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Friday, January 2, 2015

Japanese New Year's Day Traditions

Japan is a land of contradictions. Far too many to recount in a single blog, and far too many for me to even claim to know on my own.

But I do love Japan's grudging "willingness" to take on the new while never forgetting about the old.

It's a gone-but-not-forgotten kind of thing... kind of what I do here in this blog.

To recap what I mentioned yesterday, when the Meji Emperor (明治天皇 or Meiji-tennō) of Japan (the 122nd Emperor of Japan who reigned from February 3, 1867 until his death on July 30, 1912) took over, things began to become more European or Americanized. Until the 1850s, for 250 years Japan had remained cloistered - shut off from the rest of the world, shunning foreigners and forbidding its populace from traveling outside its borders.

It's what the former U.S.S.R., East Germany and China had done, though all have relented... though even during the cold war era, foreigners were allowed in to those countries. I think North Korea now stands alone in this shutting out of all things foreign, making it the black sheep of the global family.

But back to the Meji period of Japan... after the United States had forced the Japanese under threat of well... threats... Japan reluctantly allowed the exchange of foreign culture into its borders. Truthfully, however, the Dutch and the Chinese had been doing trade with Japan during that 250 year shut-in, but aside from guns, and maybe some new pottery techniques, not a heck of a lot of growth had occurred in Japan because of it.

But with the Meiji era coming in... Japan banned its samurai class from being the only warriors of the nation, and instead formed its own army and navy to protect itself... but a piss-poor job it did, as much of Japan's culture began to erode - sort of - to be taken over and replaced with more Western elements... like clothing... art... politics. It even changed the way it kept time... and even its dates.

In 1873, the Meiji Emperor made the switch from the Asian calendar to the Westernized Gregorian calendar which meant that the new year no longer began in February per China, Vietnam and Korea and their concepts of an early Spring, but now began on January 1. Happy new concept of dates!

Spring-time it ain't, if I may be so colloquial. January 1 sure isn't Spring... at least it isn't for those of us in the northern climes where it will still snow for another two or three months, like it will in Japan.

Known as Ganjitsu (元日 or Ganjitsu), New Years Day is celebrated as January 1. However, Japan still manages to hang onto its past by honoring the old ways via its celebration of the Chinese lunar calendar by denoting the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac as specific years.

For example, my son was born in 2005, and thus was born in the year of the Rooster. I was born in the year of the Dragon in the Year of mind your own damn business.

According to the Chinese calendar, its year will start anew on February 19, 2015, and will be the year of the Sheep or Ram depending on whether or not you can see its genitalia.

For the record, the traditional dates of the year and the four seasons in Japan (excluding Rainy) are: 

English       Japanese    Romaji Traditional dates
Spring haru      February 5 – May 6
Summer natsu      May 7 – August 8
Autumn aki      August 9 – November 7
Winter fuyu      November 8 – February 4

Hmm... being born on November 8, I am a Winter person, Alice an Autumn when one must brush a leaf from her sleeping face. I like Alice in Wonderland. So sue me.

Here's the part that explains everything: Even though Japan has celebrated the birth of 2015, and the actual Chinese new year doesn't begin until February... Japan has already adopted 2015 as the Year of the Sheep/Ram as of January 1. Japan is confusing.

So... what do the Japanese DO on January 1 to celebrate the new year of the Sheep/Ram? Plenty of things.

For most westerners it would just be nursing a hangover, watching football games or maybe a hockey game played outside, or if you are like me read a book while the television and computer are monopolized by others... but the Japanese... they still have old traditions and new traditions to make for one busy day.... especially if you are a woman. 

On New Year's Day, there are many celebrations... or rather traditions that the peoples of Japan partake in.

You'll notice I did not say 'enjoy'... because I am unsure just how much joy is taken in performing duties one HAS to perform... you know, like writing a blog everyday... Just kidding... I enjoy it.

Here's the list:
  • Bell ringing: see my story HERE from yesterday that shows HOW the new year is ushered in;
  • Food, baby! There are traditional foods to be consumed, which means someone (the women) have to make it. But it's not just everyday foods like the frozen pizza and wings I had today for dinner, there are special dishes like: osechi-ryōri (御節料理 or お節料理), which is boiled seaweed known as konbu (昆布); kamaboko fish cakes (蒲鉾); mashed sweet potato with chestnuts known as kurikinton (栗きんとん); simmered burdock root known as kinpira gobo (金平牛蒡); and sweetened black kuromame soybeans (黒豆). Burdock, by the way, is that type of burr that gets stuck to your dog when it goes out into the tall grass and is a pain in the butt to brush out. The key to each of these meals is that they are holdovers from the time before refrigeration, so they are sweet, sour or dried. Of course, nowadays not everyone in Japan feels the need to suffer such fare, and like my pizza and wings, many opt for sushi or sashimi or whatever the hell they feel like eating.
  • Mochi, the most deadly food made in Japan that I bet kills more people every year than ill-prepared poison fugu (blowfish). I've written about this in the past, HERE, but just know that it is rice cakes that are made from pounded rice... it's ultra chewy and along with the many seniors and young children who die from biting off more than they can chew, it nearly took me, as well... henceforth realizing that despite being young, having good chompers and strong jaw muscles and an abnormally thick and wide tongue (I have no idea why I mentioned that), smaller - even smaller - nibbles are required to survive further into the new year.
  • Postcards - known as nengajō, which we will actually go into greater detail tomorrow - but essentially, everyone in Japan sends off new year's greetings to damn near everyone they have ever met. To my great shame, I never participated in this wonderful tradition, though many of my foreigner friends did... it was just something I never seemed to think of until the damn things started pouring in to my mailbox - and by then it was far, far too late. As well... after sending omiyage (presents) back home to everyone in Canada, I was usually dead broke and probably couldn't have afforded the postcards - yeah... that's the reason. :(
  • Otoshidama - the bribing of children with envelopes of money. I've seen this sort of stuff done at First Communions, birthdays and Bar Mitzvah's... but in Japan, small decorated envelopes known as pochibukuro have money placed in it. It's supposed to be an amount relative to the age of the kid, but I bet few follow such an extravagance, giving up to ¥10,000 (US/Cdn $100). Heck, when I was a kid, my uncle would slip me $10s or $20s just when he visited every other week - all things which helped me grow my comic book collection. Birthdays? Yeah, $100 wasn't out of the question. I miss being a kid, mostly because I think I had more money then.
  • Poetry - yes... probably a hold-over from the days when a samurai might compose a poem before going out and slaughtering some people on the battlefield. I think that I shall never see. A poem lovely as a tree. Which must be stupidest lines I have ever read, because dammit... open your eyes... your ears even... and listen to the poetry that is the world. That's what you get when you are a man from New Jersey. And named Joyce. In Japan, people either create haiku poems (17 syllable poems) or renga (linked poetry) or read some already written professional stuff. But here's the thing... these poems celebrate the season... which in this case would be Spring using what is known as kigo (season words) such as hatsuhi (first sun); waraizome (first laughter); or hatsuyume (first dream)... all things that are Spring-like... just not on January 1... but prior to 1873 when the New Year was celebrated in February... that would work. Being a writer, I have a healthy respect for poetry, but creating it just because a holiday demands me too? Uh-uh. Talk about holding onto traditions that should be put to bed.
  • Games. I like games. I had a vast collection of board and then video games when I was kid... but here's the cool thing about Japan... its games are traditional, including: hanetsuki (badminton - I have my over-sized racquet - photo at the top of this blog - the foam racquets of the 21st century are in juxtaposition with the video game on TV my son is playing); takoage (kite flying) - yes... go fly a kite in the snow on January 1; koma (wooden tops like a dreidel); sugoroku (a board game similar to backgammon); fukuwarai (whereby a blindfolded person places paper parts of a face, such as eyes, eyebrows, a nose and a mouth, on a paper face - pin the tail on the donkey Japanese-style); and karuta, a Japanese card game we'll look at one day.
  • Beethoven's Ninth Symphony... I don't get it, but having learned and taught both piano and clarinet via classical music training, I find it intriguing. I find it odd that with all of the Westernization that was going on from the 1850s on up in Japan, that people seem to actually believe that Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was only first introduced by German prisoners-of-war during World War I, when Japan was an ally of the Americans et al. To that belief, I say phooey. Still, it may have become MORE popular then with the Germans performing it for their jailers. During WWII, the Japanese imperial government encouraged the performance of Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 as some sort of ode to joy of allegiance to Japanese nationalism. Despite a ban on its performance in the heady days after WWII, when the American occupation left Japan, it came back, and is traditionally performed throughout Japan during the New Years season.
That's all the tradition I can handle for now. Nengajō or New Year's Postcards are up next.

Until then - Happy New Year!

Andrew Joseph


  1. 明けましておめでとうございます,アンドリュー先生!

    1. Thanks, Matthew (and Google translate!) Happy 2015 to you!