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Japanese New Year (お正月)

The Japanese celebrate New Year's Day on January 1 each year on the Gregorian Calendar. Before 1873, the date of the Japanese New Year (正月, shogatsu) was based on the Chinese lunar calendar, just as the contemporary Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese New Years are celebrated to this day. However, in 1873, five years after the Meiji Restoration, Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar, so the first day of January is the official New Year's Day in modern Japan. It is considered by most Japanese to be one of the most important annual festivals and has been celebrated for centuries with its own unique customs.
File:Kadomatsu M1181.jpg
(The kadomatsu is a traditional decoration for the new year holiday.)

Osechi-Ryori (御節料理 or お節料理)

Japanese people eat a special selection of dishes during the New Year celebration called osechi-ryōri (御節料理 or お節料理), typically shortened to osechi. This consists of boiled seaweed (昆布, kombu), fish cakes (蒲鉾, kamaboko), mashed sweet potato with chestnut (栗きんとん, kurikinton), simmered burdock root (金平牛蒡, kinpira gobo), and sweetened black soybeans (黒豆, kuromame). Many of these dishes are sweet, sour, or dried, so they can keep without refrigeration—the culinary traditions date to a time before households had refrigerators, when most stores closed for the holidays. There are many variations of osechi, and some foods eaten in one region are not eaten in other places (or are even banned) on New Year's Day.
(Osechi-Ryori (御節料理) / Image)

Another popular dish is ozōni (お雑煮), a soup with omochi (お餅) and other ingredients that differ based on various regions of Japan. Today, sashimi and sushi are often eaten, as well as non-Japanese foods. To let the overworked stomach rest, seven-herb rice soup (七草粥, nanakusa-gayu) is prepared on the seventh day of January, a day known as jinjitsu (人日).

Otoshidama (お年玉)

On New Year's Day, Japanese people have a custom of giving money to children. This is known as otoshidama (お年玉, otoshidama). It is handed out in small decorated envelopes called 'pochibukuro,' similar to Goshugi bukuro or Chinese red envelopes and to the Scottish handsel. 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.


The end of December and the beginning of January are the busiest times for the Japanese post offices. The Japanese have a custom of sending New Year's Day postcards (年賀状, nengajō) to their friends and relatives, similar to the Western custom of sending Christmas cards. Their original purpose was to give your faraway friends and relatives tidings of yourself and your immediate family. In other words, this custom existed for people to tell others whom they did not often meet that they were alive and well.

Japanese people send these postcards so that they arrive on the 1st of January. The post office guarantees to deliver the greeting postcards by the first of January if they are posted within a time limit, from mid-December to near the end of the month and are marked with the word nengajo. To deliver these cards on time, the post office usually hires students part-time to help deliver the letters.

It is customary not to send these postcards when one has had a death in the family during the year. In this case, a family member sends a simple postcard called 喪中葉書 (mochyuu hagaki もちゅうはがき, eng: mourning postcards) to inform friends and relatives they should not send New Year's cards, out of respect for the deceased.

By TS on Jan 1, 2011
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Author:T. SATOH