The Japanese New Year culture

Did you know that until the Meiji era, the Japanese New Year calendar was similar to the Chinese calendar? It was only until 1873 that the Japanese New Year changed for the Gregorian calendar, however, all the traditional customs were maintained. January is a great time to discover Japan! The Japanese New Year culture is also great occasion to learn many new Japanese words!

First of all, the Japanese New Year is called “shou gatsu”, “正月” which literally means “the principal month”. The first day of January is called “gantan” 元旦 but… the morning of the first is called “ganjitsu” 元日! Be careful with the kanji as they are very similar. On that day, all the nengajou – the New Year’s postcards, are delivered by Japan post office and family will share the delicious “osechi-ryouri”, the typical new year’s dishes. In early January, it is custom to visit shrine with family or friend in order to pray for the next year. As it is the first visit of the year, it has the special name of “hatsumoude” and it is written with the kanji for “first time”: 初詣. In fact, everything that you will do during January may have its special word composed with “hatsu”:

  • The first dream you will have in January is called “hatsu yume”: はつゆめ、初夢.
  • The sunrise on the 1st of January is called “hatsu hinode”: はつ ひ の で、初日の出.
  • The first shipment of the year is called “hatsu ni”: はつに、初荷.

Simply saying… January is the season for the “first everything”!

This visit is often done during the first three days of the Japanese New Year, called “shougatsu sanganichi” and written with the following kanji: 正月三が日. Another way to speak about the beginning of a year, is the word “nenshi”, composed of year and beginning: 年始. Japanese people go greet family and friends at the beginning of a New Year and there is also a special word for it, composed of “nenshi” and the word for “salutations”, “aisatsu”: “nenshi no aisatsu” 年始の挨拶.

The Japanese New Year is the time for “otoshidama”, お年玉, a custom of giving money to children in small and decorated envelopes called “pochibukuro”.  The amount may vary from one family to another, but it shall always be the same if there is more than one child. Originally, the Japanese people were giving mochi and mandarin orange to those around them in order to spread happiness.

When your New Year’s vacation ends, you will resume your work and your first day back at the office is called… shigoto hajime, しごとはじめ、 仕事始め! But Japanese people do not dread coming back to work as in January they will organize the shinnen kai, 新年会: the New Year’s party!

Learn some useful questions to start conversation with your colleagues and friends after the New Year celebrations:

  • どんな年末年始を過ごされましたか?
    Donna nenmatsunenshi o sugosa remashita ka?
    How did you spend the celebrations of the New Year?
  • 初詣はどちらへ行かれましたか?
    Hatsumoude wa dochira e nasaimashita ka?
    Where did you do for the first visit of the shrine?
  • お正月休みはいかがでしたか?
    Oshougatsu yasumi wa ikaga deshita ka?
    How were your New Year’s vacation?
  • 今年はどのような初夢を見られましたか?
    What dream did you do for this year?
    Kotoshi wa dono youna hatsuyume o mi raremashita ka?

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