▶ The Japanese send greeting cards in the summer and at the beginning of the New Year. The summer card is to wish for health in the hot season. The New Year card is to wish for health and happiness in the New Year.
▶ These customs have been important for networking among friends and businesses. The New Year card is especially important, like Christmas cards in the West.
▶ The Japanese buy special postcards sold at post offices for the summer and New Year greetings. These cards have numbers for a lucky draw. If you receive one, please check the number on your card to see if you won something!
- 1 New Year’s Greeting Cards
- 2 Otoshidama
- 3 Junishi
- 4 Ochugen
- 5 Oseibo
- 6 Seals
- 7 Meishi
- 8 Family Crests
- 9 Bonenkai
- 10 Manekineko
- 11 Shichifukujin
- 12 Oni
- 13 Jizo
- 14 Daruma
- 15 Japanese Paper
- 16 Chopsticks
- 17 Wrapping Cloth
- 18 Noren
- 19 Japanese Collapsible Fans
- 20 Abacuses
- 21 Kokeshi
- 22 Nihon-Ningyo
- 23 Kimono
- 24 Ceramics and Porcelain
- 25 Lacquerware
- 26 Geisha
- 27 Ninja
New Year’s Greeting Cards
People write and send post cards as New Year’s greetings in December, to be delivered on New Year’s Day. They are to wish each other a happy new year and often have a picture of that year’s zodiac animal printed or hand-painted on them. They’re sent not only to friends and relatives but to business associates, so some people send and receive over one hundred cards. This is similar to the Western practice of exchanging Christmas cards.
During the New Year’s season, Japanese children are given small envelopes containing money called “otoshidama” by their parents and relatives making their first visit of the New Year. This custom descended from the practice of distributing rice cakes which were offered to deities and given among relatives as a token of blessing for the New Year. After the Meiji era, gifts of money became more prevalent. Sometimes children have more money than their parents during this period.
In ancient China, people used 12 animal symbols to indicate years, months, days, time, directions and other things. This system was introduced to Japan as early as the 5th century. The animals are: the rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, serpent, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and boar. There are some annual events related to this calendar. For example, people eat eel on the day of the ox in mid-summer to recover from fatigue. Fortune telling based on junishi is also popular.
Ochugen is a gift given as a summer greeting around mid-July to superiors or customers as a token of special thanks for their daily help. This custom is practiced not only among individuals, but among companies as well. The ancient Chinese calendar had three seasons a year, and people made offerings to the gods at the beginning of each one. Chugen is the start of the year’s second season. That’s the origin of today’s gift-giving custom, Ochugen.
Oseibo is a year-end gift given around mid-December, with the same aim as Ochugen. Seibo means the end of the year in literary Japanese. Conveniently, Ochugen and Oseibo are both given around biannual bonus time so people can usually afford to spend extra money on them. Department stores are flooded with people looking for gifts during the weekends before Ochugen and Oseibo are given.
In Japan, hanko seals are used in place of a signature. A hanko is a small, cylindrical object with one’s name engraved on the surface of one end. It is usually made of wood, but ivory and stone are also used. There are two types of hanko: jitsuin, which is registered with the local government, and mitomein. Jitsuin are not for everyday use, but they’re necessary for public documents such as major transactions and contracts. Mitomein are used not only in business but in everyday situations such as doing bank transactions or receiving registered mail. People usually buy ready-made mitomein but jitsuin must be ordered because they’re engraved by hand.
Meishi are indispensable for doing business in Japan. When business people meet for the first time, they introduce themselves and exchange meishi, or business cards. Meishi list not only one’s full name, but also one’s company name, job title, company address and phone number, and e-mail address. Younger or lower-ranking people are supposed to offer their meishi first. People use both hands when they are giving and receiving a meishi to show their respect.
Family crests first appeared in Japan during the Heian period when aristocrats placed their favorite designs of plants and flowers on clothes and cow carriages. Warriors then began to use family crests with more geometric designs on their flags to identify themselves on the battlefields. Though powerful merchants and kabuki actors were permitted to use them in the Edo period, ordinary people have been able to use family crests freely since the Meiji period. Today, family crests can be seen on ceremonial kimonos, called “montsuki.” There are said to be more than 10,000 different family crests in Japan. Only the family of the emperor can use the crest bearing a chrysanthemum with sixteen petals.
Bonenkai literally means “forget-the-past-year party.” It is a party held at the end of the year to forget whatever difficulties and unpleasant things happened in the year by drinking and having fun. They’re usually thrown by company employees and groups of people who share the same interest. People hold bonenkai in restaurants, pubs and karaoke bars.
Manekineko are cat-shaped ceramic ornaments which people place in the entrance halls of restaurants or shops. Cats are considered to invite people and fortune into their owner’s homes, therefore manekineko have one paw raised to beckon them inside. It is believed that cats with their right paw raised beckon fortune and those with the left paw raised beckon people.
These are the Seven Gods of Good Fortune which are believed to arrive on a ship full of treasures and bring people good fortune. They are modeled after Indian gods, with the features of Chinese and Japanese gods. One of them, called Daikokuten, who stands on bags of rice with a lucky hammer and a big sack in his hands, is the god of agriculture. Ebisu, who holds a fishing rod, is the god of fishing and commerce. Shichifukujin were first worshipped in the Muromachi period and became popular in the Edo period. Even today, during the New Year’s season, many people visit shrines and temples which house shichifukujin statues.
Oni is an imaginary evil creature which was described in “Kojiki,” the Record of Ancient Matters, written in 8th-century Japan. Gradually, a stereotypical image of the oni was created by the people. It has a furious expression, horns, fangs and wears nothing but a tiger skin around its haunches. Sometimes ancient rulers regarded their political or religious enemies as oni which gave them an excuse for conquering them. Oni appear in many Japanese folk tales such as “Momotaro,” and the word oni is used even today to describe people who show no mercy.
Jizo is one of the most popular Buddhist bodhisattvas in Japan. Jizo is believed to be the guardian of the Earth who saves all living things after the death of Buddha, before the appearance of the benevolent bodhisattva. Many Jizo statues wear a red baby’s cap and bib which people offer because they believe Jizo helps dead children go to the Buddhist equivalent of Heaven.
Daruma is a roly-poly papier-mâché doll modeled after the Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidarma who founded Zen Buddhism. It is said that Bodhidarma sat meditating on a rock, facing a stone wall, for nine years. He sat for such a long time that his arms and legs became paralyzed when he reached enlightenment. Therefore, the daruma doll has no arms or legs. People who have desires buy daruma dolls hoping they will improve their endurance and that, like the roly-poly man which may fall seven times, they can rise again eight times. The eyes of daruma dolls have no pupils so people paint one pupil in after buying them, make a wish, and paint the other in when their wish comes true.
Washi is the name of Japanese paper made by traditional methods. Paper was originally introduced to Japan in the 7th century from China. The Chinese used hemp to make paper but the Japanese created a higher-quality paper by using the fiber of trees such as kouzo, paper mulberry and gambi. Japanese paper is known worldwide for its beauty, ability to absorb water, and strength, and Japanese today are trying to follow traditional paper-making techniques.
Chopsticks were introduced to Japan from China in the Nara period and were first used by aristocrats. Though many other East Asian countries used chopsticks, Japan was the only one to use only chopsticks traditionally, and not spoons. There are a few taboos when using chopsticks in Japan. For example, hovering them over food while deciding what to choose, sticking them straight into food in order to pick it up, and passing and receiving food with chopsticks, are all considered rude. Most chopsticks are made of wood, bamboo, or plastic, but restaurants tend to use disposable chopsticks.
A furoshiki is a square piece of cloth used to wrap things. It is said to have been used in the Nara period, but it was only in the Muromachi period that it got the name furoshiki; furo meaning bath, and shiki meaning spread. People used them to wrap their clothes in when they went to public bath houses. In the Edo period, merchants wrapped their commodities in them. Today they are becoming popular again as they are considered more eco-conscious than paper bags and are being made in more fashionable designs.
Noren are curtain-like cloths hung over the entrances of Japanese stores. They were originally used instead of open entrances to keep houses a bit warmer in the Muromachi period, and merchants gradually started using them as signs for their stores. Today, noren represent stores’ goodwill and credit. Opening a new store is said to be “hanging out the noren,” and opening branch stores is called “dividing the noren.”
Japanese Collapsible Fans
Fans were originally introduced from China in the Nara period but during the Heian period the Japanese invented a collapsible fan called sensu using a thin sheet of cypress wood. They became very popular among aristocrats who used them for ceremonies and as accessories and some were even exported to China. Gradually, warriors started using them as commanding sticks and ordinary people began using sensu made of paper and bamboo in the Edo period. Since a sensu spreads out wide toward the end, people consider them to be symbols of good luck.
It is said that the ancient Greeks used something similar to an abacus. Abacuses with beads were invented by the Chinese and brought to Japan in the Muromachi period. In Japan, people gradually started to use abacuses with one bead on one bar and four on the bar below, instead of the two and five beads on the abacuses used in China. Because electric calculators are now widely used, fewer people study with abacuses though they can help strengthen one’s ability to do mental calculations.
Kokeshi are simple dolls made of wood which represent girls. Typical kokeshi have cylindrically-shaped bodies with a round head and no hands or feet. The body and head are made of wood whittled into shape with a spinning lathe. Their faces and kimonos are painted in many different colors. Kokeshi were originally made as children’s toys in the Tohoku region but were gradually sold as souvenirs at hot-spring spa resorts.
Japanese dolls were not children’s toys to play with, originally. In ancient times, dolls were used as effigies to rid people of misfortune and disease. It was only after the Edo period that they were made for the appreciation of annual events such as Hina Matsuri, the Girls’ Festival, and Tango No Sekku, the Boys’ Festival. After the Meiji period, dolls made of celluloid and rubber were introduced from Western countries. Barbie dolls became very popular in Japan at the end of the 60’s. Foreigners may consider geisha dolls or those of women in kimonos to be typical Japanese dolls. They are generally quite expensive because each part of the dolls is made by hand and silk is used for their kimonos. Their faces must be painted by master craftsmen.
What we call kimonos today were originally a kind of underwear called kosode worn under longer robes in the Heian period. It was at the end of the Muromachi period when women started to wear them without the robes. In the middle of the Edo period, kimonos became more decorative and the sashes called obi were made wider. The bottom of kimonos used to drag along the ground until women started to adjust their length by tying them at the waist using sashes. Obi were wrapped around the waist twice and tied in the back with a beautiful bow. For most women today, kimonos are only worn on special occasions such as during the New Year’s season and for receptions. Some foreign people think obi bows are used for carrying objects, but of course this is not the case.
Ceramics and Porcelain
Since ceramics, toki, and porcelain, jiki, are produced and used in similar ways, Japanese use the word “tojiki” to refer to both of them. Toki, or ceramics, were introduced to Japan from China in the Nara period and their production flourished with chanoyu, the tea ceremony, in the Momoyama period. Seto, in Aichi prefecture, is well-known for its ceramic production and people still refer to tojiki as “setomono.” Jiki, a porcelain, was also introduced from China. Jiki made in Arita in Kyushu was exported to Europe from the port Imari by the Dutch East India Company, where people appreciated its artistic qualities.
Porcelain is often called “china” in English, being named after the country. Similarly, some lacquerware is called “japan” because Japan exported it to Europe from the 16th century on. To paint lacquerware, a mixture of pigment and concentrated lacquer-tree sap is used. Lacquer has been used not only in Japan, but also in many parts of Southeast Asia, including China, for more than 2,000 years. One of the most well-known techniques for making lacquerware is called “makie” which uses silver and gold powder. It’s scattered on freshly-painted lacquer and when it’s dry, the surface is painted again with lacquer, dried and polished.
Geisha literally means “artist” but the Japanese use it to refer to women who have mastered the traditional art of entertainment which includes Japanese dancing, singing, playing musical instruments and performing the tea ceremony. Until the end of the Second World War, when many Japanese struggled with poverty, girls were often sold by their parents and taken to okiya where they were trained to become geishas. Today women become geishas of their own will. Well-trained geishas are respected as women who’ve inherited the traditional art of entertainment. Although the number of real geishas is decreasing, there are still quite a few in Kyoto called “geikos,” and “maikos”, apprentice geikos. A best-selling book called Memoirs of a Geisha, written by American Arthur Golden, has generated a renewed interest in geishas.
Ninja literally means people who are hiding or in disguise. They were independent groups of people who lived and trained in secluded mountain villages in order to work as secret agents or assassins for hire. Feudal lords often employed them to secretly collect strategic information and assassinate enemies. There used to be more than 70 groups of ninjas in Japan including the famous Iga and Koga schools. But they disappeared gradually as Japan became a peaceful country under the Tokugawa shogunate government. In samurai dramas, ninjas fight enemies using weapons such as shuri-ken, throwing knives, or kusari-gama, sickles and chains, and use ninja skills such as vanishing into thin air and walking on water.