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Jibun-tachi no Bunkasai - The New Year in Japan

Godai and Kyoko rang in the New Year in a seemingly boring fashion each time it came around, sitting around the kotatsu, drinking tea, eating crackers while watching the telly. Chiyo-chan and the gang went to the temple, clapping and praying for the success of their upcoming entrance exams, only to ring in the declaration that Tomo-chan was doomed to bad luck and ultimate failure. Suka-chan witnessed Ikeda Mitsuru punch through the paper doors during winter cleaning, his favorite aspect of the Japanese holiday season.

The cultural significance of the New Year in Japan is seen frequently in its animation and comics. Most Westerners have seen the string of activities associated with the New Year, but don't quite understand all of the varying aspects of one of the more important holidays in the Japanese calendar. Here's a primer to the Japanese New Year; learn it and amaze the Japanese by your coy use of the katsumode and excellent choices in O-seibo (crabs and lobsters).

Spring/Winter Cleaning, or How I Learned to Love Toshigami

Toshigami, the God of the New Year, is said to visit the house of every Japanese family on the islands, bringing with him good luck for the following year. To prepare for his arrival, families, shops, cafes, and other establishments go through excessive 'spring' cleaning. Not only does it give people the chance to get down and really scrub off the food scraps off the kitchen floor, but it's also done traditionally to purify the household of the triumphs, tribulations, and tragedies of the past year, to create the clean slate for the New Year, and as a welcome to Toshigami. Most families also hang a bamboo and pine decoration on the door called the kadomatsu, which is said to usher in good luck for the following year.

O-seibo, The Most Importantly Dull Part of the Season

The more significant of the New Year traditions is one rarely seen in animation and comics, an act that is both so mundane and so adult that it is only referenced in jokes or in parody. The end of each year brings 'O-seibo', the End of the Year gift. Families scramble at the end of the year to provide presents to those whom they owe some sort of gratitude or respect to, most commonly between employers and employees in the company structure.

The O-seibo selection is commonly the job of the housewife, who figures out who deserves these pricey gifts and what they should be. Thus, the department store industry of Japan has increasingly gone all out to provide these New Year shoppers with many beautiful options and with presentations of sausages, seafood, and coffee.

The type of gifts given as O-seibo can be seen as a bit odd to the Westerner, who don't really consider food stuffs to be a great gift when compared to gifts such as fashionable accessories or technology. Yet the O-seibo provides the chance for the recipients to enjoy more choice culinary fare than could be present in their normal lives. The common gifts in 2002 were beer, coffee, fresh foods, hams and sausages, usually of a more luxurious nature than the cheese and sausage one usually affords themselves at the local supermarket.

O-seibo gifts have continued to become more elaborate as time has progressed. The 70's and 80's saw housewives purchase cooking oil or some basic spices for the O-seibo. Increasingly in the 90's and the new millennium, Hokkaido snow crabs, lobsters, choice cuts of beef, and even elaborate ice cream sets are sold through O-Seibo catalogs, running both at a high price and at a high level of respect from recipients.

In this culture, which prizes such elaborate signs of respect, the O-seibo plays an important aspect through the turning of the years.

Nengajo - I've Got Your Holiday Card Right Here

Seemingly emulating Western traditions of the Christmas Card, the Japanese send exhaustive amounts of New Year cards called Nengajo. These cards, printed on nice paper stock and tied with an elaborate bow, are sent to nearly every family member, friend, and acquaintance of the family. The post offices of Japan plan well in advance for this slew of deliveries, collecting them all prior to December 25th, and distributing them all on January 1st. Most Japanese buy government-sponsored Nengajo, in which each card serves as a sort of lottery ticket, giving some people some of that New Year luck with some cool cash to burn in their coffers.

Christmas in January - Otoshidama

In the spirit of giving, most children look forward to the Otoshidama, which are envelopes of money they receive from their parents. The amount usually exceeds that of the child's monthly allowance, so naturally most retail chains move right past Christmas and into the Otoshidama buying season.

Dream of a Better Tomorrow - The First Dream of the New Year

Common mythology dictates that what one dreams during the night into the new year foretells how the upcoming year will unfold. Thus, many different icons have taken on the significance of good luck, so if you are fortunate to see either birds, eggplants, or Mount Fuji in your dreams, then that, my friend, is the key to your future success in the brand-new year.

Ball Drop... uh, I mean, Bell Strike. Countdown to Infinity

Whether it's just the immediate family spending the evening huddled under the kotatsu, or going home to the extended family back in the countryside, the New Year is marked as an important time to spend with the family, not to be popping shots at a mass rate as the ball goes ever closer to crashing in. (Not that I'm debasing this great Western practice.)

Most families spend New Year's Eve in the living room watching television, usually partaking in the many specials and celebrations that the TV stations bring out, notably the yearly musical show on NHK, the "NHK Red & White Songfest", which pits the most popular singers in J-pop in a competition with each other. With 2003 marking the 53rd such televised event, the TV has become a staple to the celebration of the New Year.

Of course, food ushers in a form of significance into the quiet festivities. Noodle shops go insane, filling out all the orders for toshikoshi soba (End-of-Year Soba), and mothers and housewives take time to make a couple of plates of mochi, much of it served in a special mochi soup.

At midnight, Buddhist temples across Japan ring out 108 peals of the bell to signify the ushering in of a new year. This does not, however, mark the end to the celebration.

Foretell the Future, Ring the Temple Bell - Hatsumode

Even before the sun rises, heralding the birth of the New Year, most of the country flocks to the numerous Shinto and Buddhist temples to partake in Hatsumode, the First Visit of the Year to the Shrines. Over two-thirds of the population visit the shrines on January 1st, crowding the famous shrines and overflowing the train services, which run 24 hours on New Year's Eve to accommodate those interested in attending after the first peals of the bell ring forth at midnight.

While traditionally this was done to formally greet the Toshigami, the God of the New Year, it has since become a more mundane yet enjoyable outing, with most people going to pray for things such as love, better luck in the New Year, and for most students, good luck on their upcoming entrance exams.

After the temple-goers ring the bell and give their prayers, most usually buy divinations on their future, which they then tie in a bow to the bough of a tree, in order for the wish to come true. This is why if you get a 'bad luck' fortune, it's probably best to rip it apart as soon as possible, as young Tomoko did in 'Azumanga Daioh'.

The temples are completely crowded with people until January 4th; when most return to work, ready to start anew, thus ending the four-day affair. Many Japanese do much to prepare for the New Year, a centuries-old marker of religious and cultural traditions evolving through the cosmopolitan era. So don't be left out in the cold if you find yourself in Japan during the New Year festivities; eat up and keep warm, and you'll be on the right track.

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