In ancient times, the Japanese New Year (shogatsu) followed the same lunisolar calendar as Chinese or Korean New Year (at the beginning of spring). Now January 1st is fixed as New Year's Day for Japan. It is one of the most important festivals of the whole year. New Year's Day is a traditional festival which has been celebrated for centuries and has its own unique customs.
Traditional Japanese New Year's Food
Japanese people eat a special selection of dishes on New Year's Day called osechi. Some of the popular foods included in osechi are miso soup with mochi (sticky rice cakes) and vegetables (ozoni), sweetly boiled seaweed wrapped tuna fish (kobumaki), jellied fish paste (kamaboko), mashed sweet potato with marron (kurikinton) and sweetened black beans (kuromame).
Many of the traditional dishes are sweet or sour because they kept better - most of the stores used to close for about a week and the refrigerator had not been invented yet. There are many variations of osechi foods, and some foods eaten in one place are never eaten in other places (or are even banned) on the New Year's day. Today, sashimi and sushi are often eaten, as well as food like pizza, fried chicken, and ice cream. To let the overworked stomach rest, Nanakusa gayu (Seven vegetable rice soup) is prepared on the 7th day or 15th day. The special food prepared for New Year's Day is a joy for many Japanese.
New Year's Day Postcard
Japanese have a custom of sending New Year's Day postcards (???, nengaj?) to their friends and relatives. It is similar to the European custom of sending Christmas cards. Instead of sending Christmas cards, Japanese people send these postcards so that they arrive on the 1st of January. The end of December and the beginning of January are the busiest times for the post office.
It is customary not to send postcards when one has had sorrowful tidings during the year. In this case, a simple postcard is sent instead to inform friends and relatives that they should not send joyful New Year's cards, in order to show respect for the dead in Japan.
Although these New Year's cards have become a widely-observed custom, its original purpose was to give your faraway friends and relatives tidings of yourself and your immediate family. In a manner of speaking, this custom exists for a person to tell others that they do not meet often that they are alive and well.
Most of the postcards have the Chinese zodiac sign of the new year as their design. Japanese people have a cycle of 12 years. Each year is represented by an animal. The animals are, in order: Mouse, Cow, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Bird, Dog, Boar.
The order cannot be changed; for example, Year 2004 is Monkey and Year 2005 will be Bird. Those animals are traditionally incorporated into the New Year's Card design. Because a gregarious individual might have several hundred letters to write, printing services offer wide variety of sample postcards with short messages so that he or she only has to write addresses. The custom may be in decline as young people tend to send emails instead, but it is still very popular.
Otoshidama - Pocket Money
On New Year's Day, Japanese people have a custom of giving pocket money to children. It is handed out in small decorated envelopes called 'pochibukuro', descendants of the Chinese red packet, and is called otoshidama. In the Edo period, large stores and wealthy families gave out a small bag of mochi and a Mandarin orange to spread happiness all around. The amount of money given depends on the age of the child but is usually the same if there is more than one child so that no one feels slighted.
Another custom of the Japanese is making rice cakes. Boiled mochigome (glutinous rice) is put in to a wooden shallow bucket like container and patted with water while another person hits it with a large wooden hammer. By mashing the rice, the rice gets sticky and forms a sticky white dumpling. This is made before New Year's Day and eaten during the beginning of January.
Japanese New Year and Poetry
The New Year traditions are also a part of Japanese poetry, including haiku and renga. All of the traditions above would be appropriate to include in haiku as kigo (season words). There also haiku that celebrate many of the "first" of the New Year, such as the "first sun" (hatsuhi) or "first sunrise", "first laughter" (waraizome - starting the New Year with a smile is considered a good sign), and first dream (hatsuyume).
Along with the New Year's Day Postcard, haiku might mention "first letter" (hatsudayori - meaning the first exchange of letters), "first calligraphy" (kakizome), and "first brush" (fude hajime).
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