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Sunday, 10 January 2016

The Japanese new-year preparation and celebration; culture at its best

Most people in the world consider the New Year a very special day, where each country/region has its own way of celebrating it. Having celebrated the New Year twice in Japan, I have to say that for Japanese people, this period goes beyond fun and entertainment. Oshogatsu, as Japanese refer to it, is a period characterized with busy schedules of various activities. I think this is the biggest holiday in Japan, for they do not really celebrate Christmas. In Japan, Christmas is more of a commercial activity where you find people buying and or wearing Christmas brands and products, illuminations in the cities, and “Santa clause” on a motorbike to deliver some pizza! But in the real sense, Christmas day in Japan is the time to evaluate your business, finish some experiment or attend a lecture, and most probably plan for an appointment with your client in January. I think end year period is quite hectic for the working class, but the New Year holidays give them a reason to smile and probably rejuvenate for subsequent working days.

Preparations (Decorations)     
They are not decorations as such, but for lack of a better word, I will call them so. Each of them has own meaning with the designs and components specified. 
One of such decorations is the “kadomatsu,” composing of plum, pine and bamboo plants. Going around shopping areas, offices, and even homes, the Kadomatsu stands conspicuously along the doorsteps clearly setting you into the New Year celebration mood. 
Hanging on the main doors of buildings is the “shimenawa,” consisting of twisted rice straws and white paper that sandwich an orange. The Japanese people believe that Shimenawa will protect them from evil and any danger throughout the year. “Bonsai” is another ornamental object (mini-garden) that has growing pine, plum and bamboo plants. 


Generally, the growing plants on the decorations symbolize longevity and prosperity. 
As such, any time you visit a Japanese house, office, or institution in the New Year you better beware of the importance of such decorations/objects.

Food and Prayer
Although Japanese are not strictly religious, they have time for prayer and meditation in the New Year. One is not compelled to visit the temple or shrine all through the year, but in the New Year, the urge and motivation can be felt. Temples and shrines all over Japan are filled with both the old and young. They all flock in these religious places for special prayers to ask for blessings and good luck for the whole year. Here, they also draw or buy lucky charms for success in one’s activities like sports, passing exams among others. Prayers petitions can also be written on wooden chips and be left in temple or shrine to be prayed over.     
Notably, special food (osechi in Japanese) is served in the New Year with every component of the food having its own meaning. One of such foods is kazunoko (fish eggs) that mean one be blessed with many children. Other foods include black beans, egg roulade, and shrimp or prawn, which symbolize health, wealth, and long life respectively. 

However, the taste and appearance of some of the foods has made me not sample (eat) all of them yet. I hope I will before I leave Japan!

New Year Cards
With all the enthusiasm and anxiety that comes with the Christmas celebrations and New Year, most of us like to show and receive love from the people we value in our lives. This can be expressed through various ways such as gifts, sending cards, and making calls. However, in Japan there is a 1,000-year-old culture of making the New Year even more interesting. This is by sending of the New Cards (nengajo in Japanese) to friends, family members, and business partners. Nengajo have been in use since the Heian Period, but came to a halt during World War II when there was a lot of tension in the country. The culture was again revived towards the end of the end World War II, when people used them to confirm the safety of their friends and relatives. According to Masami Ito’s article in the Japan Times, ones the cards reached the receivers, they could respond to confirm that they were alive and safe. The cards have a specific message written in Japanese: “Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu. Kotoshimo yoroshiku ongaishimasu” (Happiness to you on the dawn of the New Year. I hope for your favor again in the coming year- translation by Nihongo Instructor Club). However, in the current times, one can write an additional message or even personalize it to meet what they want to communicate. 

Some of the cards I received in the
New Year (2016)
Moreover, foreigners can write the message in their own language; I am yet to write one in Swahili. That is my self-challenge for 2017!
The nengajo has indeed been and is still one of the major lines of business in the Japan Post, but “With more and more people communicating via social media…one has to wonder how much longer thisannual New Year’s tradition will continue.” Indeed, technology has come in a big way to enhance communications especially for those who cannot be able to join their loved ones or friends for the celebrations. That is why Savvy Kenya implores you "keep up to date with the latest tech trends so that you never lose sight of family members during the holidays throughout 2016." In regard to this, Japan post has tried to introduce some new tactics such as personalizing the nengajo, where clients can go online and order for incorporation of photos and special messages before the cards are printed. It is my hope the young generation will have the urge to conserve this millennium-old culture.   

1 comment:

  1. Well written as always! Am looking forward to reading the next discovery.