Japanese New Year explained

Why is Christmas considered a time for couples in Japan?

Probably because New Year is a time for families, and everyone wants one of each in the festive season. It has also been marketed as such.

Why is New Year such a family time in Japan?

Traditionally it is one of the two big times families visit the family graves, along with O-Bon in the summer.

Why do the Japanese eat soba buckwheat noodles in New Year?

Because they are long, they symbolize long life.

Why are some temples and shrines like Meiji Jingu and Naritasan particularly famous to go to for the hatsumode first prayers of the year?

Unlike some churches and statues of Mary etc. in the West, most of these don’t seem to be tied to a particular story of a fantastic miracle, but just a general feeling that that is where to go. Nowadays most of the most famous ones also advertise to increase the effect, and as Japan, like most countries, doesn’t have the Anglo Saxon hatred of crowds the more people go, the more people go.

How did the New Year kohaku uta gassen boys against girls TV singing contest first get started and why is it so popular?

NHK started it on radio only in 1951. Its popularity could be due to the fact that families are usually together at home at that time and it is one of the few things people of all ages will watch, as it has a good range of older enka music and newer J-pop, and anyway most J-pop is the sickly sweet kind that grandma should’t find too offensive.

Why are the bells in temples struck exactly 108 times?

It drives out the 108 burdens/ sins/ desires (all the same thing in Buddhism) that torture mankind. The full list of 108 does not, apparently, include lusting after your neighbour’s Nintendo Wii.

Is the name “bounenkai” (forget the year party) just a joke based on a really bad hangover?

Not originally. It should mean forgetting all problems and disagreements you have had with people over the year so you can start with a clean slate.

Why is mochi (chewy rice balls) so popular during New Year?

Apart from the fun and ceremony of Dad getting warm pounding the rice while everyone stands around helping or looking, I’m not sure if there is a deeper religious or superstitious meaning. One practical reason for most of the foods that are eaten traditionally at this time of year is that they are made from ingredients that would last through the winter. Mochi is made from special rice in some countries, so it is possible that that rice grew later in the year. Also, unlike boiled rice, mochi can be made several days before New Year and will keep until the big feast without needing much preparation on the day, which is also true of most New Year foods.

Why do the Japanese say Year of the Mouse while we say Year of the Rat?

There is only one word for both in Japanese (as in many other languages)- “nezumi”. White mice are cuter, so tend to be chosen for seasonal postcards etc.

Why do the Japanese say Year of the Boar while we say Year of the Pig?

In this case there are two words (inoshishi and buta), but in Chinese they are apparently the same. In this case “buta” would be more negative (as in English), so perhaps that is why.

How did nengajo New Year postcards become so popular in Japan?

Read that somewhere once, but totally lost both the book and the memory. Must be since the modern postal service started, e.g. in Meiji era or since, and anyway most people wouldn’t have known anyone far away to send anything too send anything to before that time. You can see why it came in handy in Japan anyway, with the whole gift giving culture.

How did the Japanese lunar New Year (similar to Chinese New Year) die out so completely?/ Why don’t the Japanese celebrate lunar New Year?

Chinese New Year is known in Japanese as kyushogatsu (old/ outdated New Year), so I guess it got faded away as a sign of old feudal days after the calendar was changed to the Gregorian calendar in 1873. This is one of many ways that the Meiji modernisation of Japan reminds me of the Ataturk modernisation of Turkey. Apparently, though, lunar new year is still celebrated in some Japanese villages.

What meanings do the traditional Japanese New Year decorations have?

“The kudomatsu or “gate-pine” is an arrangement of pine, bamboo, and sometimes plum blossom… placed on either side of the front entrance to the house to ward off evil … The pine represents strength, longevity and youthful optimism. The bamboo, which is straight and unbending, symbolizes resilience, uprightness, rapid growth and filial piety; it leans with the wind, but does not break. The apricot or plum braves the winter season and has sweet blossoms despite the cold and snowy weather. They symbolize steadfastness in adversity and are looked upon as a good omen for child-bearing. Fertility is also associated with kazunoko (herring roe) and ikura (red salmon roe), both of which must grace the holiday table…The shimenawa is fresh rice-straw laced in a particular fashion to form a rope. This ornament is placed at the entrance of the house or over cooking stoves during the oshogatsu season. In the Shinto tradition, the shimenawa indicates a sacred area. It is believed that no evil can pass beyond the line of the shimenawa.” From Holy Mountain

Why is Aud Lang Syne (the traditional Scottish New Year song) not played at New Year but instead played by department stores and local councils at the end of the day?

The Japanese know the tune very well from the traditional graduation song “Hotaru no hikari”, a very pre-war sounding song about a student studying by the light of a firefly and then going on to serve his country, and most are unaware that it is not Japanese. How a graduation song became a end-of-sale-of-Louis-Vuitton-for-the-day song I’m not sure, but it does have a kind of ending feeling to it.

Why do the Japanese eat pink and white kamaboko fish cake at new year?

The pink cake is actually supposed to be red. Red and white are the traditional Japanese colours of celebration- you will see them on bunting outside a newly opened business such as a shop and on congratulation cards. As with all the other Japanese New Year foods, kamaboko is also a food that lasts a long time and needs little preparation on the day of eating.

Why do the Japanese eat beans for New Year?

As with many Japanese (and Chinese) superstitions, it is based on a pun on the name. The Japanese word for bean (豆 まめ mame) has the same pronunciation as an adjective (まめな mame na) and adverb (まめに mame ni) meaning diligent, industrious and healthy. Beans are therefore eaten to keep you healthy and, no doubt, to keep you working long hours for your Japanese company without collapsing.

Why do the Japanese eat basically the same o-sechi ryori food for the first three days of New Year?

Women are not supposed to cook for the first three days, and you can’t prepare 3 days of different foods- especially when you don’t know how many visitors you might have and when (a common situation in the traditional Japanese countryside).

Why do the Japanese eat gobo (burdock root, a very high fiber vegetable) for New Year?

Its length signifies long life and its strong roots represent perseverance. Again, there is a practical reason in that it is a winter vegetable that keeps for a long time and is boiled so goes well with the other quickly prepared boiled food.

Why do the Japanese eat konbu kelp for New Year?

Konbu (昆布 こんぶ) is, at a stretch, similar to the last two syllables of yorokobu (喜ぶ よろこぶ) , meaning enjoy.

Why do the Japanese eat tai (red snapper) for New Year food?

Tai (鯛 たい) has the same pronunciation as the last syllable as medatai (目出度い めだたい) which means happy or joyful. It is also generally considered a lucky food- which is also why taiyaki (soft buns filled with red bean jam in the shape of a fish) are named after tai when they basically could be any fish. I’m guessing red snapper is also in season during the New Year season, as the Japanese are very big on eating particular fish in their most delicious periods.

Why do the Japanese eat prawns for New Year food?

Prawns (海老 えび ebi) represent living to an old age because they are bent over like an old man. In fact the kanji for prawns is made up of the kanji for sea (海 うみ umi) and the kanji for old age (老 ろう rou, as in 老人 ろうじん roujin, old person)

Why do the Japanese eat kazunoko herring eggs for New Year?

The kazunoko (数の子 かずのこ)eggs represent having lots of children, although as people who are not child bearing age like old people and children also eat them there must also be a practical reason like being in season and being a preserved food.

More Japanese New Year stuff on:

Plastique monkey on why o-sechi ryori is a lame joke, with recipes

Gothamist on trying to get o-sechi ryori in New York.

Japan Guide Japanese New Year

Wikipedia Japanese New Year

Japanese Lifestyle Japanese New Year

Ampontan on mochi sticky rice, with pictures of the pounding process

What Japan Thinks on what the Japanese really think about New Year nowadays

Metropolis describes an o-sechi ryori much posher than I’ve ever seen, let alone eaten

2 Comments

  1. January 5, 2008 at 2:15 am

    [...] Japanese New Year stuff here (recently expanded and [...]


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