We left the year of the Tiger, which according to the Eastern tradition characterised 2022 with its speed, mutability, energy and impulsiveness, a year full of changes and opportunities, to enter the year of the Rabbit, considered a symbol of grace, culture, talent and ambition, a sign that needs a solid foundation to thrive, and therefore naturally featuring the ideal development of the previous year.
Thinking about how, and with what, the Japanese people celebrate the new year, I found myself making some parallels with the western world, to be honest even if I don’t know many of the more typically Italian, or at least western, traditions or habits, aside those more classic (disclaimer: not that I’m in favor of them all, I’ll just list a few at random) such as fireworks, wearing something red, throwing something old off the balcony, which fortunately I never saw again since I was a little kid (!!), kissing under the mistletoe, the first person met when leaving the house on New Year’s Day, or some particular food such as the classic lentils or the midnight toast.
All habits have in common the desire to attract good, or better, luck in the new year, and superstition is somewhat typical all over the world, obviously with different nuances. Whether it can relate to bell tolling, grapes, or other fruit, the number twelve dominates everywhere, recalling luck for each month of the year, while the red colour is not universally common, replaced for example with yellow or white in Central and South America. Our list for New Year’s resolutions can be replaced by a single wish that will be written and let floating on the water at midnight, while the most disparate but simple foods, such as bread, onions, potatoes are used as elements of good luck, or to predict it, if placed in particular areas of the house. Even sport has its importance on New Year’s Eve, with various marathons taking place in many corners of the world.
Facing a global comparison of traditions would be a particularly difficult task, so I limited myself to reviewing how a culture characterised by history, traditions and religions so different from ours can celebrate the arrival of a new year, and here is a certainly not exhaustive list, also without a particular order of importance, on typical tradition in the land of the Rising Sun.
First of all, I think it is important to remember that Christmas in Japan is a bit like Halloween in Italy, suraly an occasion for a celebration, but not deeply anchored in local traditions, imported because of globalization, without any negative meaning: therefore it is celebrated, but everything remains condensed within the single day and immediately forgotten starting from the following day.
On the other hand, New Year’s Eve has a deeper meaning, it is characterised by festivities that are more protracted over time and specifically spent with family and acquaintances, and whose tradition can only draw strength from Shinto and Buddhist doctrines linked to prosperity.
The Japanese not only celebrate the New Year with special attention and a suitable state of mind, but since each year is traditionally considered as a completely separated period from the others, all the chores, obligations and what one promised to do must be completed within the year that is closing. For the Japanese people it is an important habit, which a particular celebration is dedicated to, the bonenkai, a party to forget the old year, so that old worries and old problems are left behind, before facing the beginning of the new year.
It is worth mentioning that it is only since 1873, just after the Meiji Restoration, that the official Japanese New Year is celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar on January 1st (ganjitsu): the related festival (shogatsu) has its own recent traditions but still leaves space for some traditional events of the Tenpo calendar, the lunisolar one in use until 1872, or even up to the earlier calendar, based on the Chinese one called Jokyo.
A tradition similar to the western one is certainly the bell tolling, but at the stroke of midnight, Buddhist temples ring the bells a hundred and eight times (joya no kane), to ward off the one hundred and eight elements of the bono, the mental states that lead people to misbehave. The monks begin to ring the bells starting at 11.00 pm and the last tolling coincides with midnight, the beginning of the new year, signifying the need to leave old emotions behind.
From this first taste of Japanese traditions, some cultural differences begin to emerge, although the fundamental theme obviously seems to be common with Western.
The new year begins with one of the main holiday periods, oshogatsu, the longest of the whole year, which allows the Japanese to be able to reunite with their families or loved ones, and in this period it is typical to write greeting cards : they are the nengajo, a tradition that dates back to the Heian period (794-1185) when the nobility sent written greetings to acquaintances who lived too far away allow visiting them in person. But unlike the western ones, the nengajo also wink at brush arts such as poetry, calligraphy and painting, including the writing of haiku and renga, though with the typical greeting cards can therefore be intended as the first exchanged letter, hatsudayori, or the first gifted calligraphy, kakizome, or the first painting, fude hajime.
The decorations are also affixed to wish prosperity in the new year, and Toshigami, the Shinto deities of fertility and harvest, are called into question, to whom domestic decorations are dedicated, such as the kadomatsu, sections of bamboo suitably elaborated together with pine branches plum trees, everything a symbol of prosperity and longevity, which are usually placed on the sides of the front door. Like all decorations, kadomatsu are traditionally taken to a local temple to be burned in the original Heian period ceremony called dondo yaki, in mid-January, since it is not considered auspicious to throw objects away while fire is thought to be a purifying element when objects need to be eliminated.
Another typical decoration is the kagami mochi, consisting of two small rice cakes, the mochi, with a type of mandarin on top, a daidai: this tradition is more recent than the kadomatsu, having its roots in the Muromachi period (1336-1573), still of Shinto origin as the name reveals, which can be translated as “mirror cake” (in the period of origin mirrors were in fact round and regularly used in religious ceremonies), as it is believed that the mirrors, kagami, bring to mind the mochi of the decoration, while the daidai is again considered a symbol of prosperity, since it can be translated as “from generation to generation”. Instead of being burned like kadomatsu, kagami mochi are eaten around January 11th, but it is important to break it ceremonially with own hands or with a small hammer and never cut it with a knife, an inconvenient action as it recalls seppuku.
More similar to our chaplets, the shimekazari is another traditional decoration with a spiritual purpose: it is a garland typically hung on the door of the house, and it is made of rice straw rope, pine and occasionally a mikan, an orange, also everything symbolizing prosperity once again, as it is believed they prevent evil spirits from entering the house while welcoming the Toshigami.
For what might concern typical foods on the New Year’s menu, the toshikoshi soba undoubtedly stands out, the spaghetti, soba, of the passage of the year, toshikoshi. A tradition that is rooted back to the Edo period (1603-1867, it is a dish full of symbolism and good wishes: spaghetti in fact have the shape that represents a long and prosperous life, and they are easy to cut, action that symbolises breaking the bond with the previous year and looking towards the new.
Osechi-ryori is the traditional Japanese meal eaten on New Year’s Day, originating from the Heian period: it consists of three or four stacked bento boxes called jubako that are shared among family members. Each box contains small portions of well-prepared traditional Japanese food such as seafood, raw fish, pickled vegetables, and more. The symbolism in this case is hidden in the appearance or name of a particular ingredient. For example, slices of boiled fish are shaped to resemble the sunrise, while holes in sliced lotus root signify an unobstructed future. Another common ingredient, the shrimp, is said to represent longevity and old age, with a hunched back and long antennae resembling an old man’s arched back and beard.
When eating osechi-ryori it is also important to use a special type of chopstick called iwaibashi, whose characteristic is not only to taper at the end used to take the food, rather at both ends, because one side will be used by the diner, while the other side is believed to be used by deities. In fact, osechi ryori is something that is first offered to the deities, who then allows one to share it so that he is blessed with a fruitful year ahead. So even if one thinks it might be efficient to use both sides of the chopsticks to take food from the shared plate, it will be considered disrespectful action to the deities.
Together with osechi-ryori it is also traditional to drink sweet rice wine called otoso, a special sake which is said to drive away the bad luck of the past year and help with health in the new one, a wish that is also extended to any guests: it is served from a lacquered pot and poured into three shallow glasses of different sizes from which each member of the family sips, in order from youngest to oldest as tradition has it that older people can absorb some of the vitality from younger ones.
Back to more symbolic themes, Japan is also famous for its traditions related to observation and contemplation, such as the classic ones dedicated to cherry blossoms or to the moon: to celebrate the arrival of the new year, the Japanese do not miss another equally poetic occasion, ganjitsu, the contemplation of the first dawn of the year, called hatsuhinode, considered the exact moment of the Toshigami’s arrival. Since this day is believed to be representative of the entire year to come, this day is supposed to be extremely joyous and free from stress, anger and worries, during which no working activity should be performed.
Another tradition on the theme of contemplation and visiting is linked to the first prayer of the year with the first visit of the year to a temple: it is the practice known as hatsumode, in which when the whole family gathers in a temple to pray for positive actions and good luck wishes, for life in general, as well as relater to work, study and personal relationships.
Also, in temples it is possible to buy lucky charms, omamori, and fortune lottery tickets, omikuji, both very popular during the first seven days of the new year. At the same time the main sanctuaries collect the previous year’s old charms for the ceremonial burning, because tradition has it that a year of bad luck awaits those who keep the old amulets for another year.
Another typical object that can be purchased in temples at this particular time of the year is the hamaya, literally the “arrow to break evil”, a small arrow bought during hatsumode that will bring good luck in the new year.
In Japan, the first dream of the new year, hatsuyume, is another way to predict luck in the year that opens and it is necessary to pay particular attention to its main symbols so to interpret it correctly: the luckiest ones are Mount Fuji, because it is the highest mountain, the falcon, synonymous with intelligence and strength, and the aubergine, whose term in Japanese, nasu, is the same word used to define “making something great”.
Outdoor activities reach a different level of traditional interest also thanks to sporting activities. In Japan also, running is an activity practiced at all levels and that arouses particular interest on television. The New Year’s Ekiden is an annual relay race from Tokyo to Hakone that is followed by an audience from all over Japan: being the largest marathon event on national television, the high crowds are considered a great motivation for the pro runners. The sporting event lasts two days, divided into ten stages of approximately 21 km (half marathon) and creates topics for discussions and conversations throughout the whole holiday period.
Traditions linked to activities carried out within one own home involve instead classic games and the viewing with the whole family a television program known as Kohaku Uta Gassen, or more simply Kohaku, an annual holiday special whose name is made up of the kanji for “red” and “white”. In this event, the most popular music artists of the year are divided into two teams, one male (white team) and one female (red team) who compete in a singing competition and the winning team is proclaimed through votes from jury and public. Many Japanese singers believe it is the highlight of their careers, while for the audience at home it is a great way to sit back and relax before tackling the New Year’s grinds.
A very particular tradition, which in Italy is usually associated with Easter time, even if it is of Jewish origin, is the omisoka, a tradition full of symbolisms that recalls the preparation for the new year: this is house cleaning habit. Osoji is the term associated with “big cleaning”, and it is a tradition the whole family applies to for a complete and deep cleaning of the house, when everything that is not necessary is thrown away. The Japanese believe that a clean and tidy home clears the mind and ensures that one is ready to welcome in the new year, and especially, it is important that the house is immaculately clean before the Toshigami arrive.
Entering the realm of more purely commercial activities and leaving the food and contemplations in favor of something similar to our sales at the beginning of the year, another typical custom is that of fukubukuro, literally translatable with “bag of fortune”, for which shops and department stores fill bags with random leftover items from the past year and sell them at a substantial discount. It is said that the tradition derives from a Japanese proverb which says “there is luck in leftovers” (Nokorimono ni wa fuku ga aru) and thanks to this custom everyone can take advantage of the deep discounts, so as to see very long queues outside the shops since before opening on New Year’s Day.
Money will not bring happiness, but even in Japan the custom of giving money to children has developed, a tradition derived from that of leaving offerings of kagami mochi for the Toshigami. Over time this practice developed into what is now known as otoshidama, in which adults give their children an envelope containing money, usually between 2,000 and 10,000 yen (roughly 15 to 70 euros) depending on their age. The money is delivered in special decorative envelopes, pochebukuro, which usually depict that year’s zodiac animal or other traditional Japanese symbols.
Therefore, taking a look at one’s past year and thinking about what can be expected in the new one, the projects to be implemented, the constant commitment with which to apply oneself not so much to achieve a result to be proud of but for the awareness of having acted in the best way of ways, knowingly and with determination, regardless of the outcome, all that remains is to set off towards a new stage of one’s journey, which I wish everyone to be as dense as possible with emotions, feelings and actions, in the name of the Rabbit, who do not like conflicts and whose characteristics indicate tranquility, kindness and elegance, portends a year of peace and prosperity.