Japanese new year traditions

By Joshua M. Smith, Ph.D.

There are many Japanese New Year traditions that are still followed. New Year’s is one of the biggest events of the year in Japan. It is similar to Western Christmas’ where everyone gathers together for the holidays.

We lived in Nara, but usually every year we would travel back to my wife’s hometown in Fukui and spend the holidays with her parents and sister’s family, who came from Tokyo.

At midnight on New Year’s Eve, all over Japan Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times. The number 108 symbolizes the Buddhist belief of there being 108 human sins. The ringing of the bells relieves people’s 108 worldly desires. On television NHK features various temples throughout Japan ringing their bells from midnight.

On New Year’s Eve most families gather and watch one of the various New Year’s TV specials. In the past the Kohaku Uta Gassen aired on NHK was the most popular. However, in recent times there has been a lot of competition between yearly “best of” specials and mixed martial art competitions.

The traditional New Year’s feast is called osechi-ryori, However, more-and-ore this tradition has also faded with many people eating extravagant sushi or sashimi platters among other dishes.

Nengajo, or New Year’s Day postcards are another standard New Year’s ritual. Almost everyone participates in writing Nengajo to friends and families, with the post office guaranteeing them delivered on January 1st if mailed by mid-December. They are famous for hiring many mini-bike part-timers to help with deliveries during this season.

Most people use the Chinese Zodiac sign for the New Year on their New Year’s postcards, either with the Japanese Kanji character or the actual animal. 2011 is the year of the Rabbit.

Computers and emailing have not hurt this tradition at all, but many people do now opt for pre-printed cards as opposed to hand writing names and addresses.

On New Year’s Day, similar to Christmas morning, children are given Otoshi-dama, or a small paper pouch of money.

Hatsuhinode: is the celebration of watching the first sunrise of the year. Many people climb mountains or visit the ocean to get the best view before the sunrise on January 1. But I have to say that we have yet to participate in this custom. I have helped out at the temple ringing the 108 bells on New Year’s Eve, and well…we just aren’t morning people I guess.

The first visit to a shrine or temple is called Hatsumode. Many people visit the local Shrine or a famous Shrine sometimes after midnight New Year’s Eve until sometimes around the 10th of January. Each year at Fuefuki Jinja (The Flute Player’s Shrine) in Katsuragi, Nara, I performed on one of the days preceding New Year’s.

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