Cover stock photo: PhotoAC

New Year’s in Japan is a combination of hectic scrambling and blissful sloth that lasts weeks. Here’s an overview of the New Year’s holiday in Japan, keeping in mind that just like any other traditional holiday, not all people do everything.

Unique New Year’s decoration at Izumi Crane Observation Center in Izumi City, Kagoshima (where the author spent New Year’s this year!)

The first thing to understand about New Year’s is the time frame. In the US, it last two days: New Year’s Eve on December 31st (possibly wear silly hat, drink, eat things, say “Happy new year!” at midnight”), followed by New Year’s Day on January 1st (sleep in, nurse hangover, pledge various things). In Japan, New Year’s lasts much longer. For example, government offices were closed from December 29 to January 3rd, so the New Year’s holiday lasted a full 9 days for those who took Friday the 4th off.

During New Year’s, many folks hang out at home with family. People travel back to their family home after the holiday begins, and return to their current address before work starts. This can mean crowded airports and sold-out seats on bullet trains. Also, many places shut down over the holidays with some exceptions like convenience stores. This includes restaurants, supermarkets, shops, and tourist attractions. Some will shut down just on January 1st, but others could be closed from the end of December all the way through the first week of January.

Poster with “kadomatsu” decoration and boar, this year’s zodiac animal. Stores use these posters to show when they’ll open after the holiday. This store opened on January 4th

There are plenty of things to do to keep a person occupied inside the house. Those who haven’t yet sent out their New Year’s greeting cards will be frantically churning those out. The house also needs to be prepared for the new year by being thoroughly cleaned, and then festooned with decorations. These decorations to invite the gods and protect the house from evil spirits include kadomatsu, a bamboo ornament placed at doors, and shimekazari, decorative straw ropes hung at doors and windows.

Shimekazari, decorative straw ropes hung at doors and windows

You can’t have a major holiday without food. A smorgasbord of traditional foods called “osechi ryori” may either be prepared or bought (or ignored altogether if no one wants to cough up the money or effort). Each dish in osechi ryori symbolizes good luck in a different way: some are for long life, others for health, and others for academic success. For example, kazunoko (herring roe), with all its eggs, symbolizes being blessed with children/grandchildren.

An example of osechi ryori (public domain image from Wikipedia)

Once all the hectic bits are taken care of, New Year’s is a time to eat, sit around, spend time with family, and watch TV. On New Year’s Eve, some households watch a musical contest on TV waged between male singers/bands (the white team) and female singers/bands (the red team) which lasts for more than four hours. Just before midnight, the TV suddenly switches from celebrities to monks at various Buddhist temples bonging away at large bells. These bells are rung 108 times to get rid of the 108 worldly desires for the new year.

OK, so, our worldly desires have been bonged away. We have arrived in 2019! Happy new year! What do we have to look forward to in 2019?

Boar cartoon holding “fukubukuro,” discounted grab bags sold after the holiday.

All the cute boar products

People less familiar with the zodiac learn the next year’s animal with a double take at the local department store. I learned 2019 was the year of the boar when I saw something with a print of little boars cavorting around. If you like boar-themed products, this is your year!

A new era

You may think this is 2019, but in Japan, we also call 2019 “Heisei 31.” This era name shows how long the current emperor has been on the throne. In spring 2019, Emperor Akihito will abdicate the throne, Crown Prince Naruhito will become emperor, and the Heisei era will end. We’ll find out what this new era will be called a month before abdication, in April. We’ll also celebrate the new era with an extra-long vacation: the Golden Week holiday will last for 10 days.

A decision on the ILC!

Also in 2019: finally get to find out what will happen with the ILC!

As of this writing, we are waiting for the national Japanese government to make a statement on the ILC by the ICFA meeting on March 7-8. May the government charge ahead—like our friend the boar—toward a positive statement on the ILC and international negotiations!




【写真 出水ツル観察センターでの門松】

まず、意外かもしれないのは、休みの期間の長さ。アメリカの場合、「お正月」というのは、大晦日~元日の二日のみを示します。大晦日は、おいしいものを食べて飲み、12時に“Happy New Year!”と言い、元日になると、二日酔いから回復しながら新年の決心をする人が多いかもしれません。しかし、日本のお正月は、それよりもかなり長いのです。例えば、官公庁は12月29日から1月3日まで閉庁なので、2019年1月4日(金曜日)を休んだ職員は9日間もの連休になりました。