Do You Know These 14 Famous Japanese New Year Traditions?

By Donald Ash | Japanese Culture

Famous Japanese New Year's Traditions in Japan

Woohoo! It’s 2014 baby! If you haven’t celebrated New Year’s in your time zone yet, please let me be the first to travel back in time to wish you the best New Year ever!

Being in Japan often means celebrating the differences between cultures. One major difference between Japanese and American culture, among others, is that each country has its own unique holidays & national events. And each has its own, unique way of celebrating.

For example, America doesn’t nationally celebrate the children’s holiday shichi go san although I’m sure there are Japanese families living in America who do. At the same time, Japan doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, although many foreigners living in Japan who will get together for Thanksgiving dinner.

But one holiday that we do share is New Year’s Day. People all over the world treat the new year as a chance to change, a chance to start afresh, a chance to enjoy the company of family and friends, or in some cases a chance to see just how much alcohol it takes to wake up on a medical drip the next day.

In Japan there are a number of New Year’s customs & traditions that people devoutly follow year after year after. Here is a list of fourteen most common, Japanese New Year’s customs. If I missed any major ones, please don’t hesitate to contact me and let me know 😉 .

New Year's Decoration Japan

A classic Japanese okazari (御飾り) made with pine, bamboo (symbolizing good health) and a bitter orange (symbolizing generations).

1. Okazari お飾り おかざり

Putting Out New Year’s Decorations
Whereas the U.S. puts up most of their wreaths during Christmas time. Japan goes into wreath mode during New Years. There are probably a hundred different types of decorations you can have during Japanese New Year’s. The most common ones I’ve have seen are the wreaths hanging from doorways and awnings, as well as the pine, bamboo, and plum blossom floor decorations symbolizing a healthy, long life.

Anybody else noticed that many of these wreaths and decorations have an orange on them? It’s called a daidai (だいだい) and it has a double meaning.

This kanji “橙” is read as daidai in Japanese and it means bitter orange,

These two kanji “代々” which also say “daidai” can mean generations.

2. Osechi Riyori (お節料理 or おせちりょうり)

Japan has New Year’s food traditions that I was unaccustomed to in the U.S. Osechi or osechi riyori are to New Year’s day what at turkey dinner would be to an American Thanksgiving (but maybe not as over the top or fattening). I wasn’t aware until a friend told me, but each of these traditional foods has a special meaning for the new year.

One example is the kamaboko (かまぼこ). Kamaboko are generally steamed, fish paste cakes. On New Year’s, the red and white kamaboko are symbols of q384223& or the New Year’s sunrise. Another example that I found quite interesting (thanks, Kana) is that the shrimp (ebi) symbolizes having a long mustache or beard, which indirectly symbolizes old age or a long life. I think Wikipedia did a good job of covering some of the osechi meanings that I was unaware of.

3. Takoage (凧揚げ or たこあげ)

I know these are a part of New Year’s celebrations in Japan, but why? Are they just for decoration? Or do people actually run out in the bitter cold and try to fly these things? If you know, please enlighten me on this one 🙂

4. Otoshidama (お年玉 or おとしだま)

New Year’s Money
What easier gift is there to give than money? On New Year’s companies (the good ones anyway) give bonuses, parents and grandparents give money to kids, businessmen give money to their girlfri…ahem…wives. There is so much gift money changing hands, I was fully expecting to go outside this year to slew of Japanese people “making it rain.” Unfortunately that didn’t happen.

5. Late Trains

New Year’s is one of those days where staying out late, often because of the end of year countdown, is common. Good thing trains run later than normal, into the wee hours of New Year’s morning.

6. Drunkenness (酔っ払う or よっぱらう-Opparai)

Ah, what would New Year’s be without the time-honored tradition of being drunk outta one’s mind on New Year’s Eve? Judging by the number of tipsy and downright drunk, young men and women stumbling along the way to countdown for 2014, near Sakuragicho Station, right here in Yokohama I’d say the tradition is still being faithfully upheld. But then again, drinking culture in general is a major aspect of Japanese society.

7. Two famous New Year’s Drinks

Amazake (甘酒 or あまざけ) = A hot cup of this fermented rice drink on a cold winter day, can warm your spirits. I tried this sweet sake for the first time on January 1st, 2014, and it’s delicious! I’ve also heard that on New Year’s Day it’s okay for the kids to have bit of this, too.

p.s.-I don’t think people get drunk off of amazake, though (the alcohol was extremely weak, which is perfect for someone who doesn’t drink very much).

Otosou (お屠蘇 or おとそ) = The other New Year’s drink. This is a spiced sake which I haven’t had the pleasure of trying yet, but I undoubtedly will).

Japanese Sweet Sake

A gigantic vat of amazake (甘酒)! After trying a cup, I was about this close to dunking my head into this tub and turning the stand into a nomihodai (all you can drink).

8. Three Famous New Year’s Eve TV Programs

Very similar to how things happen on New Year’s Eve in America, there has to be something entertaining on TV for all of the New Year’s homebodies to watch (i.e.-I happen to be one of them)

Kohaku Utagasen (紅白歌合戦 or こうはくうたがっせん)
I would say Kohaku Utagasen is to Japan what is the equivalent of what Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve was/is to the U.S.. Tons of singing, tons of enka singing, two teams (red and white), and judges to declare a “winner” at the end of the night. Admittedly I’ve only watched some this program, but it’s wildly popular.

-Downtown Gaki no Tsukai ガキの使い
This show is a personal favorite. Gaki no Tsukai is one of the most entertaining New Year’s programs I’ve ever seen. Five comedians play an all night game where, where the goal is not to laugh. The concept is quite simple, but every year the producers come up with bigger and better ways to get the comedians to break. What’s the penalty for laughing in this game? A rather painful-looking bash on the butt with a dense, foam bat.

New Year’s Eve Fights
There has always been some type of fighting event on television on New Year’s Eve. Hopefully there’s some high-energy, competitive boxing. If you’re lucky it’s a cool, K-1 event with an excited, super talented fight card.

9. Nengajyo (年賀状 or ねんがじょう)

The New Year’s card
Oh man! New Year’s cards are CRAZY important part of celebrating the Japanese New Year. There is always a rush to send off New Year’s cards in Japan. While the rush doesn’t usually reach the “I’m going to strangle you over the last ‘Frisk Me Elmo'” frenzy level, it is a very important tradition, that most people do. It’s a very simple way to let people know that you’re thinking of them during the holidays.

New Year's Card Japan

A rather cute Japanese New Year’s card, also known as nengajyou (年賀状). Sending out New Year’s cards is a HUGE tradition in Japanese culture.

10. Mochi (餅 or もち)

Japanese Rice Cake
I’m not sure if there is any special meaning behind eating mochi on New Years, but people tear that stuff up in Japan! But around New year’s, I think people consume so much more than normal. How do you make mochi anyway?

11. Hatsumode (初詣で or はつもうで)

This is probably one of the most important traditions of a Japanese New Year’s celebration. At just about every shrine or temple you go to, you’ll find people walking droves to shrine halls all over the country, clapping twice, tossing a bit of money into that gigantic wooden box, and praying for a prosperous new year.

Yokohma's Sojiji Shrine

Japanese Hastumode (初詣) – making the first visit of the New Year to pray for a successful year. See all the people? This was at Sojiji Shrine in Yokohama. I’m sure places like Asakusa had even more visitors.

12. Hatsuhinode (初日の出 or はつひので)

A classic custom of the Japanese New Year is to see the first sunrise of the new year. I was asleep so I missed it.

13. Omikuji おみくじ= Fortune

Although you can find omikuji at any Japanese shrine on any given day of the year, on New Year’s Day, it’s important to go to the shrine to find out what your fortune is going to be. Why is this listed as number 13? Because I have gotten so many bad fortunes from these things that it’s not even funny. I try not to read omikuji during New Year’s because I don’t want to leave the prosperity of the new year up to a piece of paper I paid 100 yen for. It is a popular tradition, though.

Sojiji Shrine Omikuji

Whew! See all those tied pieces of paper? Each one represents somebody’s fortune. I may be wrong, but I thought people only tie up the bad ones. Does that mean that ALL of these people will have bad luck this year? That sucks!

14. The Countdown

What’s new year’s without a good old-fashioned countdown? In Japan the countdown is also quite popular. I wouldn’t say it’s as overblown as a U.S. countdown party (unless you’re in Shibuya maybe), but it’s a pretty common occurrence here.

In America

How do we celebrate New Year’s differently in America? It’s kind of hard to pinpoint one specific way because America is as diverse and as big as it is. Everyone celebrates the new year differently. In my mind though, Thanksgiving and Christmas are the holidays for spending quality time with your family.

For the younger crowd New Year’s is mainly about the countdown and partying the night away. Others may spend the first few moments of the new year in church or even watch countdowns/parades on television.

Are there really any official, American New Year’s food traditions? I honestly don’t know of any. Not to the extent that “turkey is for Thanksgiving”. I don’t know whether this is a southern thing or just a family thing, but I know my Mom would always make black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day because they are supposed to bring good luck for the new year. In addition we would have collard greens to represent healthy finances for the year. And yes, cornbread was also served with the very same meal (Donald squints his eyes, scanning for the first person to snicker).

How about you?

How did you celebrate the New Year? Partying? Sleeping? Champagne?
Please share in the comments section below (Huh? You wanna share pictures in the comments section too?! By all means 😀 ).


About the Author

Donald Ash is an Atlanta, Georgia-born, American expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last eleven years. While in that time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator of blog. Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.

  • Fran Ferran says:

    In Jamaica, people celebrate in different ways – going to church, going to New Years Eva balls, going to some type of dancehall session or party, going to stage shows and watching fireworks. I think those are the most popular ones. January 1st is somewhat of a family day too, not as big as Christmas but I remember my family always coming together for New Years dinner. Some people go to the beach in the day but it’s more of a relaxing day.

    New Years Eve I was with my friend in Gotemba catching up, eating weird Jamaican food and laughing the night away. It was a simple way to spend New Years Eve but it was actually quite enjoyable….That’s a good way to start my year, with good company and the thing I enjoy doing most – laughing.

    • thejapanguy says:

      Yeah, that sounds pretty similar to how I’d spend my New Year’s. I can’t claim to be the biggest party buff, so spending time with the fam and laughing as much as possible is an ideal New Year’s Eve for me. But going to a party on occasion just to mix things wouldn’t be a bad thing either.

      No dancing this year, Francine?!? Rumor has it you’ve some pretty serious moves (i.e.-the polar opposite of me) 😀

      Here’s to a Great 2014!

      • Fran Ferran says:

        No dancing to welcome the new year but there’s always a dance party going on in my apartment. I even had one
        I don’t know about ‘serious’ moves but if you call moving my hips and doing a few other little variations dancing, then I guess I’m not too bad. As for you not being a good dancer, I’d be willing to bet that you can at least hold a beat. If you can do that then you’re good to go..:-)

  • We celebrated Japanese style by watching Kohaku Uta Gassen and eating Toshikoshi Soba. Spent New Year’s Day with the Japanese family eating lots of delicious food and drinking sake, followed by Hatsumode on January 2nd. Happy New Year Donald! Hope you have a great 2014!!

    • thejapanguy says:

      That’s awesome! Sounds like a relaxing way to spend New Year’s Eve. Yeah I guess I had a bit of soba myself. Went to Sakuragicho to watch a ‘not-so-busy’ version of a New Year’s countdown, and rode the Cosmo Clock. Thank you soooo much. I hope the same for you Japan Australia. We gotta do something together this year! Deal? 🙂

  • Kendra B says:

    As a southern Californian it is a given that we always watch the Rose Parade! My college always wins awards for the floats we build too so it’s like a double obligation! 🙂

  • >