Seasonal Calendar of January

In this 'Seasonal Calendar', I would like to introduce traditional Japanese seasonal events, which come down to Japanese's modern life for the time being.

This Season's Traditional Events

The two most important traditional events to Japanese, I believe, must be the summer O-bon and the (O)Shougatsu ( New Year ). Therefore, I'd like to write about the Japanese (O)Shougatsu for this month's 'Seasonal Calendar'.

However, as I was doing some research to write about this event, I realized that there were so many things to write about. I'm afraid I can't write about them all here, because of time and space matters, together with of course the limitation of manpower, which consists of mainly only me ( forgive me folks, but I can't count on Cow that much ). So this time, I'll try introducing this event focusing on what (O)Shougatsu is to Japanese, picking up some of the typical customs practiced during this holiday season.

What is (O)Shougatsu?

(O)Shougatsu literally means the very first month of each year, but on a regular basis of daily conversation, it usually seems to be a term referring to the first week of the new year, from Ganjitsu ( the New Year's Day ) to Jinjitsu ( January 7th, one of the five Sekku days ), or sometimes even used to mean only the San-ga-nichi ( the first three days of the year from New Year's Day to January 3rd ).

It is said that the word (O)Shougatsu ( the 'O' part is a prefix indicating graciousness ) comes from the month of birth of the first Qin emperor Shi Huangdi, who dedicated himself to politics. In an etymology description written around the middle of Muromachi Period (1338 - 1573), it says that the birth month of the emperor was called 'Seigwatsu ( literally meaning a month of politics in Japanese ) ', until later a different Kanji ( or Han-ji ) character replaced the 'Sei' part, and the pronunciation also changed with it to 'Shawgwatsu'.

The word must have been brought in from China, which Japan was under great influence in those days. But even before the word 'Seigwatsu' was imported, indigenous rituals and customs to celebrate New Year, are thought to have been practiced already in Japan at year beginnings.

Traditional Customs

There are several traditional customs of (O)Shougatsu still practiced today in Japan, such as decorating particular items called Shougatsu-kazari ( literally, Shougatsu decorations ), preparing and eating special dishes called Osechi-ryouri with family members, or visiting shrines called Hatsu-moude ( literally, first time visit to the shrines ).

Many of them are practiced on a local basis according to each region, but I guess I'll just pick up the ones that are still seen nationwide. Now, let's take a look at the traditional decorations to start with.

Typical Traditional Decorations

There are certain decorations done before (O)Shougatsu, and generally they are prepared at the end of the previous year. Kadomatsu ( a pair of pine decorations ) are set at both sides of the entrance gate of every house, while Shimenawa ( decorations of straw rope ) or Shimekazari ( a wreath-like decoration of straw rope ) are usually hung on or above the entrance door.

Kagami-mochi ( usually three layers of flat round rice cakes piled up to form a cone ) are prepared as offerings, which later are to be broken into smaller pieces by hand or with a hammer, to be cooked and eaten on the occasion of Kagami-biraki ( a custom to brake the Kagami-mochi set as offerings for New Year, to eat them ) on January 11th.

Kadomatsu

Kadomatsu

Kadomatsu are a pair of pine decorations used for (O)Shougatsu. Gorgeous ones are circled round with bamboos cut sharply like a pen, with green leafed pine branches in the center forming a small steeple. But these are only for rich people or commercial facilities. For populace at large ( like myself ), our decorations would consist of only pine branches and a pair of small straw wreath-like ornaments, which all together are called Matsu-kazari ( literally, pine decorations ).

Matsu-kazari

These Kadomatsu or Matsu-kazari are believed to have a purifying effect ( especially with the bamboos I guess, see our 'Seasonal Calendar of July - Tanabata page' for more details about bamboos ). It is said that they are set at the front gates, in order to purify the entrance for the descending Toshigami ( literally, god of New Year, Japanese thought that he descends at year beginnings ), and to become his landmark or to provide him place to stay.

Folklore has it that December 26th, 27th, 28th and 30th would be suitable for setting these decorations at the gate, while December 29th and the 31st should be avoided. Setting the decorations on the 29th is called Kudate ( literally, difficult standing ) and disliked, since the sound 'ku' in 'niju-ku ( 29 pronounced in Japanese )' reminds Japanese of the word 'kurou', meaning pain or trouble.

Setting them on the 31st also should be avoided called Ichiya-kazari ( literally, one night decoration ), for it is believed that the Toshigami ( literally, god of New Year ) won't stay long when the decorations are set on this day. Though less people seem to follow these tradition today.

Shimenawa

Shimenawa is a straw rope to distinguish sacred space from our human world. In Japanese, the word is commonly witten in three Kanji ( or Han-ji ) characters, deriving from the fact that there was a similar item in China. A rope purified with water was stretched across around or at the entrance of sacred places, in order to keep lemures from coming into the sacred space. Since there were small bunches of straw hanging out of this rope at a regular interval, respectively forming three, five and seven lines, the word Shimenawa is also literally expressed as 'seven-five-three rope' in Japanese Kanji.

The Shimenawa decorations for (O)Shougatsu, are ususally stretched across the entrance of houses or shrines, to lustrate the unhallowness of last year and to keep the negative vibes from coming inside when the new year comes.

Shimekazari ( a wreath-like decoration of straw rope ) is a more smaller and simple version of Shimenawa, sometimes much more decorative. These are more commonly used as (O)Shougatsu decorations in homes, while Shimenawa are stretched across shrine entrances. Shimekazari are usually hung beneath the eaves of the entrance door, or on the door like Christmas wreaths, as sort of a sign saying that preperations for New Year to welcome god, is all set and ready.

Kagami-mochi

Kagami-mochi are Mochi ( rice cakes ) made round and flat, that Japanese set as offerings for (O)Shougatsu or celebrations. Though I don't remember seeing them on any other occasions besides (O)Shougatsu ... . These round rice cakes are called Kagami-mochi ( literally, mirror rice cakes ) or Okagami ( literally, mirror, the 'O' part is a prefix ), since their round shape resembles that of mirrors. ( modern mirrors are mostly shaped rectangularly, but ancient mirrors in Japan were made round and were utilized in rituals, because they were believed to have special spiritual power )

It is said that this custom of setting Kagami-mochi as offerings, comes from the ancient Japanese myths. In the times of Emperor Suinin (B.C.69-A.D.70 could he be Yoda!?) Ohmononushi-no-kami ( one of the gods in ancient Japanese myths, supposed to have made this country, often thought as the same character as Ohkuninushi-no-mikoto ) is said to have told his daughter Ohtataneko, that if she set red and white Mochi ( rice cakes ) for offerings on Ganjitsu ( New Year's Day ), happiness shall come. However, I must say that the credibility of this story is doubtful, regarding the date of Emperor Suinin's birth and death.

Later in Muromachi Period (1338-1573), it became a Samurai family tradition to set them as offerings for (O)Shougatsu in front of their armors to wish for long life, that it also bears the name of Gusoku-mochi ( literally, armor rice cakes ). After offering it to god for over a week, Kagami-mochi wich have become hard, were removed off from the altar to be broken into small pieces by hand or with a hammer. Then, Kagami-mochi were to be cooked and eaten in order to enhance the human vital force. This custom is called Kagami-biraki ( literally, mirror opening ), usually taking place annually on January 11th since Edo Period (1603-1868).

Kagami-biraki is said to be done as one of the (O)Shougatsu celebrating events to open one's way to fortune, though cutiing the rice cakes with blades were disliked, since it recalled the death of a Samurai being cut with swords. It also may have been so, because Kagami-mochi were originally made with new crop of rice as offerings for Toshigami ( or Toshi-no-kami, literally, god of New Year ), and eating them afterwards had a sense of taking in its spiritual vital power.

In homes, practices are said to be left to cook and eat the broken Kagami-mochi in Zenzai ( sweet Azuki bean soup with rice cakes ) or (O)Shiruko ( sweet Azuki bean stew with rice cakes ), wishing for household harmony.

(O)Shougatsu Customs

Those shown above, were the typical traditional (O)Shougatsu decorations seen nationwide. Now let's take a look at the (O)Shougatsu customs practiced in Japan.

As said before, many traditional (O)Shougatsu customs are still practiced on a local basis, and they each have different characters or derivations, though they all share the same essence in a sense that they are practiced to celebrate and welcome the coming of New Year, that is to say, the coming of Toshigami ( god of New Year ). So here, I'd like to pick up several customs that are still seen throughout the country.

Eating Osechi

Osechi-ryouri ( literally, season's dish ) known as Osechi, is a particular dish prepared and eaten for (O)Shougatsu. The 'sechi' part in the word Osechi ( the 'o' part is a prefix ), was originally a term used to express the turn of the year, and the festive day which fell on this turning point used to be called 'Sechi-nichi ( literally, turn of the year day )'.

Offerings made on such festive day of Sechi-nichi, were said to be called Sekku ( literally, offerings made on Sechi ) which later becomes the name of Gosekku ( five festive days, January 7th of the lunisolar calendar is among them as Jinjitsu ) in Edo Period (1603-1868). It is said that special dishes were prepared as offerings for Sechi-nichi, to be offered to god and eaten after the rituals were done. These dishes are said to have become Osechi-ryouri, though today the word Osechi-ryouri or Osechi, are recognized only as the special feast prepared for (O)Shougatsu celebration.

Preparing Osechi on (O)Shougatsu, is said to have a meaning to welcome the coming of Toshigami ( god of New Year ), while eating them is said to have a meaning to take in his vital force of energy, just like the Kagami-mochi. Generally, Osechi-ryouri are said to be made to have good keeping, as to keep the kitchen quiet enough to welcome the Toshigami ( god of New Year ), or to free housewives from the kitchen at least during San-ga-nichi, the first three days of this festive season.

Osechi

A typical Osechi consists of at least three articles called Mitsu-zakana ( literally, three simple dishes, Kuromame, Kazunoko, Gomame in Kanto area, Kuromame, Kazunoko, Tataki-gobou in Kansai area ), usually accompanied with many others. Each article is said to have a meaning to it, so I'd like to have this opportunity to introduce some of them below. Formal Osechi are supposed to be displayed in four layers of box lacquerware called Ojuh ( box lacquerware ), but less homes seem to follow in such tradition today.

Kuromame ( black beans )
Since the word 'Mame' meaning 'beans' also had a meaning of being healthy, sweetly cooked black beans are prepared as an Osechi article, wishing for the health of the family.

Kazunoko ( herring roe )
Ususally cooked in dried bonito broth for Osechi, herring roe symbolizes a wish to be gifted with children.

Gomame or Tazukuri ( dried anchovy )
Gomame, literally meaning 'fifty thousand rice' also bearing the name of Tazukuri ( rice field maker ), are prepared wishing for rich harvest, since people spread them all over the fields as manure. Usually cooked salty-sweet with sugar and Sho-yu ( soy sauce ), with an additional sprinkle of sesame.

Tataki-gobou ( beaten burdock )
Symbolizes wishes for rich harvest, sound health, and the firm stand of the foundation of one's family. Cooked under heat until tender and served cut open, they are also believed to bring good luck, for the cut-opening action is thought to correspond to opening ones way to fortune. The name 'Tataki-gobou' comes from part of the cooking process, when the burdocks are to be beaten in order to make the dressing materials soak into the burdocks.

Kinton ( literally, a block of gold )
Sweet chestnuts in mashed sweet potato or kidney beans. The beautiful yellow color resembling gold, symbolizes a wish to make a fortune.

Kamaboko ( fish sausage )
Prepared as an Osechi article to celebrate a new beginning, since its shape resembles that of a sunrise. The red ( actually pink ) and white color stands respectively, for talisman against evil or joy of celebration, and purity.

Ebi ( collective term for lobsters, prawns and shrimps )
From the shape of it, cooked lobsters, prawns and shrimps are often prepared, wishing for long life until one becomes bent with age. Boiled lobsters are usually used as decorations for gorgeous Kagami-mochi, while spit-roasted shrimps become an Osechi article inside Ojuhs ( box lacquerware ).

Tai ( porgies )
Often used in festive cooking because the name of the fish 'Tai' is included in the word 'Medetai ( festive in Japanese )', and also because the red color of the fish are appreciated for festive celebrations.

Kobumaki ( tangle roll )
Since the 'Kobu ( tangle )' part is included in the word 'Yorokobu ( be delighted )', Kobu or Konbu is one of the essential cooking ingredients for Osechi, and comes in many different styles besides rolls. Believed to bring sound health and long life. Referring to another expression of Konbu in Kanji ( or Han-ji ) characters ( literally, women giving birth to a child ), Kobumaki are also prepared wishing to be gifted with children.

Going Hatsu-moude

Visiting the shrines is another (O)Shougatsu custom widely spread througout the country, called Hatsu-moude ( literally, first time visit to the shrines ). Hatsu-moude is the first visit that one takes to the shrines after the New Year has come, usually during the San-ga-nichi ( the first three days of New Year ) to pray for god's blessing and good fortune for that year. It is said to be better to go within the San-ga-nichi, or at the latest by January 7th in and around Tokyo, or by 15th in Kansai area centering Kyoto and Osaka, when the Matsu-kazari decorations are to be taken off.

Recently, Japanese seem to have become more and more unconscious about god or our ancestors, or the shrines that were dedicated to them in our modern lifestyle. And it seems that we've forgotten the feeling of thankfulness, together with the consciousness. It's an ironical fact today, that these shrines get packed with people only for Hatsu-moude, during (O)Shougatsu season.

What (O)Shougatsu Is To Japanese

As you can see reading until now, all of these traditional decorations and customs are practiced for one purpose, to greet and welcome the Toshigami ( god of New Year ). From the fact that these traditions were handed down for hundreds of years, it could be easily imagined how important this Toshigami was to Japanese.

Then what exactly IS Toshigami? Of course, there are many theories about Toshigami and details are not certain. But here' s a persuasive one, and I might as well wrap up this month's 'Seasonal Calendar', which already has become quite looong again.

The 'Toshi' part of the word Toshigami is generally recognized in Japanese as 'a year', though it is said that there is another meaning to this word 'the harvest of food grain', which almost automatically point to 'the harvest of rice' in Japan. Judging from this, it could be said that Toshigami must have been 'a god of rice ( fields )', 'a god of rich harvest', or 'the spirit of rice' to our ancestors, rather than 'the god of year'. ( When looking at these ancient Japanese beliefs in god, numerous gods are often talked about as an extension of animism, but they often tend to be different aspects of one god. )

In ancient Japanese beliefs, this god who were thought to have took control over the rice fields and its harvest, were believed to go back to the mountains after the harvest. During the winter season while he was gone, people thought that it was a period for all creation to turn in on themselves in silence, and while they were turning in, all nature were believed to enhance and grow its new vital energy.

When the winter solstice has passed away and the most terrifying moments of O-misoka night was over ( see the O-misoka page of our 'Seasonal Calendar of December' for more details ), the sun would rise in the sky again bringing the Toshigami back from the mountains, along with the vital energy and a new year. In that sense, the Toshigami could be interpreted as a source of vital energy.

In other words, (O)Shougatsu to Japanese was a time of year to greet and welcome the Toshigami, that is to say, the life source of all creation, to thank for his blessings of the last year and to pray for his continuing divine aid for the new year. Ancient Japanese actually thought that it was this blessing of Toshigami and his vital force, that extended their life span for another year. Therefore, it is thought that people exchange greetings 'Omedetou ( congratulations in Japanese )' for (O)Shougatsu even today, to confirm each other's feelings of joy and thankfulness of being alive.

Last Modified January 29th, 2007

Site of Reference

Shougatsu - Gogen Yurai Jiten ( Japanese )

http://gogen-allguide.com/si/syougatsu.html

Osechi-ryouri - Gogen Yurai Jiten ( Japanese )

http://gogen-allguide.com/o/osechi.html

Hatsumoude - Gogen Yurai Jiten ( Japanese )

http://gogen-allguide.com/ha/hatsumoude.html

Kagamimochi - Gogen Yurai Jiten ( Japanese )

http://gogen-allguide.com/ka/kagamimochi.html

Shimenawa - Gogen Yurai Jiten ( Japanese )

http://gogen-allguide.com/si/shimenawa.html

Oshougatsu ( Oshougatsu no Shikitari to Gyouji ) ( Japanese )

http://www.hankyu-dept.co.jp/seikatu/ 1-seikatusaijiki/1-1syogatu/syogatu.html

Susanowo to Nigihayahi no Nihonn-gaku ( Japanese )

http://blog.livedoor.jp/susanowo/archives/50056674.html http://blog.livedoor.jp/susanowo/archives/50056676.html http://blog.livedoor.jp/susanowo/archives/50056677.html

Bunka 1gatsu ( Japanese )

http://www.nijo.co.jp/linkpage/b_jan.htm