The Japanese New Year, called Oshogatsu (お正月), is celebrated on 1 January, the same day as the new year is celebrated across the world. The first day of the new year is called New Year’s Day or Ganjitsu (元日). However, the meaning and length of the Japanese New Year has changed over the years, and it has only been celebrated according to the Gregorian Calendar since 1873.
The Japanese New Year was first based on the Chinese version of a lunisolar calendar called the Tang Lunar Calendar or Senmyo-reki (宣明暦), which was used for 823 years. Later, the Japanese astronomer Shibukawa Shunkai discovered errors in this calendar, and created the Jokyo Calendar (貞享暦). The last calendar in use before being replaced by the Gregorian Calendar was called the Tenpo Calendar (天保暦), used until the beginning of the Meiji Era.
Traditionally, the Japanese eat osechi (御節料理), which is composed of different meaningful dishes. For example, the red sea-bream, or tai, symbolized austerity. Another popular dish is called ozoni (お雑煮), which is a fish soup with mochi rice cake inside.
The New Year means sending postcards to friends, family, and even work colleagues. The post offices are very busy from the start of December until the start of January because of this. When postcards are sent before 24 December, they usually arrive exactly on 1 January anywhere within Japan. This is one of the wonders of the Japanese Post.
Various games are played at home, such as karuta, a game of poetry cards. Cards with the last part of a poem segment are scrambled on the ground, and cards containing the first part of the segment are put on a pile. One person reads cards from the pile, while the other participants try to find the correspondent card, and take it in order to gain a point. The person with most cards at the end wins the game.
It is also customary for the Japanese to go back to and stay at their parents’ house during the New Year.
The End of the Year
On the last minutes of 31 December, the joya-no-kane (除夜の鐘), or New Year’s Eve Bell, is rung 107 times all across Japan in Buddhist temples, and one last time when the date changes to 1 January, for a total of 108 times. This is done in order to get rid of the the 108 human sins.
There are also firework displays in many major cities across the country. If you are in one of the major cities without firework display, or living in a small town, it is possible to not see or even hear any firework at all at midnight. This is because private fireworks are prohibited in Japan, with the exception of handheld firework for kids.