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Japanese New Year

By: Jena Maddalino

Date Posted: 1999-12-24

In the Japanese calendar year, the beginning of the year represents one of the most important cultural events, and New Year has become a blend of both ancient and modern customs. New Year or Shogatsu, is the most important holiday in Japan. It lasts from January 1 to January 3. In Japan, each year is treated separately and the New Year is a chance for a fresh start. As such, December is the time for Bonenkai parties (year forgetting) and thorough housecleaning. Although the annual New Year events once had religious significance, many of these events have adapted to a more modern way of life.

In preparation of the New Year, Japanese households thoroughly clean their houses, which is known as 'osoji' or general house cleaning. Everything from windows to floors are washed down. The entire family (even the men) usually participate in this annual sanitary ritual. On December 31st, after the house cleaning has been completed, the model Japanese family would gather to eat a special kind of buckwheat soba, a custom that originated during the Edo Period of Japanese history. The noodles have great meaning because they are thought to represent long life and an accelerated release from sickness and debt.

Once the soba has been eaten and it is past midnight, family and friends greet each other with the phrase 'Akemashite omedeto' - a happy New Year salute. When it is officially the New Year, most families and couples set out to make their first visit of the year to the local shrine; this is called 'Hatsumode'.

In the past, the New Year celebrated the greeting of the 'kami' or spirits. It was thought that strict guidelines had to be followed to please the spirits and to ensure good fortune for the coming year. Such guidelines or customs included decorating the entrance gate of the home with pine branches or 'Kadomatsu', offering special rice cakes to the spirits and preparing dishes 'osechiryori' for the New Year.

The Kadomatsu is made up of a combination of pine and bamboo and is meant to represent wishes for long life and good health. Because the number of people that live in apartments has increased, fewer Kadomatsu are displayed. But it is still the custom of hotels, companies and department stores to place them at their entrance for the New Year.

In the past, every Japanese family prepared Osechiryori for the New Year season, but with the modern convenience of refrigerators and food stalls, Osechiryori is easily purchased at department stores. According to Ayano Matayoshi, a local resident of Okinawa, the Osechiryori in Okinawa is slightly different the mainland dishes. "Okinawa food or Ryuku ryori for the New Year is traditional to Okinawa and has some Chinese influence."

Another traditional act of the moment is the placement of the 'Shimekazari' or sacred straw inside the house to ward off evil spirits. Shimekazari were used historically to prevent evil kami from entering the house - and bringing misfortune to the family. Presently, people also attach Shimekazari to their cars and motorcycles to ward off possible accidents.

Of course, New Year would not be complete without Otoshidama - gifts of money to children. The custom of Otoshidama is said to have orginated from an ancient offering to the gods. Nowadays, New Year is a time for older relatives to reward young children of the family with envelopes of money. Children will delight in seeing how many envelopes they can collect for being good all year, or for doing exceptionally well in school.

Adults enjoy the act of giving Otoshidama. Xmas gifts are not in pure Japanese tradition, but the act of giving is universally treasured.

Before becoming a prefecture of Japan, Okinawa celebrated the New Year based on the ancient Chinese lunar calendar. The lunar year has 12 months, each 29 or 30 days long. The lunar month begins with the new moon, and the full moon always falls on the 15th. To keep this calendar in line with the solar calendar, an "extra" month must be added every 30 months. All traditional festivals in China, including the Chinese New Year, take place according to the lunar calendar. . Some cities in Okinawa still celebrate the New Year based on the lunar calendar. Itoman, for example, hosts a large celebration every February (lunar New Year). Because Itoman was once a Chinese import seaport, the traditional lunar celebration is still carried out.

Also introduced to Japan by China, are the twelve symbols of the zodiac. After the system was introduced to Japan, the Japanese used animal names to denote the twelve positions of Jupiter. They are the rat, cow, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and boar.

The Year 2000 will be the year of the dragon, which is considered to be the most fortunate zodiac year to be born in.

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