Whoa, 2021 zipped by so fast! We’re already in December and counting down the days to the new year. How crazy is that? 

When the new year approaches, people of all cultures and traditions start preparing to welcome the upcoming year. In Japan, the new year is a big thing for the people here. It is, without a doubt, one of the most festive times of the year and brings about unique, local traditions that are only practiced in The Land of the Rising Sun. 

In this article, we’ll look at the significance of the New Year in Japan, the unique traditions and customs practiced, and even a few useful Japanese phrases for you to try out this new year!

New Year in Japan

The New Year brings out the good in everyone. Regardless of culture, we all go all out when it comes to welcoming a fresh, full-of-potential new year. In Japan, the New Year’s is called shougatsu (正月), which translates to the Japanese New Year festival. 

Festivities for this special occasion start well before the first of January and run through January 7th. For some regions, it extends till January 15th! On top of that, a lot of local companies and businesses are usually closed from December 29th till January 4th. Many people travel back to their hometowns to spend time with family and loved ones. 

All over the country, there are firework displays and concerts held to celebrate and count down. One of the biggest countdown events in Japan is in the capital city Tokyo, at the heart of the city center in Shibuya. Thousands of people gather to scream at the top of their lungs the ticking time to midnight, before dispersing to clubs and bars to drink till the sun comes up.

Every 2nd of January, the Imperial Palace is open to the public. This is one out of two days in the year. Visitors can pay respects to Japan’s royal household as well as to hear the Emperor addressing the crowd of well-wishers.

New Year Traditions

On top of countdown events and partying, there are special New Year traditions that are greatly linked to Japanese culture. The traditions of Shougatsu are to express gratitude for the past year as well as wish for health and prosperity for the upcoming year. 

The most practiced tradition of the New Year is the annual temple visit, along with eating New Year foods.

Temple Visiting

The most important practice of shougatsu is “hatsumode” (初詣). This is the first shrine or temple visit of the year. Over 100 million people visit a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple during this time of the year. The objective of the visit is to pray for good luck.

Some Buddhist temples would ring the bell 108 times when the clock strikes midnight. This is to represent the 108 worldly sins and desires in Buddhism. Some visitors are able to ring the temple bell too, which symbolises their sins being cleansed. This event is known as joya no kane (除夜の鐘).

Another part of the temple visiting tradition is the omikuji (御神籤), which is a fortune paper where people can draw their luck. If one draws a bad fortune, they can tie it to a tree on the temple or shrine grounds as a way to reverse the luck. 

It’s also very common for visitors to buy omamori (お守り) on New Year’s. These are lucky charms in silk brocade and have pieces of small paper or wood inside them. There are various types of charms for various things, including love and pregnancy. Depending on what one wishes for the new year, they will get the charm for that. 

New Year Food

A big tradition on New Year’s is the food. Like other cultures, family come together and gather to eat traditional dishes during this special occasion. 

One of the most significant types of New Year food is osechi ryori (お節料理). This is a type of cuisine that has many small dishes. For New Year’s, there are at least 50 types, with each symbolising something different like health, longevity and happiness. Because it’s a common tradition, many supermarkets and convenience stores will sell them during this time of the year.

Another common New Year’s dish is the toshikoshi soba, also known as the year-end soba. It’s a simple meal served in hot broth to eat just before midnight. The shape of the long pasta represents the passage from one year to the next.

Mochi (もち) is also eaten on New Year’s. This is a type of chewy rice cake. A traditional activity on New Year’s is to prepare mochi yourself.

Other Traditions

While those two are the main traditions often practiced during this time of the year, there are other traditions, of course. One of it is hatsuhinode (初日の出), where people get up really early to watch the first sunrise of the year on January 1st. People gather at the coast or mountain to witness the beautiful first dawn. 

Some people also fly kites for the new year. Back in the day, people would fly kites in the form of Japanese demons, known as oniyouzu (鬼用ず), as a symbolic way to get rid of evil. Nowadays, normal kites are used. 

Another unique Japanese tradition for New Year’s is sending greeting cards. This is known as nenga (年賀). People would send out cards to friends and family to wish them a happy new year. 

Useful New Year Japanese Phrases

There are useful phrases to use during this time of the year. We have an article of a longer list of phrases for the holidays here. But for the New Year’s, there are two main ones:

The first one is “akemashite omedetou” (あけましておめでとう).

This translates to “happy new year”. You can make it formal by adding “gozaimasu” at the end to make “akemashite omedetou gozaimasu” (あけましておめでとうございます).

That phrase is used for on or after the new year’s. If you want to greet someone happy new year before the actual new year, you say it as:

“Yoi otoshi wo omakae kudasai” (よいお年をお迎えください).

The short form version is: yoi otoshi wo (よいお年を).

Another common phrase often said after these two greetings is:

“Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu” (今年もよろしくお願いします).

This translates to “I hope to count on you this year”.

Happy New Year! Yoi Otoshi Wo!

And that’s generally what you need to know about the Japanese New Year and their traditions! If you would like to know more, our Nihongo Master Podcast’s newest season, Season 9, covers all there is to know about Japanese Winter and traditions, which includes the very festive Oshougatsu! Check it out! Till then, Happy New Year everyone! Rainen mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu! 来年もよろしくお願いします!