Similar to Thanksgiving in the U.S.? – New Year’s in Japan

Thanksgiving and Christmas are now behind us for the year. But while these holidays are also celebrated in Japan, New Year’s is the largest holiday of the season for most Japanese people! Keiko Melville, one of JCMU’s Japanese language instructors in Hikone, discusses below how Christmas and New Year’s are traditionally observed in Japan.

Many people recently celebrated Thanksgiving with their family and friends in United States. Turkey, mashed potato and pumpkin pie are generally a big part of the traditional holiday dinner, right?

Well, you might be surprised to hear that Japan has its own Labor Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday! However, Japanese people do not celebrate Thanksgiving in the same way as most Americans. Rather, New Year’s Day in Japan is more like United States’ Thanksgiving Day, with family or friends coming together to eat a special New Year’s cuisine called osechi ryouri (おせち料理) and zouni (雑煮). Osechi ryouri consists of more than 15 dishes and is served in special lacquered boxes called juubako (重箱). Each dish symbolizes happiness and prosperity for the New Year.

Zouni is mochi (餅, Japanese rice cake) in soup. There are many local flavors and ingredients such as sumashi zouni (すまし雑煮), fish consommé soup with a squire shape mochi, which is popular in the Tokyo area. Shiromiso zouni (白みそ雑煮), white miso soup with rounded mochi, is popular in the Kyoto area. Interestingly in Shiga Prefecture, New Year’s is celebrated in two distinct ways. Generally, residents on the north side of Lake Biwa (including Hikone!) eat sumashi zouni.

After Thanksgiving in the U.S., you are bound to see Christmas decorations everywhere, with many purchasing Christmas presents. Black Friday, the big shopping day after Thanksgiving, has even almost become its own holiday! In fact, some Japanese shops have started their own Black Friday sales, like those in the United States. However, people generally buy the specially-priced items for themselves, not for Christmas presents. The Christian population in Japan is much less than in the United States, so most Japanese people do not observe the religious significance of Christmas. Rather, they have informal get-togethers and eat Christmas cakes with family and friends. At Christmas parties, they will drink and wish each other a merii kurisumasu (「メリークリスマス」).

Unlike in the U.S., sending Christmas cards to your friends or relatives is not a custom in Japan. However, it is a tradition to send New Year’s greeting cards called nengajou (年賀状). These cards are sent to relatives, friends, and important acquaintances by no later than the 7th of January. The most popular greetings used in these cards are as follows:

「あけましておめでとうございます」or 「新年おめでとうございます」
Congratulations on the new year!

Thank you for taking care of me this past year!

I look forward to working with you this year, too!

New Year’s cards have been decreasing year-by-year in Japan, possibly because some people find it troublesome to write them for everybody they know. However, many more are happy to receive them because they express the sender’s kindness and warm feelings. If you have a chance, I encourage you to write and send your own nengajou!

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