Origins and History

Oshogatsu is the celebration of New Year’s Day in Japan. Its origins are similar to several Asian countries including China, Korea and Vietnam. Many of the customs are similar including the offering of household goods, housecleaning and new clothes. Other similarities include banquets, the act of worshipping your ancestors and of course, fireworks. The date of the New Year is based on the lunisolar calendar, similar to that used in China. Japan is the exception to this tradition having adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1873 and so observes New Year’s Day on the 1st of January. Many of the other traditions remain as they have for centuries.

It is believed that oshogatsu evolved from an ancient Japanese ritual connected to seasonal changes as these were very important to farmers. The New Year celebration at one time coincided with the Winter Solstice. There was a belief that the dead would visit the living at that time with troupes of masked dancers visiting houses and rattling bamboo sticks to scare away evil spirits.

Importance of this Festival

New Year’s Day or Oshogatsu is the most important festival to be celebrated in the Japanese calendar. Most businesses and schools are closed from January the 1st until the 3rd. During this period the Japanese people will visit their relatives, friends and superiors, these visits are usually very brief and are dictated by rules within the system of Japanese etiquette.

The meaning of ‘oshogatsu’ is ‘standard month,’ this is in reference to the standards set by people during the first few days of the New Year and is seen as the influence as to how the following 12 months will control things such as finances and happiness. Year-ending parties are held by businesses, clubs and groups of friends in an effort to promote things such as good will and to quell any disputes or misunderstandings over the previous 12 months. Any unfinished business is concluded, debts are paid off and the home is thoroughly cleaned in preparation for the New Year.

The Preparations for Oshogatsu

 

The preparations are very elaborate and begin on the 23rd of December with the burning of an effigy of the Kitchen God. The Kitchen God is just a minor deity that lives with the family during the year and is set loose on the 23rd of December to file his report on the family’s behavior (he will return just before midnight on New Year’s Eve). While he is gone the house should be thoroughly cleaned, including recovering or replacing tatami mats, repapering sliding doors and screens as well as burning old paper charms and their being replaced by new ones.

An old Japanese saying states that the New Year should be greeted with a swept garden, a mended roof, a new dress, a clear conscience and an honest purse.

How the New Yearis commemorated

The arrival of the New Year is announced with the ringing of bells in each of Japan’s Buddhist temples. Wakamizu, or young water is drawn from a well with a wooden bucket to ensure good health throughout the coming year. Families will wash using wakamizu, dress in new clothing and sit together for their first meal of the New Year.

Symbols and Customs

Bells

Bells are rung at Buddhist temples 108 times to signify the arrival of the New Year.

Camellia

The camellia is associated with the month of January as it blossoms from December through to March. It is a hardy perennial and symbolizes a long and healthy life. It is also a reminder of inconsistency as its blossom can drop from its stem before the petals wither.

Crane and Tortoise

Both are symbols of longevity. Cranes made of folded paper squares can be found in homes or placed on trays of food to help symbolize good fortune and a long life. Designs inspired by cranes can also be seen on dishes, containers and other household items used during the period of the New Year.

A popular song that is sung during the New Year is

“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.”

Daruma

A Daruma is a good luck charm in the form of a doll. It comes from Bodhidharma, an Indian Buddhist priest. He sat in silent meditation on a cliff for 9 years, losing the use of his arms and legs. Despite this he continued to travel throughout China teaching the Chinese people about Buddha. The doll is used to symbolize inner strength and determination.

Dreams

Japanese belief is that your first dream of the New Year will foretell your fate for that year. If you dream of ships loaded with treasure you will have a happy and prosperous year ahead. A dream involving the rising sun or one involving a sea voyage are symbolic of a year featuring good fortune. Should you dream about snakes or swords it can bring you wealth and happiness but only during your first dream of the New Year. A dream featuring rain means that you should expect worries of some form. Dreaming about the moonlight should see an improvement for you; earthquakes mean a change of residence, while snow means you will find happiness. A dream featuring ice signifies that an arranged marriage will place during the coming year.

Gifts

During oshogatsu, gift giving is a popular activity. Servants will receive a new kimono as well as pocket money. Employees can receive an extra month’s salary. Other typical gifts include eggs, fruit and dried cuttlefish. Unless the gift is given as a single object, then gifts should be given in sets of 3, 5 or 9 as these are the most auspicious numbers. The number 7 and even numbers are considered unlucky with the exception of 10 and on some occasions 2.

Gifts are usually wrapped in paper that is half red and half white, to represent the yin and yang principles of Chinese philosophy. The gifts are usually not opened until the caller has left. If the gift is not suitable, the gift will be rewrapped and given to someone else.

Kadomatsu

Kadomatsu date from the 17th century and is a decoration made from bamboo and pine. It is placed on the front gate or either side of the door to the house. They are displayed to ward off evil spirits, promote growth and fertility, as well as to bring blessings to the household. They are destroyed on the 14th of January in a ceremony of communal burning or the decorations are placed in a river or stream to take away any evil spirits.

Manzai

Manzai are similar to Christmas carolers, they dress in ancient costumes and wear tall hats known as eboshi. The singers will go from house to house during the New Year season and sing songs while beating their hand drums known as tsuzumi. This is a traditional custom dating back more than 1000 years. Originally, artists from China danced and sang in front of the imperial court to convey the season’s greetings. Most of the manzai that operate today are professional groups that perform for a nominal fee, although there are still a few amateur groups that perform in more rural locations.

Narcissus

Narcissus is seen as a symbol of purity and fertility. It was the holy flower of the Hindu temples and through Indian folklore it has found its way into Japanese culture through Buddhism. The narcissus blooms close to New Year’s Day so it has long had an association with the coming year. A spray of narcissus that is wrapped in folded paper and tied with a piece of red and white string is seen as a symbol of the oshogatsu festival.

Plum Bough

The plum tree is considered to be a symbol of feminine beauty, charm and chastity. The plum blossoms while the ground is still covered in snow, it is looked on as being a symbol of a woman’s courage.

Rake

One of the popular objects to be purchased during this festival is that of a rake which is covered in trinkets. It is seen as a symbol for raking in good fortune and gaining prosperity during the season of the New Year.

Utagaruta

This traditional pastime is based on the poetry of Kujiwara Sadaie who died in 1242. In this game his poems are divided into two halves and they are to be matched and placed together as quickly as possible.