The Japanese New Year Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Japanese New Year

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A geisha girl in all her finery
Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu!
- 'Happy New Year!' in Japanese

The New Year in Japan is the greatest event of the year, probably the equivalent of Christmas in the West. It is regarded as a time for the reunion of families and friends. Unlike the lunar Chinese version, which falls in late January or early February, the Japanese New Year is in line with the Western version, starting on 1 January and lasting for between three and seven days.

Of course, traditions differ largely between areas and families, so there exists hundreds of variations. This entry presents an insight into a typical Japanese New Year.

Preparation: 27-31 December

The starting time for preparations may vary depending on a number of factors.


Because shops used to be closed during the New Year1, people needed to cook enough food to last for three days without it going bad. The food is called Osechi-Ryori, which literally translates as 'dishes for that season'. It consists of several kinds of cooked vegetables, beans, meat and processed fish that's been strongly flavoured to stop it from rotting, all packed into boxes. Sometimes the ingredients used are a kind of pun for words like 'well', 'healthy' or 'away with the demons'.

A typical box may consist of the following:

  • Mashed sweet potato with chestnuts
  • Sweet black beans
  • Little fish flavoured with soy sauce
  • Processed fish cakes
  • Egg rolls
  • Vegetables boiled and flavoured with soy sauce
  • Vegetables pickled in vinegar
  • Pork in a kind of teriyaki sauce


The New Year decorations are mainly red and gold. People used to put big wreaths of bamboo and pine branches tied together with rope on either side of their front gate, but these days the prices have gone up so much that most people put up a smaller version made of pine branches and white paper. The white paper comes from traditional Shinto shrines, where the gods of the area are said to live.

A common interior decoration is the kagami-mochi, made of rice cakes and an orange stacked to make a sort of snowman shape. This is eaten later in the New Year.

New Year's Cards

Instead of Christmas cards, people send each other New Year's cards. This is a white postcard with New Year's greetings and maybe pictures of the animal of the year on it. The animal is the same as for the Chinese New Year - for example, 2003 is the year of the sheep. These days it is popular to do it all on computer and print your own card. These cards should be sent during December, so the post office can deliver them on the morning of New Year's Day.

However, people are not supposed to celebrate the New Year if a family member has died in the past year. Such families cannot send or receive cards - instead they send cards earlier on to say they are in mourning. People who receive these cards must remember not to send New Year's cards to that family.

New Year's Eve

Noodles are served for supper. Each noodle represents a long life - they should therefore be eaten in one go without biting off in the middle.

Among the many New Year's Eve TV programmes, NHK's2 'Red-versus-white-song-battle' is the all-time favourite. This is a music programme where popular singers of the year divide into the red team (women) and the white team (men), sing the hits of the year. Later a panel of judges and the audience vote on which team did better.

Around midnight, the local Buddhist temple rings their gong-like bell 108 times, which is supposed to bring good luck. Note that this temple is quite different from a Shinto shrine. The Japanese are quite diverse in religion, having taken in rituals and traditions from many religions to form an original culture. Most people get blessed at a Shinto shrine as a baby, get married in a church and have funerals Buddhist-style.

The Real Thing: 1-3 January

People go to Shinto shrines to pray for the year to be a good one. This can be done during the day, but most people go straight after midnight, usually to their city's most famous shrines. Trains run all night for this event.

In the morning, Japanese sake (served in tiny plate-like goblets) and special tea are both drunk for health, and rice cake in soup is served. By noon, New Year's cards from friends, relatives and acquaintances arrive by post. After this, relatives may come over to celebrate, bringing boxes of New Year dishes.

Some people, mostly women, wear kimonos on this day, usually to visit shrines and other people's houses.

During the season, the children receive money from their parents, grown relatives and family friends as a sign of celebration. This can build up to quite an amount, but generally lasts for only a couple of shopping sprees while Mum vainly tries to get the money into a bank.

In the olden days there were many traditional New Year's games, such as kite-flying, top-spinning, a badminton-like game with wooden rackets, card games and board games. Outdoor games are now quite difficult to play in the city, what with too little open space and too many electricity wires overhead, but the indoor games are still popular and some schools hold their own card game competitions. They can also be played in family gatherings, and it is quite a sight to see drunken uncles fighting over who got the card first.

It is also traditional to write a piece of New Year's calligraphy. This is written in large handwriting on a longer piece of paper than usual. The word or phrase written may be something to do with the New Year, or a slogan or short resolution for the coming year. Many children have to do it for homework over the school holidays.

7 January

This is the final day of the season, and the last day of the holidays for most schools. Although most shops and companies start working from the 4 January, everyone is still in New Year mode for a few days. On this day people cook the seven herbs of the spring, which are:

  • Japanese Parsley
  • Shepherd's Purse
  • Cudweed
  • Chickweed
  • Japanese Nipplewort
  • Turnip
  • Japanese Radish
These herbs are put into porridge, and are yet another way of wishing for a healthy year. The herbs are good for the stomach, which has at this point had too much strong-flavoured food to digest.

11 January

This is the day for eating Kagami-mochi, which should have by now been standing on the TV/shelf/mantelpiece for days. Hardened rice cakes last for weeks and they might grow a bit of mould on them but that can be easily washed off and they're still edible. These days they come in plastic packages which keeps them fresh. People use a hammer to break the rice cake into pieces and cook it on a kind of barbecue to eat.

But Why All This Fuss?

Up until around 70 years ago, New Year's Day was everybody's official birthday. All babies were counted as one year old when they were born, and turned two on their first New Year's Day3. This made the event not only a celebration of a new year, but also a big birthday party. And being the only festive event in the year, people celebrated it as much as they could.

1Most still are, apart from the 24-hour stores which can be found every ten metres along most streets.2The Japanese equivalent of the BBC.3So babies born on 31 December would therefore become two years old regardless of the fact they were only one day old.

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