New Year Celebrations in Japan

Before the chirping birds liven up the eastern horizon, we walked out to the chilling cold. Literally shivering in the chilling cold, yet with the single-minded resolution, we walked on Funabori-bridge that crosses the river Arakawa. The temperature was around 2 deg C. The wacky herd of seven was proceeding to the middle of Funabori-bridge to say nothing but a ‘Happy New Year’ to Arakawa River.

A New Year celebration without this ritual would have been meaningless. Arakawa River symbolizes to the whole Japan and neglecting the winter morning cold wind, we could say Happy New Year to the whole Japan. This is how we started the first day of 2011.

This year’s New Year party celebration was unique and standout with memorable events. In the past I had participated in New Year celebrations at Riyadh, Goa, Gurgaon and Chennai apart from the hometown Thrissur. This year, the celebrations started at 31st evening and continued the whole night till 2011 January 1st morning with exciting amusements. The final crazy ritual, i.e., to say loud happy New Year to Arakawa river in the morning cold was directed by Uday-san, popularly known as Neelan among friends in Japan.

New Year is celebrated in Japan in a big way unlike many other East Asian countries. The Japanese people follow Gregorian calendar and celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1st the same way as Europe and America do. Though different cultures have different concepts and period for celebrating their own specific New Year day, January 1st has become an international New Year day. History says Japan was following Chinese lunar Calendar till the year 1873. I think Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam are still following Chinese calendar. Japan adopted Western style to celebrate New Year on January 1st with the acceptance of Gregorian calendar after some years of the famous Meiji Restoration.

Japanese people celebrate New Year with their own unique customs. There is a belief that if the New Year events are not done properly the rest of the year will be ill-fortune. There is a spirit for New Year also. It is called ‘Spirit of New Year’ and in Japanese 年の神 (としのかみ-toshi no kami). Spirit is Kami in Japanese language. Houses and business places are decorated with Kadomatsu (門松―かどまつ). Kadomatsu is made of bamboo and branches of pine branches. I could read more on the festivals in Japan from the notes given by Seki-sensei. Also, recently I encountered Kazumi-sensei’s blog that teaches Japanese language and customs using English and Japanese. Kazumi-sensei’s recent post has a photo of Kadomatsu. When we went to Oshiage to see the Tokyo sky tree yesterday, I could take photo of Kadomatsu that was displayed in front of a Japanese restaurant.

I used to receive New Year greeting cards from my colleagues for the past years. This is a custom in Japan to send post cards to friends and relatives similar to western culture. In India too people send greeting cards to friends and relatives. With the growth of internet, e-cards are popular recently. New Year day post card is known as nengajoo年賀状 (ねんがじょう).

The New Year cards were there in the post box on first day of January itself! New Year cards arrive on first day of the year and thereby convey the spirit and warmth of the sender to the receiver. This year I received a New Year card from Mana-Suzuki Sensei, who is my Japanese sensei on Sundays. Sensei gave two gift cards too. It is also a custom in Japan to return or reciprocate equally for any kind of favors one received from another person. I can use those gift cards from the nearby convenient store (Konbini – コンビニ) to buy things.

Though Japanese adopted Gregorian calendar and celebrate New Year on January 1st similar to the western cultures, the customs and rituals are purely Japanese. This is point Japan differs from other countries. My observation is that Japan adopts things from other countries and soon converts them to a unique Japanese style.

Once something is accepted to Japanese style, it is very hard to identify it as foreign again, similar to the process happened to the word ‘convenient store’. The word ‘Convenient store’ is adopted to Japanese language as Konbini and foreigners without any introduction to Japanese language can never guess any of the similar English word like Konbini. New year celebration and customs in Japan too are best examples of this typical Japanese adoption process. Such an indigenous conversion happens in Japan and this is one of the distinct characteristics of Japanese culture.

Author: Jayaprakash

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