New Years in Japan: Its History and Traditions

New Years in Japan: Its History and Traditions

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Osecchi Ryori
How the oldest celebrated holiday in Japan has changed throughout the years, and the traditions that have come along with it.

New Years is one of the most important holidays celebrated almost universally throughout the world. New Years in Japan, or oshougatsu, is not just the biggest and most important holiday. It’s also the oldest and one of the longest.

The Unknown Origin of Oshougatsu

Oshougatsu, which means New Years in Japanese, is the oldest known holiday celebrated in Japan, recognized from as early as the 6th century. Because of this long history, the exact origins are not known. Many point to its origins in Buddhism and believe it was introduced along with the religion. Along the way, it’s accumulated various Shinto rites and rituals as well.

People originally celebrated New Years in Japan according to the Chinese Lunar Calendar up until the Meiji Period. However, in 1873, Japan adopted the Gregorian Calendar. After this, the country switched the main date of celebration to January 1st.

New Year’s Eve and New Years Day are the most important dates of the holiday. However, many in Japan view the entire month of January as a special festive month. This is similar to how many people in the West enjoy Christmas traditions for the entire month of December. Much of the last few days leading up to the January first are important in terms of preparation. People stay busy with final year-end errands, cleaning, and decoration.

Preparing for the New Year: Out with the Old, In with the New!

Bounenkai (忘年会; Year End Parties)

Bounenkai, or End of Year Party
An End of Year Party (bounenkai), where participants celebrate the success of the past year, and then promptly forget about it with the help of alcohol. (Picture: Fast&Slow / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Forget ugly sweater parties. In Japan, the end of December is all about bounenkai, or “End of the Year Parties”. Bounenkai roughly translates to “a party to forget about the old year.” At these events, usually organized by companies for their employees, and by groups of friends and families, people gather for a night of food, drinks, and games for the purpose of letting go of the worries and cares that the past year has brought, and looking forward to a fresh new start.

An important food to eat before the end of the year is soba, or buckwheat noodles. These are symbolic of clearing out any negativity left behind from the old year. Practiced since the Edo Period, soba noodles are an important meal to include because they are easily broken down. Because of this, people believe that eating them at year’s end breaks down and clears away any remaining stresses and negativity. Thus you can enter the New Year with a fresh, clean slate.


Oosouji (大掃除; House Cleaning)

Cleaning out the home in preparation for the new year is a worldwide concept. But the Japanese take it to another level with oosouji. The word itself translates into “house cleaning”. But it’s seen as a much bigger event, similar to the Western idea of spring cleaning. Oosouji is symbolic of preparing the home to welcome the Shinto deities of the New Year. Because of this, there’s a spiritual element involved. You clean out, not just physical dust and debris, but also negative entities and evil spirits. This tradition is said to have originated in the Heian Period [1] as a ritual of praying for an auspicious new year.

Japanese New Year Traditions


kadomatsu decoration, historically used as a prayer for an abundant harvest. (Picture: bj_sozai / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

In the West, people decorate for Christmas with pine trees, snowflakes, and all kinds of cute, sparkly ornaments. In Japan, people decorate for the New Year in a similar fashion.

Kadomatsu is a decoration of bamboo and pine that is displayed to welcome Toshigamisama, the Shinto deity that represents a rich and abundant harvest for the new year. The pine in the decoration represents prosperity, longevity, and vitality.

Shimekazari is another important decoration for welcoming the Shinto gods and warding off evil spirits. It is an ornament made of sacred Shinto straw ropes called shimenawa and mandarin oranges, and usually hung on the front door of the home. Custom has it that this decoration marks the border between the outside world and sacred space.

Osechi-Ryori: Symbolic Food & Treats

Foods and feasts are an important part of any holiday. However, none are as essential and symbolic to a new year as Japanese traditional Osechi-ryori. Dating back to the Heian Period, osechi was traditionally served on special bento boxes called jubako. Each food represented a special wish for the new year.

Some of the most common foods you will find in a typical osechi set include:

  • Chestnuts, which represent wealth
  • Kobumaki, or kelp rolls, which represent happiness and fertility
  • Shrimp, which represent longevity
  • Black beans for health and wellness
  • Renkon, or lotus root, for purity and a happy future
  • Gobo, or burdock root, for strength. [2]

Otoshidama and New Year’s Greetings

Otoshidama - New Years' money
The giving of cash: A tradition that any child anywhere can get behind. (Picture: masa / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Another tradition especially popular with children is the giving of small monetary gifts called otoshidama. However, originally it wasn’t money that was exchanged, but rice cakes!

In Shinto tradition, rice cakes were prepared and offered at shrines to Toshigamisama. Later, they were handed out to the people in attendance at the shrine. As the years passed, this tradition eventually evolved as well. It became similar to the Chinese tradition of adults giving children small red envelopes on the Lunar New Year. 

otoshidama are usually given out to young children from around toddler age until about 20 years old. The amounts typically range from ¥500 to ¥10,000, gradually increasing as the child gets older. [2]

Adults may not exchange gifts. However, New Years cards, or Nengajo, are a very important part of the tradition. Similar to the western tradition of sending Christmas cards to family and friends, these New Year’s greetings are often sent as postcards.

Historians say the negajo tradition dates to noble families exchanging letters back in the Heian Period. Back then, many nobles lived too far away to offer New Years greetings in person. When the postal system was established in the Meiji Period, the tradition evolved with the times.

New Years Eve Celebrations

In the US, many people spend New Years Eve at home with family watching the ball drop in Times Square. Japan has a similar modern-day television tradition. However, instead of the ball, they’ll likely be watching one (or both) of two popular New Year’s Eve shows.

Joya no Kane: Ringing of the 108 Bells

Joya no Kane (除夜の鐘), or the ringing of the shrine bells on New Years Eve, is originally a Buddhist tradition. Buddhist belief holds 108 as a sacred and auspicious number. (It represents 108 paths to God, as well as 108 impurities that we must strive to avoid and clear away.). Thus, the bell is rung 108 times.

Some TV stations broadcast this Tolling of the Bell Ceremony live for comfortable viewing from one’s own home. However, some shrines also hold the ceremony for the public, and offer the opportunity to ring the bells by oneself. [3]

NHK Kouhaku Uta Gassen

NHK’s Kouhaku Uta Gassen (NHK紅白歌合戦 ), sometimes known simply as Kouhaku, is the most popular New Year’s Eve TV program, and comparable to America’s Times Square Ball Drop. NHK broadcasts it live on TV and radio every year. The Kouhaku is a musical event in which the most popular artists of the year compete. Contest hosts divide competitors into teams of male and female artists, respectively grouped into white and red teams.

Started in 1951 as a radio-only broadcast, Kouhaku has become one of the most popular and anticipated events of the year. It’s considered a huge honor for any artist to receive an invitation to perform. The show runs in the evening and ends just before midnight. Thus, viewers can fully enjoy both the entertainment and the following tradition of watching the Bell Tolling Ceremony.

Hatsumoude: First Shrine Visit of the Year

As previously discussed in our article on Japanese Shintoism, many of us are aware of the importance of shrines in Japanese culture. However, no shrine visit is as big an event as hatsumoude, or the first shrine visit of the year.

Traditionally held exactly at midnight, at the very start of the first day of the New Year, hatsumoude is usually performed within the first three days of January. Many people go together as a family. However, some choose to make it a personal event and go either by themselves or as a couple.

During this visit, it is customary to offer thanks, and pray for your new intentions for the New Year. As with any shrine visit, it is important to follow the same etiquette you would at any other time. This begins with purifying yourself and ending with giving thanks to the gods. It is also common to purchase omikuji, or fortune papers. These predict your luck for the New Year.

It is also viewed as auspicious to watch the first sunrise of the year, called hatsuhinode. If you visit one of these shrines at midnight or before dawn, don’t forget to turn your eyes skyward and make a wish upon the sun!

Japan’s Take on New Years Resolutions: Goal Setting & Celebration

Daruma doll
A daruma doll. One eye is painted in when an intention is set, and the other is filled in when the intention has been fulfilled. (Picture: HiroS_photo / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

No New Year’s tradition is complete without the setting of new intentions. The Japanese also set their resolutions, but in the form of goals. Many people keep track of these goals with the help of cute, traditional dolls called Daruma (達磨).

Daruma are round, hollow figures modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, and usually red in color. The doll gets its unique shape from a famous legend surrounding Bodhidharma. The famous monk spent so many years in meditation that his arms and legs fell off. (Or so the legend says…)

Daruma are small figurines with blank eyeballs, in which you fill in the pupils yourself with a black marker. The first pupil is drawn once you set your resolution. This usually takes the form of a goal you want to accomplish. Then, you set your one-eyed daruma in a place where you can see it often. Thus, the daruma serves as a reminder to stay focused on that goal. Once the goal has been achieved, you fill in the second pupil as a symbol of having accomplished your goal.

While the red daruma is the form traditionally associated with this figure, Wikipedia JP documents no less than 11 different types of daruma [4], including the black Takasaki daruma, the colorful Matsukawa daruma, and even a female version, the Hime daruma.

Shinnenkai: New Year Parties

Similar to the Bonenkai, it’s also customary to welcome the New Year with Shinnenkai, or New Year Parties. These are celebrated in a similar fashion, usually by companies or in groups of families and friends, and serve the opposite purpose of the year-end parties.

Now that the old has been cleared out it is time to welcome the new year and all the luck and fortune that you pray it will bring!

Fukubukuro: Japanese Black Friday

Finally, one of the most anticipated shopping events of the year, especially by young people, is the selling of fukubukuro (福袋), or “lucky bags.” On New Year’s Day, many shops and retailers put together huge discounted bags of random items on sale. Many people gather early to get their hands on these limited-time sale items. (think post-Thanksgiving Black Friday sales in America.) However, the difference is that the buyer usually has no idea what they’ll get until they open the bag. It’s an exciting shopping lottery.

Merchandisers usually group together related items of a certain value and sell them at a set price. The most popular of these lucky bags are from clothing stores. You choose a bag based on your size and pay a certain amount for a random selection of items. (This is usually in the $100 range.) For example, one lucky bag might include a surprise top and bottom combination, with an accessory or two to match.

Crafting Your Fukubukuro strategy

If you wanna get your hands on one of these special bags, preparation is key. Some locations are extremely limited and may require a voucher to purchase one (not unlike needing a VIP ticket). Additionally, these bags are generally non-refundable and non-exchangeable. In other words, make sure you’ll be happy with whatever outcome. If you’re still uncertain, grab a couple of friends who are willing to split the cost with you. Divide the contents equally, with each person choosing their favorite item. [5]


Japan has a long-lived culture with a rich religious tradition grounded in the syncretism of Buddhism and native Shintoism. As a result, it’s crafted a body of New Years’ traditions that are as diverse as they are beautiful. If you ever have the chance to ring in a new year in Japan, don’t pass it up!

Hatsumode: The First Shrine Visit of the Year in Japan


[1] よい年を迎えるために。お正月までにやっておきたい5つの準備.

[2] 「おせち料理の意味ってなに?」おせち料理の意味と由来、ルール.

[3] 除夜の鐘》意味と由来・大晦日・歴史・回数・108回・つき方・時間・煩悩.

[4] だるまの種類.

[5] When Did Fukubukuro Begin?

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Krys Suzuki

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native speaker currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher, Krys now works full time as a J-to-E translator, writer, and artist, with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture. JLPT Level N1. Shares info about Japanese language, culture, and the JLPT on Twitter (SunDogGen).

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