Before the Meiji Period, Japanese New Year was observed according to the Chinese lunar calendar. Japan only adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1873.
Japanese New Year is referred to as shogatsu by the local community. Compared to other countries, Japan celebrates this event for more than one day, usually from January 1 to January 3.
A relatively long list of traditions is followed by the Japanese people in the hopes of having a successful year ahead.
The Custom of Giving Otoshidama on Japanese New Year
Among all the practices observed by the Japanese community, the otoshidama stands as the favorite of the younger generations.
Otoshidama refers to the custom of parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents to give money to the youth. These monetary gifts are kept in a pochibukuro, a decorative envelope, and given to the recipients on New Year’s Day. Other countries also have their own version of this tradition, e.g. Scottish handsel and Chinese hongbao.
The Japanese tradition dates back to the Edo Period when wealthy families and massive establishments gave out small bags filled with Mandarin oranges or mochi to the public in order to spread joy all throughout the region.
Over time, the community found it a bothersome to have to think what item they could use as a gift and chose to give money, instead. This way, the fear of the recipient not liking the gift would no longer be a problem and the recipient would have all the freedom to buy what he wants.
There is no specific amount for givers to follow but the range goes from 3,000 to 15,000 yen. Older individuals generally receive more money compared to young children.
Otoshidama Practices and Facts
As with many other Japanese practices, there are certain dos and don’ts when it comes to observing otoshidama. Although tourists will rarely find themselves on the receiving or giving end of the Japanese New Year tradition, it is always good to be knowledgeable of the basic facts and its list of unsaid rules:
The recipients of otoshidama fall within the age group of 3-20 years old, which includes a child just starting out at school and a young adult reaching the legal age considered in Japan.
Otoshidama may be given by grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, close neighbors, and dear friends of the family.
A baby or young kid typically receives toys instead of monetary gifts.
For young children (7 years old and below), half of their otoshidama is often taken by their parent/s and put into a savings account for the future.
The amount of money given to the recipient increases according to his age. There is no strict rule that needs to be followed when it comes to the ultimate value but studies have shown that certain groups receive the following averages:
Elementary School Students: 2,000 – 3,000 yen per envelope
Junior High School Students: 5,000 yen per envelope
Senior High School Students: 10,000 yen per envelope
University Students: 13,000 - 15,000 yen per envelope
Amounts divisible by 4,000 are not given because the number four is believed to be a representation of death and bad luck.
Giving money without using a puchibukuro is considered rude. In addition, ordinary envelopes may not be used as alternatives as the puchibukuro features symbols, characters, and illustrations in line with the Japanese New Year.
Opening the envelope in front of anybody is seen as an impolite and disrespectful act.
According to surveys, nearly each member of the youth receives an average of 6 otoshidamas every Japanese New Year.
The most famous items the members of the youth spend their otoshidama on include clothing, mobile apps, music, and video games.
Other Japanese New Year Traditions
Besides the custom of giving out money to the younger generations, the Japanese community also follows many other traditions all in the hopes of getting a clean slate, achieving success, staying healthy, being on the good side of the gods and goddesses, and basically just having a pleasant journey ahead.
Some of the top or most popular Japanese New Year preparations and activities done from January 1 to January 3 include:
Hanetsuki refers to a traditional Japanese game that also goes by the name Oibane. The concept and rules of the game are similar to badminton, except that no net is used and the players use wooden paddles (hagoita) to play.
It can be played in two ways – with a single person keeping the shuttlecock off the ground for as long as possible or with two people batting the shuttlecock back to either one. The game is often played by or among girls.
According to legend, the purpose of the game is to receive protection from mosquitoes by keeping the shuttlecock up in the air for long periods of time; the longer the time, the greater the protection. Interestingly, cherries were initially instead of shuttlecocks during the first few years that hanetsuki was being developed.
Hatsu hinode is when the Japanese community goes to the beach during the early hours of the morning to wait for the sun to come up. The first sunrise is believed to be the most auspicious date of the year. According to the beliefs of the Japanese people, watching it will erase all the anger and stress of an individual and will simultaneously fill his life with a prominent sense of joy and love.
Hatsumode is among the busiest activities done by the local community on Japanese New Year. This tradition refers to the very first visit a person makes to a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine for the year. Since January 1 – 3 is considered a long holiday in Japan, millions of people visit the different religious places scattered across the country.
Besides praying for guidance and success for the upcoming year, visitors also engage in fortune telling activities and purchase different good luck charms known as omamori at the shrines or temples.
Joyanokane is a ceremony done by nearly every Buddhist temple in Japan on New Year’s Eve. It involves the temple bells being rung for a total of 108 times – 107 times on the 31st of December and once after midnight.
The number of times the bell needs to be rung symbolizes the 108 sins or worldly desires humans are guilty of. Given the countless temples scattered throughout Japan, the ritual serves as a nice reminder for the citizens to leave their bad habits or old ways behind and try to live a better life in the year ahead.
Interestingly, some temples allow visitors to ring the bell themselves to signify their willingness to start anew.
Kadomatsu is a type of decoration placed in front of a family’s house to welcome the spirits of their ancestors and to invite the god of harvest to celebrate New Year’s Day with them. The design of the kadomatsu differs from region to region but the most common materials used include plum tree sprigs, bamboo shoots, and pine.
It is put on display the day after Christmas and is left in the same spot until the seventh day of January. Several days later, usually on the fifteenth or nineteenth, some Shinto shrines hold special ceremonies for people to burn their kadomatsus to encourage and guide the ancestral spirits and god of harvest to go back to their own world.
Nengajo refers to the practice of sending out postcards to one’s family and friends during the Japanese New Year – similar to the Western culture that includes an unspoken tradition of giving out a holiday card during or around Christmas.
From the last few days or weeks of December to the start of January, the post offices in Japan are incredibly busy receiving thousands and hundreds of nengajo. Japanese post offices typically hire part-time students during Japanese New Year to ensure that each postcard is properly and timely delivered to the street it is meant to end up in.
The purpose of the post cards is to inform far away relatives or friends with one’s situation (health, family, special events, etc.). It is basically a means to keep in touch with one another and wish each other a blessed year.
Nengajo can be purchased from various stores and also come in digital mediums. Some of the most common greetings included in these ready-made post cards include:
Kotoshi mo yoroshiku o-negai-shimasu – which can be interpreted to mean “I hope to continue receiving your support this year”
Kinga shinnen – which means “Happy New Year”
Gashō – which is a Japanese saying that means “celebrating the month of January”
Shoshun/hatsuharu – which are terms used to refer to early spring (early spring was usually the time Japanese New Year was observed according to the lunar calendar)
Geishun – which is a Japanese saying that means “welcoming the spring season”
Omochitsuki serves as a lively event that involves pounding rice to make mochi and is held every Japanese New Year, among other days of the year. The traditional way of making mochi is done by skilled pounders who use a kine (wooden mallet) and usu (mortar) to continuously pound the rice in a rhythmic manner.
The process usually involves two people, one in charge of pounding the rice with the kine and the other in charge of keeping the mixture wet.
Afterward, the mochi is often cut into small, bite-sized pieces, added with condiments (sweetened soybean powder, soy sauce, daikon, or radish), then sold to the public.
Oosouji is a Japanese term that is used to refer to the tradition of cleaning houses before New Year’s Day. This practice usually starts during the last week of December and requires nearly all members of the family to thoroughly go through every nook and cranny of the house to ensure a deep cleanse.
Although it shares similarities with the Western custom of spring cleaning, oosouji is far more intensive in terms of energy and time. Some of the important tasks included in oosouji are washing the windows, cleaning under the furniture, dusting off dirt from hanging photographs or lights, and clearing out any clutter.
The purpose of the tradition is to signify a clean slate for the year, leaving behind any negative or bad vibes in the past. It is also believed that a clean house on New Year’s Day will attract gods and win their favor.
Osechi Ryori consists of a wide variety of Japanese food, all neatly packed in a beautifully decorated and stackable lunchbox-like set. At least fifty different dishes are included in the osechi ryori such as:
Chikuzenni (simmered vegetables and chicken)
Daidai (bitter orange)
Datemaki (sweet rolled egg omelet)
Ebi no Umani (shrimp)
Kamaboko (fish cakes)
Kazunoko (herring roe)
Kinpira gobo (burdock root)
Kohaku namasu (pickled carrots and daikon)
Konbu (boiled seaweed)
Kurikinton (mashed sweet potato and chestnut)
Kuromame (sweet black soybeans)
Nishiki tamago (egg roulade)
Tai (red sea bream)
Zoni (mochi soup)
Shimekazari refers to the decorative piece many Japanese houses and establishments hang up on their front door or porch. This item is typically made out of rice straw rope and features paper strips known as shire.
The purpose of the shimekazari is to ward off any evil spirits within the area and keep them from entering the building. It is similar to the ones hung up at Shinto shrines, except that this one is often embellished with good luck charms such as fern leaves (for a happy family), pine twigs (for longevity and power), a lobster (for luck and wisdom), and a daidai (for more generations to come).
Toshikoshi soba is a noodle dish that families eat on New Year’s Eve. The term “toshikoshi” literally means “the end of the year” when translated into English, while “soba” refers to buckwheat noodles.
According to local belief, eating the dish signifies the end of all the bad things one has experienced for the year and the promise of a new start once the clock strikes 12. In addition, the long, thin soba noodles are said to represent longevity.