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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Japan: New Year's

Sometimes I love being an expat. Knowing that a culture is different and celebrate the same holidays as you differently, and actually experiencing it, is exciting. Sometimes you think your customs are a given, pretty much the same across the globe. Everyone has New Year's, so everyone celebrates it pretty much the same, right? Not quite.

This post is late, I know, but I'm going to talk about New Year's in Japan. It will be the first in a series about Japanese holidays and festivals, ones I will post every month (as long as there is something going on that month).

New Year's is the most important holiday in Japan. If there is ever a holiday to be with family, to travel the country and visit your relatives, it's New Year's. For most Americans, Christmas is for family, New Year's for friends. Not quite in Japan.

New Year traditions start on December 31. That day is for cleaning the house. It can be anything from a nice vacuuming and polishing to a Spring Cleaning-style pullout-the-stove-and sweep-behind-it massive deal. The point of the cleaning is that you are getting the old out. You're starting the new year fresh and clean. Americans do it in spring because it is the season of renewal, plus after getting cabin fever in winter, you want to get rid of all the old stuff you've been staring at all winter long. The bad thing about cleaning in Japan is that it is winter. Twice now, I have cleaned the outside of the windows of my wife's parents's house. Not fun.

After cleaning and dinner, it's time to watch TV. America has the Rockin' New Year's Eve telecast. In Japan, the must watch show is Kohaku Uta Gassen, broadcast on NHK. Literally meaning "red and white song battle," the show is broadcast before midnight. Popular and well-respected singers are split into teams: red is female singers, white is male singers. The artists then sing in alternating turns; red, white, red, white, etc. A panel of judges, made up of famous figures in Japan, then judge which team did the best at the end of the show and award a trophy. Artists include SMAP, Arashi, Hamasaki Ayumi, Fukuyama Masaharu, and others. It is often a mix of pop and enka singers. Most artists have performed on the show before, some forty times or more. The show ends just before midnight.

Speaking of midnight, there is no nationwide countdown, no ball dropping from the 109 building in Shibuya. Midnight comes with little fanfare and the traditional New Year's kiss among couples is almost unheard of. It's common to visit shrines either at midnight or first thing in the morning. We did it right at midnight, this year. You pray for a good year ahead.

New Year's Day has its own special meal called osechi. Either homemade or store bought, most of the 
items have a special meaning. Shrimp is eaten to symbolize longevity; the bent shape resembles elderly people. Sweet black beans called kuromame are eaten for diligence. Mame, which means bean, also means hardworking. Fish eggs are eaten to symbolize many children.

This year's osechi.


New Year's Day and the day after are home to two popular TV programs: the ekiden, or long-distance relay race. The first is held on New Year's Day and is called the All-Japan Men's Corporate Ekiden Championship. It covers 100 km (62 miles) in seven stages. It is a popular event, and an important one for male runners.

But the most popular ekiden by far is the Hakone Ekiden. Spread over two days, five sections per day, and around 217 km (134 miles), the race consists of male university students. Women aren't allowed to compete. It is a big draw for TV viewers.
After the ekiden is over (January 3), there isn't much left to New Year's. Depending on what day New Year's is on, people may have time off or go back to work. The new year has officially started and it's time to begin life anew.
I hope you enjoyed this post. Look forward to more about Japanese holidays and festivals. You might be surprised how different some common holidays are celebrated. As always, comment below and thanks for reading.

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