Sunday, January 17, 2016

When the Gods are Awake: Japanese New Year's Day

Traditional decorations with a New Year's greeting
Hands down the biggest holiday of the year in Japan, around which the years and seasons seem to pivot, is New Year's. Preparations for it start as far back as in the fall and the mood lasts a week or so after January 1st. That doesn't mean that Japan during New Years is the happening place with a ton of huge parties and fireworks and all that--far, far from it! In fact unless you're visiting family I'd say that around New Years is the worst time to visit Japan--transportation systems are extremely crowded (with bullet trains booked up days in advance), all the shops and services close for a few days, and no countdown or fireworks. It's a family holiday where everyone packs up and goes to grandma's house, and engages in many traditional Japanese customs.

So what does the average Japanese family do for New Years? A lot! I will share just a few that I experience each year with Yuya's folks. There are many more traditions and customs that we don't do, because we are Christian, or because some are engaged in mostly by families with small children, and there are regional differences. But here is my experience of the most important season in Japan:

Bounenkai 忘年会 literally "forget the year" parties. Many companies have them in December (multiple times, as you have to go along with different departments). It's a chance to drink a lot and really go wild--sometimes the parties last into the wee hours across a few different establishments. Yuya's company does a bingo game where winners get nice gadgets like blenders and electric toothbrushes (prizes bought and decided upon by a committee of the youngest workers). Sometimes it can be awful: clothes gradually come off, subordinates have to do dance performances of the year's hit songs, and the female employees change into naughty Santa outfits. Not every company is so wild, luckily.

Oosouji 大掃除 major cleaning. While still a bit hung over from bounenkai, you have to do a major cleaning of your office, home, and any other space you belong to. Think a thorough big spring cleaning, but in the chilly midwinter. Churches, workplaces, homes all need oosouji at least once a year but I always hate that we have to do it in the coldest season here! Historically it was to restore purity for the arrival of New Year's gods, but now everyone just rolls up their sleeves and gets to cleaning at the end of December.

Some examples of nengajou. This year is Year of the Monkey
in the Chinese calendar, so monkeys everywhere!
Nengajou 年賀状  a New Year's postcard. Like Christmas cards, you should send these to all family households and to お世話になった人, all those who you have a connection with/who helped you out in the past year. One lady I know sends out about 600 of these cards each year. They are not easy to write. These days you can get software that prints them out for you, but usually you have to write the addresses and a little message (in extremely formal Japanese for the occasion) on the cards by hand, in your best handwriting. If you get a card from someone you haven't sent one to, you should send one off to them in the first few days of the new year. I tried writing them one year and it was very difficult--but not many young people write nengajou anyway. We get by with the digital version on LINE, text, or Facebook. It's usually up to the wife to prepare, write, and send nengajou, but thanks to dismal kanji skills I told Yuya if he wants to do nengajou he has to write them himself--so we don't send them (why do I sometimes get the feeling he's using me as an excuse to act less Japanese than he should?). There is something very charming about nengajou however. If you drop them off at the post office by a certain date at the end of December, they are guaranteed delivered on New Year's Day. I'll never forget going out early in the morning January 1st one year and seeing cavalcades of the red postal motorbikes buzzing through the neighborhood busily delivering stacks of the cards.

Oomisoka 大晦日 the 31st of December and New Years Eve. By this day much of Japan's population has shifted to the countryside to their ancestral homes, or en route. The 下り (outbound from Tokyo) traffic usually peaks on this day. 
Welcoming the New Year for us is spent gathered around the TV watching the annual 紅白歌合戦, Red and White Singing Contest, around four hours of performances by major bands and artists, commenting on who hasn't aged well or who wasn't invited to perform this year. The New Years TV programs are things of magic and wonder: the hosts dress up in formal kimono, all your favorite dramas from the past year get rebroadcast along with the goofiest comedy shows--the kind that end up on YouTube or WTF Japan and make us all think Japan is way more whacked than it really is. 
An older tradition for this day is 年越しそば toshikoshi soba, or eating soba (buckwheat) noodles. The long length of the noodles symbolizes wishes for a long life.
When we stay at Yuya's parents' house, we often sleep in the 和室、washitsu (Japanese room or tatami-mat room). Most houses are built in the Western style with flooring but have one special traditional room near the front of the house for guests. The in-laws' usually doubles as a storage place throughout the year but during New Years it's cleaned out. I always notice my mother-in-law arranging offerings of mochi (pounded rice cakes) and mikan oranges in the 仏壇、butsudan "god shelf" or household altar. Its little doors are usually closed up, but on the night of the 31st, I noticed it had been left open a crack. Was it supposed to be opened wide all the way, to allow for the passage of the New Year's god, and had she opened it just a crack so as not to offend her Christian son and daughter-in-law? I didn't know. Laying in the dark knowing it was open made me want to shut it, but then I thought shutting it against the passage of some god was just as superstitious as keeping it open for the same reason, so I rolled over and went to sleep.

First sunrise of 2016 from the beach near Yuya's hometown
Hatsuhinode 初日の出 
After midnight, you can use the greeting あけましておめでとうございます akemashite omedetou gozaimasu, Happy New Year. Before this day you may only use "have a good New Year" 良いお年を yoi otoshi o. Don't mix them up!
Early in the morning of January 1st 元旦 gantan, the first day of the year, Yuya's family bundles up into the car and we head to the beach to catch the first sunrise. It's cold and it's early but the beach is always lined with folks waiting for the sun. Once it comes up, heads are bowed and prayers for a healthy new year are offered. Yuya and I don't bow or pray to the sun, but it is a moving moment to get up in the dark and cold and wait for its light. The brightness, power, and warmth of it is really astonishing. Every year's hatsuhinode makes me think I can understand why the sun is worshiped by so many cultures.

Osechi お節 Because the shops and markets are all closed around New Years, this salty, sweet, pickled selection of special dishes comes out every New Year's Day in most households. You can make it yourself or order lavish sets from department stores weeks in advance. You might eat omochi (pounded rice cakes) egg rolls, kamaboko (processed fish/imitation crab slices), sweet black beans, kazunoko (salty fish roe) etc. etc. Each dish has a superstitious meaning, for example the many eggs in the kazunoko are supposed to boost fertility.

The money is usually given in a
little envelope like this

Otoshidama お年玉 In a country that traditionally didn't do birthday or Christmas presents, this is what kids look forward to. Otoshidama is a New Year's gift of money from relatives, anywhere from $30-$300 per relative, so some kids are rolling in dough this time of year! Since we're adults with jobs now Yuya and I shouldn't technically get otoshidama anymore, but Yuya's grandma always finds a way to slip him something on the sly. I guess he will always be her cute little grandson!

Onenga snacks: more monkeys!
Onenga お年賀 One should never visit someone's house or relatives without bringing something, and for the New Year the gift of little regional sweets or delicacies is called onenga. You can get them specially wrapped when you buy them but be sure to get the right label. Onenga means it has to be given on or just after New Year's Day, not before!

The season of the new year in Japan is so rich with tradition, superstition, and religion (as far as it goes in the average Japanese household) that every year is an intercultural experience that serves to remind me I'm definitely in Japan!  There is so much going on and so much importance placed on stopping the routine and doing certain once-a-year rituals correctly that the new year starting really does feel like turning over a new leaf, and the passage of the years seems more cyclical than at home in the U.S. Our daily life doesn't usually have much to do with "traditional" things here in Japan, but during New Year's it's all around us, in the family meetings and church life even (we do a big cleaning there and many churches also hold a 元旦礼拝、January 1st special service). I used to watch this season from afar as it were, as a student and a singleton, but now with family here we are in the position of having to decide how to engage with these deep traditions. I'm sure if we have kids it will be different as well. In any case, we're grateful for the good year 2015 was for us and want to continue to hope in the Lord each day of 2016. 

Bonus: here's a post on my New Year's five winters ago now when I was an exchange student! A lot is different now :)

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