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Oshogatsu (New Year's Day in Japan)

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: January 1
Where Celebrated: Japan
Symbols and Customs: Bells, Camellia, Crane and Tortoise, Daruma, Dreams, Gifts, Kadomatsu, Manzai, Mochi, Narcissus, Plum Bough, Rake, Shimenawa or Shimekazari, Utagaruta
Related Holidays: Chinese New Year, Sol


Several countries in Asia celebrate the new year at about the same time-including China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam-and with many of the same customs, such as offerings to household god(s), housecleaning and new clothes, banquets, ancestor worship, and fireworks. The date of the new year in the countries mentioned above is based on a lunisolar calendar, similar to or the same as the one used in China. The exception for this timing is Japan, which has employed the Gregorian calendar since 1873 and thus observes New Year's Day on January 1, though many older traditions remain.

The Chinese lunisolar calendar is based on the oldest system of time measurement still in use. It is widely employed in Asian countries to set the dates of seasonal festivals. The CHINESE NEW YEAR takes place on the new moon nearest to the point which is defined in the West as the fifteenth degree on the zodiacal sign of Aquarius. Each of twelve months in the Chinese year is twenty-nine or thirty days long and is divided into two parts, each of which is two weeks long. The Chinese calendar, like all lunisolar systems, requires periodic adjustment to keep the lunar and solar cycles integrated; therefore, an intercalary month is added when necessary.

Oshogatsu or NEW YEAR'S DAY is the most important festival in the Japanese calendar. Schools, banks, and offices traditionally close from January 1 until January 3, a period during which people visit their friends, relatives, and superiors. Visits made during the first three days of the New Year are usually very brief, and they focus on relatives and superiors, as dictated by the rules of Japanese etiquette. Individuals of less importance may be visited anytime within the first two weeks.

Shogatsu means "standard month," a reference to the fact that the standards people set for their own behavior during the first few days of the year can influence their fortunes for the next twelve months. Businesses, clubs, and groups of friends get together and hold year-end parties, a good opportunity to promote good will and patch up any lingering quarrels or misunderstandings. All unfinished business is taken care of, debts are paid, and the house gets a thorough cleaning. The idea is to start the New Year with a clean slate.

The preparations for Oshogatsu are quite elaborate. They begin on the twentythird day of the twelth month with the burning of the Kitchen God's effigy. The Kitchen God is a minor deity who lives with the family all year and sets out on the twenth-third day of the last month to file his annual report on the family's behavior, returning just before midnight on NEW YEAR'S EVE (see CHINESE NEW YEAR ). The burning of his effigy releases the Kitchen God for his "ascent" to heaven. While he is gone, the house is cleaned. At one time, a symbolic house-cleaning was carried out with a green bamboo duster whose feathery twigs and leaves represented prosperity and good fortune. Nowadays, cleaning house includes recovering or replacing all tatami mats, repapering sliding doors and screens, and burning the old paper charms pasted up in the kitchen or bedroom and replacing them with new ones. There is an old Japanese saying that the New Year must be greeted with a swept garden, a mended roof, a new dress, a clean body, a clear conscience, and an honest purse (i.e., no debts).

The actual arrival of the New Year is announced by the ringing of BELLS in all the Buddhist temples. In the morning, wakamizu or "young water" is drawn from the well with a wooden bucket to ensure good health for the coming year. Family members rise early, wash in wakamizu, put on new clothing, and sit together at the table for the first meal of the year. O-toso or sweet, spiced wine is served before breakfast as a token of celebration, first to the youngest member of the family and last to the oldest. According to tradition, the family that drinks o-toso will have no sickness, for the drink has the power to destroy evil spirits and invigorate the human body. Pink and white rice cakes (see MOCHI ) and many kinds of fruit are placed before the ancestral tablets in the family shrine. After the family feast is over, people toast each other and pay visits to their friends and relatives. Young girls and women play shuttlecock in long-sleeved kimonos, while men and boys fly kites and play with spinning tops.

Oshogatsu is believed to have evolved out of ancient Japanese rituals associated with seasonal changes, which were very important to farmers. The New Year celebration originally coincided with the WINTER SOLSTICE. It was believed that the dead visited the living at this time of year, and masked figures and troupes of dancers would go from house to house rattling bamboo sticks to scare off evil spirits. When the Western calendar was adopted in 1873, the New Year celebration was moved to January 1. Oshogatsu

A number of special foods are served on Oshogatsu. The national dish of the New Year's festival is o-zoni (literally "boiled mixture"), a clear or bean-mash soup that might contain vegetables or bits of fish or chicken. Other foods served during the festival have symbolic value-for example, kazu-no-ko or herring roe ("many children"); mame or black beans ("good health"); kachiguri or hulled, baked chestnuts ("victory"); and kombu or kelp ("happiness").



The arrival of the New Year is announced by ringing the bells in Buddhist temples 108 times. The ringing of the joya no kane or "end-of-year bell" is said to represent the leaving behind of 108 worldly concerns of the old year. Some say that ringing the bell purges the 108 weaknesses described by Buddha's teaching.


The flower associated with the entire first month of the Japanese New Year is the tsubaki or camellia, which blossoms from December right through to March. A hardy perennial, it symbolizes a long and healthy life. But because the blossom can just as easily drop from its stem before the petals are withered, it also serves as a reminder of inconstancy. Among the warriors of feudal Japan, the camellia stood as a symbol of the Samurai's readiness to have his own head fall at the stroke of an enemy's sword.

Crane and Tortoise

Both the crane (tsuru) and the tortoise (kame) are symbols of longevity. Cranes made by folding paper in a square are hung in homes at Oshogatsu or placed on trays of food as symbols of good fortune and long life. Crane-inspired designs can also be found on dishes, containers, and other household articles used during the New Year's festival.

A common song sung at New Year's in the Tokyo area is based on an early poem written by a Zen priest: "Cranes have a life of a thousand years;/Tortoises have the joy of ten thousand years./May your life prosper and continue/Longer than the cranes, tortoises, and bamboo."


The Daruma is a good-luck charm in the form of a doll. It takes its name from an Indian Buddhist priest named Bodhidharma, who sat facing a cliff in silent meditation for nine years. Because of this, he lost the use of his arms and legs. But he continued to travel throughout China, teaching people about Buddha. The Daruma doll therefore symbolizes inner strength and determination.

The Japanese purchase Daruma dolls during the New Year season in the hope that they will bring good fortune. Made of wood, clay, stone, or papier-mâché, the dolls have rounded bottoms, so that they'll return to an upright position if knocked over. They are usually painted red all over with the exception of the face. The eyes are very prominent and may be entirely black or white. The purchaser of the doll can then paint in the iris while making a wish. When the wish comes true, the other iris is painted in.


According to Japanese belief, the first dream of the New Year (hatsuyume) foretells one's fate in the coming year. Someone who dreams about ships loaded with treasures will have a happy and prosperous year. Dreams about the rising sun are also symbolic of good fortune, as are dreams about sea voyages. Although dreams involving snakes and swords would not ordinarily be associated with good luck, on this particular night they indicate that wealth lies in store for the dreamer. Dreams about rain mean that worries can be expected, while dreams about moonlight mean that things will get better. Earthquake dreams foretell a change in residence, snow portends happiness, and ice signifies that an arranged marriage will take place.


Oshogatsu is a popular time for gift-giving, particularly among adults. Servants are given new kimonos and pocket money, while all employees receive at least an extra month's salary. Typical gifts include eggs (symbolizing the wish for a well-rounded, complete life), fruit (especially round fruit, which represents good luck), and dried cuttlefish (symbolizing numerous offspring). Among casual acquaintances, typical gifts exchanged might include printed cotton towels, folding fans, or even a packet of matches. Unless the gift is a single object, it must be given in sets of three, five, or nine, which are the most auspicious numbers. Seven is considered an unlucky number, as are all even numbers with the exception of ten and, in some cases, two.

Oshogatsu gifts are usually wrapped in paper and string that is half red, half white-colors that represent the yin and yang principles of Chinese philosophy and together represent "completeness." The ceremonial string or mizuhiki might have originated as a rain-charm. Under it there is a square of red and white paper folded into the shape of a lozenge with a tiny piece of seaweed in the middle, meant to convey the idea that "This gift is but a seaweed in the ocean of your prosperity."

The gifts are opened after the caller has left. If a particular gift is found to be useless, or is too similar to something that the person already owns, a fresh piece of Oshogatsu

paper is wrapped around it, a new string is tied, and the package is passed on to somebody else.


First used in the seventeenth century, the kadomatsu is a decoration made from pine and bamboo that is placed at the front gate or on either side of the door to the house. It is put up at the start of the New Year season to ward off evil, promote growth and fertility, and bring blessings to the household. The pine (matsu) symbolizes constancy, morality, and the power to resist old age and adversity. Pine needles, which occur in pairs joined at the end, also symbolize married love and unity. Their sharp points are good for scaring off ghosts and evil spirits. The bamboo (take) symbolizes great strength under adversity, since it bends under a load of snow but springs back upright after shedding it. The bamboo is always cut on a slant so that any evil spirits will be snagged on its sharp points. Sometimes the fern (shida) is added to the arrangement to symbolize vigor and progeny.

Like Christmas wreaths, kadomatsu can be either very simple or quite elaborate. Although some houses have only a cluster of pine boughs, larger houses have far more elegant arrangements consisting of pine, bamboo, and plum blossoms-all cold-weather plants as well as symbols of congratulations and good luck. The kadomatsu is placed in front of the house to express the hope that the New Year will bring vigor, long life, and strength to everyone in the family. It is left in place until the seventh day, when only a sprig of pine remains as a reminder of the holiday that has passed and as an omen of the future. All decorations come down around January 14, when they are burned in a huge community bonfire. In rural areas, the kadomatsu is often thrown into a stream or river so that it will carry off any lingering sins or illnesses.

Nowadays the kadomatsu is not complete without an orange. A mandarin orange is often used, but it should really be a daidai, which grows into a real tree. The fruit matures in winter and, if left on the branch, becomes green again the following spring, making it an apt symbol of rebirth. The daidai's many pips represent offspring, and its color and shape resemble that of the sun. The daidai must never be eaten, since this would be symbolic of destroying prosperity. Sometimes the orange is accompanied by a boiled crayfish or ebi (prawn), a reference to the ancient Japanese saying, "May you grow so old that your back becomes bent like an ebi's!" And because the prawn turns red when it is boiled, it also symbolizes rebirth into a more prosperous future.


Manzai are like Christmas carolers. Dressed in ancient costumes and wearing tall hats known as eboshi, the singers go from house to house during the New Year's season singing songs and beating their tsuzumi or hand drums. This custom originated more than 1,000 years ago, when artists from China danced and sang in the imperial court as a way of conveying the season's greetings. Most manzai today are professional groups who sing and dance in return for a nominal payment, although amateur manzai can often be found in rural areas.

The original manzai dancer was a semi-religious figure, called in by high-ranking noblemen to purify their houses by chanting good-luck songs. Then he evolved into an amusing beggar who sang and danced to the accompaniment of an hourglass-shaped drum shouting, Manzai! Manzai! meaning "ten thousand years!"-a good luck wish. The traditional manzai dancer wears a black-and-white striped hat with a red sun-disk on one side and a silver full moon on the other. His face is covered by a smiling mask, and he holds a folding fan that he uses to "blow in" good luck.


Mochi or pounded rice cakes are a traditional part of the Japanese New Year celebration. They are made from steamed rice that has been pounded into a sticky paste and shaped into small round buns. In earlier times, families would get together to make their own mochi, and traveling mochi tsuki men would come around with their special pounding equipment. Although mechanized pounding machines have taken over the task in most areas, some rural families continue to make mochi from scratch.

A sambo or raised wooden tray holds the mochi, which are made somewhat larger than usual for New Year's. Because of their circular shape, with a flat bottom and slightly convex top, they are often compared to a mirror. Kagami mochi or "mirrored mochi" consist of a large rice cake surmounted by a smaller one and placed on clean white paper in the center of a sambo stand. They are a symbol of the hope for a brighter and happier new year. Rather than being eaten, the kagami mochi stand in the alcove or household shrine as an offering to the gods. On January 11, they are removed from the alcove and, if they're not too hard, are cut up and served to family members.

Sometimes kagami mochi are embellished with other New Year's symbols: the fern for progeny; seaweed for joy; the lobster or prawn for longevity; the persimmon for fecundity and a happy family; and the daidai (see KADOMATSU ), a type of orange symbolizing many generations.

The custom of eating mochi at New Year's goes back to the early ninth century, when it was widely believed that for each mochi a person ate, one year would be added to his or her age. Oshogatsu


The suisen or narcissus is a symbol of purity and fertility (sui means "water") and of the life that lies beneath the frozen snow. It was the holy flower of the temple for the Hindus, and some of the Indian lore attached to it may have reached Japan via Buddhism. Because the narcissus blooms right around New Year's Day, it has always been associated with luck in the coming year. A spray of narcissus wrapped in folded paper and tied with a red and white string (see GIFTS ) is a special emblem of the Oshogatsu festival.

Plum Bough

The blossoming plum tree (ume) is considered a symbol of feminine beauty, charm, and chastity-the counterpart of the masculine pine. Because the plum blossoms while the ground is still covered with snow, it is also a symbol of courage.

The arrangement of pine, bamboo, and plum known as shochikubai appears frequently in Japanese art. It represents the beginning of a new year and the wish for happiness and fulfilled hopes. If the season is advanced enough, a plum bough may be added to the vase of pine branches in the entrance hall and main room during the Oshogatsu festival.


One of the most popular objects purchased during Oshogatsu is a rake covered in trinkets. It stands as a symbol of "raking in" good fortune and prosperity during the New Year season.

Shimenawa or Shimekazari

The shimenawa or rice-straw rope is one of the most important household decorations during the New Year's festival. It is hung over the front and back doors, barn door, around the well, and up over the roof or under the eaves to bring good luck and keep out evil. The use of the shimenawa can be traced back to an old myth about Amaterasu-omikami, the Sun Goddess. After being abused by her brother, the goddess withdrew into a rocky cave and refused to come out and shine. The world was plunged into darkness. To draw her out, the other gods and goddesses staged a dance and played music. When she came out of the cave to see where the music was coming from, they stretched a rice-straw rope across the entrance so she couldn't go back in. For hundreds of years, the shimenawa has been used to designate the boundaries of a sacred area, whether it be a shrine, a temple, a tree, or a home. It stands as a reminder that the place is sanctified and free of evil spirits.

The wisps of straw that are twisted into the rope are designed to prick intruders or demons, who are very susceptible to being hurt by sharp things. Other symbolic objects may be woven into the shimenawa or attached to it, such as fern-fronds (symbolic of expanding good fortune), a small orange (the word for which in Japanese sounds the same as the word meaning "generation to generation"), or a section of lobster (symbolizing old age because of its bent back). Some scholars theorize that the shimenawa is related to the sheaves of corn hung up in European homes and barns as a charm protecting the crops from disease.

Sometimes the shimenawa is twisted into a knot like a pretzel-knots and loops having magical powers in Japanese mythology. The name for this ornament is shimekazari. Shimekazari charms are hung up near every entrance and on the walls of stables and warehouses to bring prosperity and good luck.

Unlike a normal rope, the shimenawa is twisted from right to left. In Japan, anything done in reverse is considered good magic. While the shimenawa is used locally at all Shinto festivals, either draped around a shrine or to festoon the streets, only at Oshogatsu is it used in the home.


A traditional pastime among young people in Japan around this time of year is utagaruta, an unusual game based on the work of Fujiwara Sadaie, a poet who died in 1242. He collected what he considered to be the best poems of his time and published them as "Single Songs of a Hundred Poets." In the game of utagaruta, these poems are divided into two sets, each set having one half of each poem. The object of the game is to find the matching halves and put them together as quickly as possible. Expert players are able to find a match almost as soon as the first syllable of the poem has been read. Sometimes utagaruta games are broadcast on the radio.


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BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/shinto/holydays/oshogatsu.shtml

Family Culture www.familyculture.com/holidays/japanese_new_year.htm
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Oshogatsu (New Year's Day)

January 1
This is the "festival of festivals" in Japan, also known as Ganjitsu, actually celebrated for several days. Government offices, banks, museums and most businesses are closed from New Year's Day, a national holiday, through January 3.
From the middle of December, streets are decorated with pine and plum branches, bamboo stalks, and ropes festooned with paper. Traditional home decorations are small pine trees with bamboo stems attached, which are placed on either side of the front entrance to represent longevity and constancy. For weeks before New Year's, people clean house and purchase new clothes for the children; this is also a time for exchanging gifts, sending greeting cards, and paying off personal debts.
On New Year's Day, it's traditional to pray at the household altar and to eat special foods, for example, steamed rice that has been pounded into small, round, gooey cakes called mochi . Herring roe is eaten for fertility, black beans for health, dried chestnuts for success, and porgy and prawns are omens of happiness.
Business resumes on Jan. 4, and the holiday period is over on Jan. 7 when decorations come down as part of the festival of Nanakusa Matsuri.
See also Hadaka Matsuri; Omisoka; Utakai Hajime
BkFest-1937, p. 194
BkFestHolWrld-1970, pp. 2, 14
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 181, 540, 730, 790, 871
DictWrldRel-1989, p. 374
EncyRel-1987, vol. 2, p. 553
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 63
RelHolCal-2004, p. 216
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.