Out with the Old, in with the New
Author: Jeweliann Houlette
Unlike the lighthearted champagne and confetti fueled celebrations of New Year’s in many parts of the world, New Year’s in Japan has a reflective quality built into its rituals that acknowledge and purge the difficulties of the prior year before welcoming in the new year.
The traditions of New Year’s in Japan are rooted in both Shinto and Buddhist practices, with one of the most important traditions being ‘Hatsumode’ the first visit of the year to a Shinto shrine. Although the average Japanese person is not particularly religious, the vast majority of Japanese people will head to a shrine on New Year’s Eve, or in the first three days of the New Year. During this first shrine visit, people pray and make wishes for the upcoming year. Amulets are purchased for the new year, and as it is believed to be unlucky to hold on to ones from the previous year, old amulets are discarded. Purification being a focus of Shintoism, visitors to the shrine also wash their hands and mouths with water from fountains at these shrines, symbolically cleansing themselves from the impurities of the previous year. The discarding of the old in preparation for the new is also paralleled in the Buddhist practice of ‘Joyo no kane’, where the bells at Buddhist temples are rung 108 times on New Year’s Eve, symbolizing the purging of the 108 desires of humanity that lead to sorrow.
Cleansing of the previous year’s impurities doesn’t just happen at shrines or temples, but also in a more practical way, within the Japanese household. In the practice of ‘Osouji’, deep cleanings happen in many homes and offices, to start the next year afresh. Efforts are made to pay debts from the year and tie up any loose ends. Among the highly symbolic foods eaten for New Years, the acknowledgement of the past is also reflected in the eating of ‘toshikoshi’, or ‘year crossing’, soba noodles on New Year’s eve. In both spiritual and practical realms, New Year’s in Japan involves a sort of readying process, a cleaning of the slate, before the first sunrise of the new year.
Unlike Western celebrations of New Year’s which usually take place in the company of friends and romantic partners in eager anticipation of the big countdown, Japanese New Year’s celebrations are family-focused, and balance movement towards the new year with a reflection on the past. The traditional celebration of New Year’s in Japan is not so much glitzy so much as it is a nuanced acknowledgement and purging of the troubles of the past in preparation for the next year. These longstanding traditions in Japan are a sort of cyclical and reflective readying process, providing an ancient rhythm in an ever-changing, chaotic world.