Japanese New Year, called “Shogatsu,” was originally celebrated on the same day as Chinese New Year, but since 1873, the Japanese have celebrated the new year according to the Gregorian calendar.
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The “Old New Year” date is still marked on Japanese calendars, but most keep up New Year’s traditions on December 31st through January 3rd. During this time, most businesses close and friends and families gather together for several days.
On New Year’s Eve, “bonenkai” or “year-forgetting” parties are held to help forget the problems of last year and to welcome a fresh, new start. It is traditional at this time to eat buckwheat noodles, drink sweet rice wine, and eat sushi. It is also traditional to prepare mochi rice cakes to eat on New Year’s Day by smashing boiled “sticky rice” with a mallet in a wooden container. The mochi is eaten directly, included in ozoni soup, and also used for making decorations.
Many begin New Year’s Day by viewing the sunrise and then going to a shrine for religious exercises. Meiji Shrine in Tokyo sees millions of visitors between January 1st and 3rd, and its giant bells famously ring in the new year at midnight on January 1st.
Other Japanese New Year’s traditions include: flying kites, playing a card game called “karuta,” playing Hanetsuki, which is much like badminton, and spinning tops. Many also give gifts of money to children in “otoshidama,” a highly decorative kind of envelope, send greeting cards to loved ones, and read traditional Japanese New Year poems, often in the poetic forms of haiku or renga.
Japanese New Year Activities
Should you be in Japan at the beginning of the new year, some things to put on your to-do list include:
- Watch the TV special “Kohaku Uta Gassen,” which has played every New Year’s Eve for decades. The show consists of the red team and the white team, made up of many of Japan’s most popular music artists, engaging in a “music contest.”
- Attend concerts and choir performances all over Japan to hear Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. This has been a New Year’s tradition in Japan since the early 1900’s, but it has been especially popular from the 1960’s on.
- Should you still be in Japan on January 15th, attend a Koshogatsu (“little new year”) festival. Originally, Koshogatsu came on the first full moon of the new year, which would land in mid-February on the old calendar. Now, it is kept by some in mid-January. There are religious observances of eating beans and “rice gruel” for breakfast and there are special events at temples. This is also the day when all the New Year decorations finally come down.
Japan celebrates New Year’s Eve and Day at the same time as Western nations and has done so for over 100 years, and yet, the traditions that are practiced during a Japanese New Year celebration are mostly very different than in any other country.