in the arrival of Portuguese ships to Japan in the Muromachi period (1336-1573). Portuguese people introduced “Unsun Karuta” (and “karuta” stands for a “card” in the Portuguese language). This game is similar to “shell-matching” (one lines up shells with pictures or song lyrics on the back, and the point is in picking pair shells) which was popular among the nobles in the Heian period (794-1185). Later on, “shell-matching” turned into “Karuta”.
A variation of the game called “Iroha-garuta” was introduced during the late Edo period (1603-1867). It is said to contain the wisdom of the ancients and is used as one of the teaching methods for kids to learn the alphabet, sayings, and other important daily life knowledge while playing.
“Hyakunin” stands for “100 people” in Japanese, and “Hyakunin Isshu” is a collection of songs from a hundred people.
The origin is connected to a poet whose name is Sadaie Fujiwara who lived in the Kamakura period (1185-1333). He chose 100 excellent Japanese poems from a hundred poets.
He collected all the representative Japanese people from the Heian dynasty, including selections from imperial anthologies, such as Kokin Wakashu (“Collection of Japanese Poems of Ancient and Modern Times”) and Shin Kokin Wakashu (“New Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern”), starting from the emperor Tenji (626-672) all the way to the emperor Juntoku (1197-1242) from the Kamakura period (1185-1333).
It was originally the imperial palace game, but it spread to general public as “uta-garuta (poem cards) with illustrations” by the wood block printing technique in the Edo period (1603-1867). It was allowed for kids to stay up late to play for the New Year. From the late Edo period, a lot of parties just to play Hakyunin Ishhu started being held quite often, and the game became popular to play for the New Year.
The rice cakes offered to Toshigami are considered to be Toshigami’s soul. Toshigami’s soul sounds as “O-toshigami-sama no Tamashii” in Japanese and was turned into “Otoshi-dama” due to similarities in pronunciation. Otoshidama started from splitting and eating rice cakes (Toshigami’s soul=Otoshi-dama) together. In other words, the original Otoshidama was split and given from seniors to juniors as a soul received from Toshigami. In the Muromachi period (1336-1573), seniors started giving money instead of rice cakes to their juniors. “Otoshidama” currently means “New Year’s gift”. These days, it turned into a custom of adults giving pocket money to their kids.
“Hatsuyume” means “the first dream” in Japanese, and people generally refer to the dream you see at the second night of the New Year (night of January 2nd) as the “first dream” in Japan. There is a tradition to tell one’s fortune for the year based on that dream. This custom came to Japan from China.
A tradition of putting a drawing under a pillow to see a good dream also came from China. In China, a tapir is considered to be an animal that eats one’s nightmares, so people usually put tapir’s drawings under their pillows and go to sleep.
In Japan, a ship with treasures and The Seven Lucky Gods is considered to be a lucky charm, so people believe that if you make a drawing of that ship and put it under your pillow, you will see a good dream. There are treasure ship pictures which have palindromic songs (the sentence sounds same whether you read from the top or from the bottom (due to vertical writing in the Japanese language)). While in the case of a good dream it will just stay as that, if you see a nightmare, “that song will turn it upside down and bring you good luck”. One of the most popular palindromic songs is “Na-ka-ki yo no to-o no ne-fu-ri no mi-na me-sa-me na-mi-no-ri-fu-ne no ot-o no yo-ki ka-na” (“In the long night of distant sleep, everyone is awake, the sound of the boat on the waves is good”).
Among the lucky items in a dream, there is a saying “Mount Fuji for first, hawk for second, and eggplant for third”. “Mount Fuji for first” stands for Japan’s highest sacred mountain. This is because “Fuji” sound similar to the word “safe” which is pronounced as “buji” in Japanese. “Hawk for second” is because a hawk is considered to be a lucky bird along with a crane and a phoenix. A hawk is associated with “catching” something, so people believe it can catch luck. “Eggplant for third” comes from a play on words. “Nasu” stands for an eggplant in Japanese, while the word “making” something also sounds as “nasu”. The saying also continues as “fan for fourth, tobacco for fifth, Zato for sixth”.
Kakizome* is also known as “Kissho” (ritual writings), “Shihitsu” (trial writing), and “Hatsusuzuri” (first inkstone). Its origin lies in the Heian period (794-1185), when the “ceremony of the first calligraphy” used to be held in the imperial palace. This is a kind of event during which celebratory words and poems are written using ink made in “young water” and facing “eho” (blessed directions). It became widely used in Terakoya (temple schools) education during the Edo period (1603-1867). Then, calligraphy became a mandatory subject starting from the Meiji period (1868-1912), so it spread among general public.
The 2nd of January is also considered to be the day of all beginnings, so it is believed that if you start your lessons and doings in that day, your entire year will be successful.
*Kakizome – calligraphic works symbolizing people’s wishes for the new year.