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In ancient times, the Japanese New Year (正月 shōgatsu) followed the same lunar calendar as Chinese or Korean New Year. Today, January 1st is fixed as New Years Day for Japan. It is one of the most important festivals of the whole year. New Years 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 Years Food
Japanese people eat a special selection of dishes on New Years Day called osechi. Some of the popular food included in osechi are miso soup with mochi (sticky rice cakes) and vegetable(ozouni), sweetly boiled seaweed wrapped tuna fish (kobumaki), jellied fish paste (kamaboko), mashed sweet potato with marron (kurikinton) and black beans (kuromame).
Many of the dishes are sweet and raw fishes are often eaten as well. The table for New Years Day is one of the joys for many Japanese.
New Years Day Postcard
Japanese have a custom of sending New Years Day postcards (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 busiest 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 Years cards from them. It is important to respect the dead in Japan.
Although these New Years 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.
Mouse, Cow, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Bird, Dog, Boar
The animals listed above are the animals that represent each year. The order cannot be moved. For example Year 2002 is Horse and Year 2003 will be Sheep. Those animals are traditionally incorporated into the New Years Card design.
On New Years Day, Japanese people have a custom of giving pocket money to children. It is given in small decorated envelopes, descendants of the Chinese red packet, and is called otoshidama. The amount of money given depends on the age of the child.
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 Years Day and eaten during the beginning of January.