The 5 New Year Traditions in Japan

The New Year is called “お正月 (Oshōgatsu)” in Japanese.
Japan is a country located in East Asia, but unlike other East Asian nations, we do not celebrate the Lunar New Year. So when we say “Oshōgatsu”, it refers to the New Year in the Gregorian calendar. In contrast to Christmas in Japan, New Year’s in Japan is generally spent with family. Here are some of the typical “Oshōgatsu” traditions that are still passed down today.

Osechi (New Year’s assorted dishes) and Ozōni (New Year’s soup with mochi)

“おせち (Osechi)” is a traditional New Year’s food. Several kinds of traditional dishes are packed in square stacked containers. Each traditional dish is made with wishes for the family’s success, prosperity, health, and longevity. It is eaten little by little from the morning of the 1st of January to the 3rd of January. 

“お雑煮 (Ozōni)” is a soup made with mochi (rice cakes) and various other ingredients.
People used to make mochi from the rice harvested the previous year and offer it to the god of the new year. It was believed that once the mochi was offered to the god, the spirits of the god would remain in the mochi. Therefore, they started to eat the mochi with soup to get  (shared by god) strength to live a healthy life in the new year. It is a traditional New Year’s dish that has been handed down since the Heian period (“794-1185”).

Otoshidama (New Year’s money gift for children)

“お年玉 (Otoshidama)” is a money gift that only children can receive.

In the old days, heads of households shared mochi (rice cakes) with people (not only children) after offering to the gods. However, about 60 years ago, fewer people were engaged in rice farming, and the style was changed to giving money to children, especially in urban areas.

It varies from family to family, but most children can receive “Otoshidama” until they enter college or until they become 20 years old. 

Nenga-jō (New Year’s Greeting Cards)

A New Year’s greeting postcard is called “年賀状 (Nenga-jō)”. On the postcard, people write a message wishing the recipient good health and happiness in the New Year and good friendship with the recipient in the New Year.

If you write “年賀 (Nenga)” on the postcard and send it between December 15 and 25, the letter will be delivered on the 1st of January. Our parents’ generation (over 50s) sends many New Year’s cards to their relatives, friends, and even business contacts. There are many services for making New Year’s cards.

Family Gathering

On New Year’s Day, we often visit relatives’ homes for New Year’s greetings, where we eat food, and children receive Otoshidama (money gifts). (Gatherings with relatives are usually boring for children, but they go anyway to get their Otoshidama.) The New Year’s vacation lasts until the 3rd of January; many people spend the 1st and 2nd of January visiting relatives, the 3rd relaxing before returning to school and the office on the 4th.

Hatsu-moude (First Shrine Visit)

Even people who usually consider themselves Buddhists (Japanese people generally don’t have much of a religious concept and take in many different religious events.) On New Year’s Day, they visit Shinto shrines and wish for a successful year. (This is called “初詣 [hatsu-moude]”.)

People line up to pray at Shinto shrines (sometimes waiting for several hours at famous shrines). Since so many people are waiting in line in the cold weather, amazake, a non-alcoholic warm sweet rice drink, is sold around the shrine.

Happy New Year! Best wishes from everyone in Team JD. Have a wonderful year 🙂

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