▶ The New Year holidays is a very special time of the year for the Japanese. Like the Christmas holidays of the West, schools and many businesses close, and family members get together.
▶ We enjoy special New Year’s food on these holidays. The most popular New Year’s food is osechi, which is a combination of foods beautifully arranged in lacquer boxes.
▶ There are also traditional games for the New Year holidays. Hanetsuki is a game like badminton played with beautifully decorated paddles. Children also like to fly kites. We also play Japanese card games called karuta or hanafuda.
- 1 The New Year
- 2 Shimekazari
- 3 Kadomatsu
- 4 First visit to the Shinto
- 5 Osechi-Ryori
- 6 Kagamimochi
- 7 Zoni
- 8 First Dream of the Year
- 9 Coming-of-Age
- 10 Setsubun
- 11 National Foundation Day
- 12 Doll’s Festival
- 13 Vernal (Spring) Equinox Day
- 14 Cherry Blossom Viewing
- 15 Showa Day and Greenery Day
- 16 Golden Week
- 17 Constitution Memorial Day
- 18 Children’s Day
- 19 Rice Planting
- 20 The Star Festival
- 21 Bon
- 22 Marine Day
- 23 Shusen-Kinenbi
- 24 Moon Viewing
- 25 Respect-for-the-Aged Day
- 26 Autumnal Equinox Day
- 27 Health-Sports Day
- 28 Culture Day
- 29 Shichi Go San
- 30 Labor Thanksgiving Day
- 31 The Emperor’s Birthday
- 32 Ohmisoka
The New Year
The New Year is one of the most important holidays for the Japanese. Until the end of the Second World War, everyone celebrated becoming one year older on New Year’s Day regardless of their real birthday. Most Japanese rest during the first three days of the New Year and many companies and schools are closed for one week or more during this season.
People decorate the entrances of their homes with shimekazari during the New Year’s season to ward off evil spirits. They are made of shimenawa, sacred Shinto rope of rice straw, used to indicate the sacred areas where gods descend. Shimekazari is a special shimenawa decorated with various auspicious objects such as bitter oranges, ferns and lobsters. When the New Year’s period is over, shimekazari and other New Year’s decorations are taken to shrines and burned.
Kadomatsu are a pair of pine decorations which are placed in front of the gates of a residence from January 1st to the 7th, the period known as matsunouchi. Kadomatsu consist of three bamboo poles of different lengths which are cut diagonally. Pine tree branches and sprays of plum trees are fastened to the bamboo poles with a new straw rope. These three plants are considered auspicious, particularly pine, which is a symbol of longevity and is believed to be a conduit for gods to descend to earth. They are all removed and burned on January 7th.
First visit to the Shinto
Shrine Many Japanese people visit a Shinto shrine during the first three days of January in order to make traditional New Year’s wishes for health and happiness. This is called hatsumode, the first visit to a shrine. Some shrines like Meiji Jingu attract more than three million worshippers every year. Since the shrine is opened specially on the night of New Year’s Eve, some people arrive there to hear the joyanokane, the bell which rings out the old year. People buy omamori, good luck charms, and hamaya, sacred arrows, to invite good fortune and ward off evil. Visiting the seven shrines of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune is also a popular New Year’s tradition. By visiting all seven shrines by January 7th, people can gain seven kinds of good luck: longevity, wealth, success in business, wisdom, virtue, victory and general good luck. Hatsumode is one of the few occasions when many people wear kimonos.
Osechi-ryori are specially prepared New Year’s dishes to be eaten during the first three days of January. Most dishes are cooked in order to be preserved for at least three days so women don’t have to cook during that period. Various kinds of beautifully prepared dishes are set in four-tiered lacquer boxes. Although there are some regional differences in the contents of osechi, most of them are common to all parts of Japan. Each of the dishes has some auspicious meaning which reflects people’s wishes. For example, kazunoko, herring roe, represents fertility, kuromame, cooked black beans, are for health (mame means healthy in old Japanese), and lobsters are for longevity because their bodies are bent like an old person’s.
Kagamimochi are sets of two round, flat rice cakes, in which a smaller one is placed on top of a larger one. Mochi has been considered a sacred food since ancient times because rice cultivation has always been indispensable for the Japanese. Kagamimochi are placed in the tokonoma, a sacred alcove and offered at a Shinto altar. Kagamimochi are split by hand or hammer, cooked and served with stewed red beans and sugar. This event is called kagamibiraki and happens on the 11th of January in most districts.
Another traditional New Year’s dish is zoni, soup containing mochi, vegetables and other ingredients such as chicken or seafood. In the Kanto region zoni is typically made with square mochi and a clear base flavored with soy sauce and salt, while in the Kansai, Shikoku, and Kyushu areas, they usually cook round mochi in soup flavored with miso, paste of soy beans. A wide variety of ingredients used for zoni are particular to the region where it’s made. Koreans also have a custom of eating something similar to zoni during the New Year.
First Dream of the Year
Hatsuyume refers to the dreams that occur on the first night of the year. This is the way some Japanese judge their fortunes for the following year. The top three auspicious dreams are believed to be of Mt. Fuji, a hawk, and an eggplant. In order to ensure a good dream, some people place pictures of the ship of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune carrying a treasure or of a baku, an imaginary animal believed to eat bad dreams, under their pillows.
Day January 15th used to be Coming-of-Age Day which honors young people who have reached the age of 20 as new members of adult society. This was established as a national holiday after the Second World War. Local governments hold Coming-of-Age ceremonies to which young people are invited. Many young women attend them wearing beautiful long-sleeved kimonos. In Japan, from the age of 20 onward, people have the right to vote, drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes. In the year 2000, the government changed this holiday to the second Monday of January so that people can have a long weekend.
Setsubun literally means “the day between two seasons.” People celebrate Setsubun on either the 3rd of February, the last day of winter, and the day before the spring season on the present calendar. Bean throwing, called mamemaki, is done at home on the day of Setsubun. People scatter roasted soy beans inside and outside their houses shouting, “Fortune in, devils out.” Then they eat the same number of beans as their age and wish for good health. Bean is “mame” in Japanese and means good health.
National Foundation Day
February 11th is celebrated as National Foundation Day. According to Japanese mythology, Emperor Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan, ascended to the throne and founded the imperial line on this day. It was celebrated as kigensetsu, the day of origin, only until the end of the Second World War, and was discontinued after the war because there’s no real historical basis for it. But it was designated a national holiday in 1967.
Families with girls celebrate March 3rd as a day to wish for their growth and happiness. This family event originally began in the Edo period and is referred to as the Doll’s Festival because families of girls display a set of dolls representing the emperor, empress, their servants, miniature furniture, and so forth, on a five or seven-tiered stand. Ancient people transferred their sins onto the dolls and threw them in rivers.
Vernal (Spring) Equinox Day
Shunbun is when the sun reaches the vernal equinox, and it’s the day when day and night are of equal length. It is usually around March 21st and the day is designated as a national holiday. It falls during the week of higan in Japan, which means “the next world for Buddhists.” Since this is believed to be when the spirits of ancestors return to this world, people visit their family graves, clean them, offer flowers and burn incense.
Cherry Blossom Viewing
During the months of March and April, many people all over Japan go out to admire the cherry blossoms in full bloom. They spread mats on the ground under the blossoms and have parties with their family or co-workers.
Showa Day and Greenery Day
April 29th was the birthday of the Showa Emperor, Hirohito, and it was celebrated as a national holiday until his death in 1989. The government then decided to continue celebrating this day as a national holiday called “Midori no hi,” a day for protecting the environment because the late emperor was famous for his interest in trees and plants. In 2007, this holiday moved to May 4th, while April 29th became the memorial day of Showa called “Showa no Hi.”
Golden Week refers to the period from April 29th to May 5th when there are four national holidays. Including Saturdays and Sundays many Japanese have more than a week of holidays at this time.
Constitution Memorial Day
On May 3rd, 1947, the present Constitution of Japan was enacted. To commemorate it, May 3rd was designated a national holiday. This is the day on which the Constitution’s fundamental spirit, the sovereignty of the people, respect for fundamental human rights, and pacifism, are all reaffirmed.
In the Edo period, families of samurai began celebrating May 5th as the day for boys. Today, families with boys display miniature samurai armor, helmets and dolls representing famous feudal generals and other heroes because they’d like their sons to grow as strong as warriors. They also hoist koinobori, carp-shaped streamers that symbolize strength and success in life because Chinese legends say carp become dragons when they swim up whitewater rapids. But today, this day has become a national holiday to celebrate the growth and health of all children, not only boys.
Farmers start planting rice seeds around May 2nd, the 88th day of spring. In many parts of the countryside from May to June, one can see farmers transplanting rice seedlings from their nurseries to rice paddies. This process is called “taue.”
The Star Festival
According to Chinese legend, the Weaver star (Vega) was so lovesick for the Cowherd star (Altair) that she neglected her weaving, causing the god to put the Milky Way between them. The only time they can see each other is on the night of July 7th. This is the origin of the Star Festival, Tanabata, when people write their wishes on strips of colored paper, and hang them on the branches of leafy bamboo stems.
Bon, an annual Buddhist event, is from July (or August on the solar calendar) 13th to the 16th. People believe that during this period the spirits of their ancestors return, so they go to clean family graves before then. On the 13th, they take tablets with their ancestors’ posthumous names on them, and put them on a special altar along with a cow and horse made of cucumber and eggplant. That night they light a bonfire and hang lanterns outside their homes to guide their ancestors. And on the night of the 16th, they light a farewell bonfire to see them off.
The Third Monday of July is Marine Day. This national holiday is when people give thanks for the blessings of the oceans and hope for the prosperity of Japan as a maritime nation. It’s also an ideal time for families to go to the sea or a swimming pool.
August 15th, 1945, was the day Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces, and the Second World War came to an end. That was the first time people heard the voice of Emperor Hirohito on the radio, when he announced that Japan had lost the war. This day is now called Shusen-Kinenbi, and many events are held in Japan on this day to memorialize those who died in the war.
The custom of viewing the moon on August 15th on the lunar calendar was originally introduced from China. This time of year is a busy harvest season so the light of the full moon was appreciated by the farmers who worked late and prayed to the moon for an abundant harvest. In the West this full moon is called a harvest moon. Today, many Japanese enjoy the full moon and offer it dumplings and Japanese pampas grass.
On the third Monday of September, a unique Japanese national holiday is held which honors and shows respect to the aged. This is also a day for the Japanese people, with the highest life-expectancy rate in the world, to think about social welfare issues that concern senior citizens. People usually visit their parents or grandparents on that day if they are not living together. Kindergarten children often visit special homes for the aged. There are also many events held by local governments where respect-for-the-aged associations entertain people and give them souvenirs.
Autumnal Equinox Day
Shubun no hi is usually held around September 23rd and the day is designated as a national holiday. It falls during the week of the autumnal equinox, similar to Shunbun no hi in spring, and it’s the day when night and day are almost equally long. Buddhists believe that on the day of the equinox, the sun rises from the exact east and sets in the exact west, and the spirits of the dead can cross the river which divides this world and the other world. That is why people visit their family graves then and pray for the peaceful repose of their ancestors by offering flowers and incense.
The second Monday of October is a national holiday, Taiiku no hi, or Health and Sports Day. It was designated in 1966 to commemorate the opening day of the Tokyo Olympics held in 1964. According to meteorological data, this day is usually sunny every year, so it’s when many people choose to hold athletic events. In the year 2000, the government changed this holiday from the 10th of October so that people could have a long weekend.
November 3rd was originally celebrated as the Meiji emperor’s birthday. And it was also on this day that the Japanese Constitution was proclaimed. To commemorate both events, this day was established as the national holiday Bunka no hi, dedicated to “the love of freedom, peace and the promotion of culture.” It’s also the day when the government grants cultural-service awards to people who have contributed to Japanese culture, on whom the emperor confers the order of Cultural Merit at the Imperial Palace.
Shichi Go San
Shichi go san literally means seven five three. When children reach these ages, they are taken by parents or grandparents to a Shinto shrine in the neighborhood on November 15th to celebrate their growth. Originally, this was a custom done by the families of warriors and aristocrats but since the Edo period ordinary families started practicing it as well. Girls who’ve reached the ages of three and seven and boys who are three and five are dressed in traditional kimonos; long-sleeved ones for girls and haori and hakama with a model sword for boys.
Labor Thanksgiving Day
November 23rd is Labor Thanksgiving Day, which was established as a national holiday to stress the importance of labor in people’s minds. This day was originally called Niinamesai, or “Harvest Festival,” until the end of the Second World War. It’s when the emperor dedicates the year’s rice and sake to Amaterasu-Ohmikami, the Goddess of the Sun, and the other Shinto gods while he eats and drinks. This practice became standard in the 7th century and is still done today in the Imperial Palace.
The Emperor’s Birthday
Emperor Akihito, the present emperor, was born on December 23rd, 1933. This has been a national holiday since 1989. On this day, the Nijubashi, or the main gate of the Imperial Palace, is open to the public. The emperor and his family make a personal appearance on the second-floor balcony of the Imperial Palace to greet the people, who shout “banzai” three times and wave small national flags. Cabinet ministers are invited to attend a reception and ambassadors and foreign ministers are invited to a tea party in the palace.
The last day of the year is called Ohmisoka. Since most people are already on their New Year’s holidays by this day, they try to finish all their house cleaning, shopping, and osechi-ryori—special New Year’s food—preparations by the evening. Then at midnight, people listen to joyanokane, bells which ring the old year out at many Buddhist temples all over Japan. In Buddhist beliefs, humans are born with 108 worldly desires which are removed when the bell is struck 108 times. Many people eat soba noodles while listening to the bells, and wish for health and longevity in the year to come.