We are in the last few days of the year and it is almost 2018, the year of the dog in the Chinese zodiac. The New Year, or お正月(おしょうがつ) as it is known in Japanese, is one of the biggest celebrations in the Japanese calendar.
There are a lot of traditions associated with the New Year period, so what better way to learn a bit about New Year in Japan than to learn some new vocabulary? Here are ten words which should help you get a feel for how New Year is celebrated.
1. 年賀状/ねんがじょう Postcards
The custom of sending ねんがじょう cards started hundreds of year ago, as a way of sending new year’s greeting to relations who were too far away to visit in person. These are normally sent to the post office around 15th December in order to ensure delivery on 1st January.
Whilst the popularity of electronic messages are growing, the custom of sending cards is still widespread – you can buy premade cards or design your own. Modern cards even make use of VR!
2. 門松/かどまつ Kadomatsu (literally ‘pine gate’).
As the name suggests, these pine decorations are put in pairs in front of homes to welcome the kami Toshigami. It is believed that Toshigami visits homes to bring happiness on New Years’ day if he is invited into the home with かどまつ. かどまつ tend to consist of pine, bamboo, plum flowers and flowering kale. These are normally put out around Christmas time and stay outside until about 7th January.
3. 年末のお掃除/ねんまつのおそうじ End of year cleaning
This is the time of year when Japanese people undertake a thorough clean of their homes. It is thought to help purify the home to help welcome Toshigami in the new year. It is a great time of year to discover new cleaning products and tips. You may end up finding things you thought you had lost during the year!
4. 紅白歌合戦/こうはくうたがっせん Red and White Song Battle
The こうはくうたがっせん (usually abbreviated to こうはく) is a singing competition that takes place in the evening on New Year’s Eve (大晦日/おおみそか in Japanese). The competition has been a regular fixture on broadcaster NHK for over 60 years. Each year sees popular artists split into two teams, a red team for the female participants and a white team for the male participants (hence the name of the contest) who sing to become the overall winners of the competition.
5. はつもで First temple visit
The first visit to a shrine or temple to wish for health and prosperity for the coming year, called Hatsumode, is considered essential during the first few days of the year. Most people will do this before dawn on New Year’s Day, although some people visit on New Year’s Eve in order to witness 除夜の鐘/じょやのかね where a bell is rung 108 times just before the end of the year. Each ring of the bell signifies the 108 worldly desires thought to cause suffering in Buddhism.
6. おみくじ Fortune
During the first temple visit of the year, many Japanese people will write their wishes on little wooden plaques known as 絵馬・えま. They may also take the opportunity to get their fortune, called おみくじ. You draw out a paper slip and hope for a good result for the coming year!
7. 御節料理 おせちりょうり Osechi ryouri – New Year’s dishes
おせちりょうり is an assortment of dishes traditionally eaten during the first few days in the new year. Each food is thought to bring different types of prosperity for the coming year and are presented in a special box resembling a traditional bento box. You can read more about the kinds of おせち dishes at Just One Cookbook.
8. 餅/もち Mochi rice cakes
Aside from おせちりょうり, もち is eaten during the New Year period. Many communities will take part in the tradition of 餅つき/もちつき, the process of pounding the rice to make the rice cakes.
You may also come across 鏡餅/かがみもち in a Japanese house around the New Year. かがみもち (literally ‘mirror rice cakes’) are traditional decorations formed with two round pieces of もち stacked on top of each other and adorned with Japanese fruit that symbolise good omens for the forthcoming year.
9. お年玉/おとしだま Otoshidama
New Year’s for Japanese children is a lot like Christmas for children in the West, in that it is when children receive gifts from parents, friends and relatives. The gifts are in the form of おとしだま, gifts of money for children as a blessing for the coming year and are usually presented in a special envelope.
10. 福袋 ふくぶくろ Lucky bags
Around the New Year, many shops will sell lucky dip bags containing a number of the store’s items at a good price. Certain shops’ ふくぶくろ are extremely popular so you may need to line up outside the store to get hold of one. Even convenience stores sell lucky bags!
So that is my list, which turned out to contain quite a bit more than 10 new words!
What is your favourite New Years’ tradition (Japanese or otherwise)? Please let me know in the comments!