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Every country in the world has its own personal highlight of the year, in the form of one massive, flagship holiday. For many of us here in the UK, our own occurs on the 25th of December, when the months of incredulous countdowns, panic-stricken shopping frenzies and emotionally-devastating advertisements finally culminate in one spectacular day of overeating, unwrapping and Uno. However, as we begin winding down from the excitement of Christmas by picking reluctantly at the Orange Cremes and Bounty Celebrations which are all that remain of the festivities, Japan is gearing up for its very own major holiday, which takes place every year on New Year’s Day.
Oshōgatsu (お正月), or Japanese New Year, is celebrated, shockingly enough, on the 1st of January. The keen calendar enthusiasts among you may well have noticed that this is the same date as our very own New Year. However, whilst New Year in the UK consists primarily of consuming an abysmal amount of alcohol and finally having an excuse to wear sequins, the New Year as celebrated in Japan is, much as it pains me to say, slightly more profound than our own. The first stage of the celebration occurs at midnight of the 31st of December, when many Japanese families will dress up in traditional kimono and pay a visit to their nearest shrine. At the same time, Buddhist temples all over Japan will ring their bells 108 times in a ritual called joyanokane (除夜の鐘), which is intended to cleanse the souls of the Japanese people and erase the sins of the previous year. It is, all in all, a decidedly more spiritual start to the new year than our own midnight traditions, which mostly entail drunkenly caterwauling along to Auld Lang Syne (despite the entire population of the UK collectively knowing no more than 20% of the lyrics), and in many cases considerably upping the total number of sins soiling our souls by the end of the night.
Whilst many Brits are consequently spending the first full day of the New Year face-down in a hungover stupor, the Japanese treat this auspicious day with a great deal more dignity. Given that, in Japan, the most important aspect of the New Year is the ‘first-ness’ of everything, many people will drive to the coast or climb a mountain (as you do), in order to witness the first sunrise of the New Year. Once the coastal drives and/or mountain climbing is done, Japanese families will then gather together to eat a magnificent feast called osechi-ryōri (御節料理), which features many small, elaborate dishes served in ornate lacquered boxes, certainly putting even the finest mixed-meat kebab and chips to shame.
The rest of New Year’s Day in Japan will then continue to pan out in a similarly dignified fashion, with a variety of family games, poetry reading and the custom of otoshidama (お年玉), in which children are presented with envelopes of money from all their close relatives. All in all, the Japanese treatment of the first day of the new year paints a picture of spirituality, family bonding and general loveliness, which shines in comparison to our own shoddy (and often ultimately anticlimactic) attempts to celebrate it. It seems, therefore, that we here in the UK could learn a lot from the Japanese take on New Year. Particularly with regards to the envelopes full of money. Close relatives, see that you adopt this practice immediately. For Japan.
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham