Japanese New Year
In ancient times, the Japanese New Year (正月 shōgatsu) followed the same lunisolar calendar as Chinese or Korean New Year. Today, 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. That is why there are many small customs that are still carried on in many families.
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 food included in osechi are miso soup with mochi (sticky rice cakes) and vegetable (ozōni), 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 most of the stores used to close for about a week and there was not such thing as a refrigerator back then. Also, there are many variations of osechi foods and some foods eaten in one place are never eaten or even banned on the New Year's day. Today, sashimi and sushi are often eaten, as well as food like pizza, fried chickens, 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 one of the joys for many Japanese.
New Year's Day Postcard
Japanese have a custom of sending New Year's Day postcards (年賀状, nengajō) 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 and post them so that they arrive on the 1st of January. The end of December and the beginning of January are the most busy times for the post office.
It is customary not to send postcards when you have had sorrowful tidings during the year. In this case, you are expected to send a simple postcard instead to tell your friends and relatives that you will not be expecting to receive any joyful New Year's cards from them. It is important to respect the dead in Japan.
Although these New Year's postcard has become a traditional custom now, this custom used to be started to give your friends and relatives faraway tidings of yourself. In an exaggerated expression, it could be said that this custom was made to tell people you do not meet often that you 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 moved. 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 social individual might have several hundred letters to write, printing services offer wide variety of sample postcards with a short message that he or she only have to write addresses and maybe a personal message to that person to complete. This custom is in decline as young people tend to send E-mails instead, but it is still very popular.
On New Year's Day, Japanese people have a custom of giving pocket money to children. It is given 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, in order that they feel equal.
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.