Japan from the inside out

New Year’s in Japan: A month-long spree

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, February 6, 2007


MANY PEOPLE around the world view Japanese as worker bees whose dedication to the job is such that they won’t–or can’t—take any time off and wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they did. Times are changing; it’s a rare day when you can pick up the newspaper without seeing an article tucked towards the back on some aspect of the “slow life”. Yet a lot of noses are still being scraped on a lot of grindstones throughout the country on every day other than legal holidays.

Some would have us believe the origins of this trait lie in Confucianism, introduced to Japan more than 1500 years ago. A closer look, however, reveals that the worker bee mentality may have started with postwar industrialization and urbanization. By some accounts, people in agricultural Japan took things a lot easier.

In fact, they kept coming up with different ways to prolong the New Year’s holidays and take most of the month of January off.

Shogatsu is of course the biggest holiday of the year in Japan, roughly corresponding to Christmas in Western countries. Traditionally, people got three days off, and then, hi-ho, it was off to work they went. This is starting to get stretched out to a full week, however, particularly the last few years.

But back in the days Japan operated under a lunar calendar they found a way to have yet another New Year’s celebration on January 15th, roughly coinciding with the full moon. This was known as Koshogatsu (Little New Year’s), in contrast to January 1, which was called Oshogatsu, or Big New Year’s.

And since it was yet another New Year’s day—albeit little–they got to party all over again! People in the agricultural regions would hold Koshogatsu festivals with performers dressing up as toshigami, or the Divinity of the New Year. (Toshi meant both calendar year and rice once upon a time.) The toshigami, usually depicted as an old man, would visit each household to bring them blessings.

In many places, performers still dance—either the pony dance or the lion dance—or masquerade as demons, called namahage (second picture). These demons drop by every household and ask if there are any disobedient or lazy children. Just like Santa asking if you’ve been naughty or nice, except I’d rather sit on Santa’s lap than deal with those guys. The householders mollify them with food and drink, and then send them away with money and rice cakes. That’s some protection racket!


Koshogatsu ceremonies often involve collecting all the decorations for New Year’s ver.1 and burning them. One of the more well-known of these events, the Matsutaki (Pine burning) Festival is still held in the Osaki district of Sendai up north. The photo at the top is from a Matsutaki Festival. And since it’s a Japanese festival in midwinter, the men feel compelled to run around outside half-naked. It’s a tradition!

The Japanese don’t need much of an excuse to eat, drink, dance, or set bonfires, do they?

The month started off with Big New Year’s, and then after they recovered they did it all over again with Little New Year’s. That should be enough official revelry for one month, right?


From the 16th to the 18th, many places had what was called Ancestors’ New Year’s. During the earlier part of the month, families refrained from visiting their ancestors’ graves. They used this three-day period for the first cemetery visits of the new year. And according to my sources, they would have drinking parties next to the graves.

I wonder how hard it would be to convert to Shintoism.

Meanwhile, in the towns, merchants’ employees were given the 16th off so they could return to their families’ homes. This seems to have been a common practice up until the days just before the war.

Just about they time they recovered from the hangovers after paying their respects to the dead, they found time to have a Mugimeshi Shogatsu (or maybe it’s read Bakuhan) on the 20th. Mugimeshi is rice boiled with barley. Legend has it that this started when everybody ran out of New Year’s mochi rice cakes and had to scrimp. (Interesting—and typical–that they still had plenty of sake.) But more scholarly sources say the holiday originated as a ritual among the barley farmers of southwestern Japan in supplication for a bountiful harvest. Which is as good a reason as any for a party, I say.

In some places, they also had a holiday on the 25th called Shimai Shogatsu, or Ending Shogatsu, except it really wasn’t the end. February 1 also was made a holiday and given the name Hitei Shogatsu. At that point, the Japanese seem to have reached the limits of even their considerable ingenuity for coming up with excuses to keep the party going. But you have to be impressed with their ability to stretch one yearend holiday into a month-long bacchanalia. I’ll wager that’s a record even the Guinness people haven’t heard of.

Children in the West sometimes say they wish it could be Christmas every day of the year. In agricultural Japan, it seems as if they did their darndest to make every day of the year New Year’s.

You have to admit that’s an intriguing concept, but with that approach, you also have to wonder how they managed to get any work done the rest of the year.

Today’s Japanese are much more serious and sober-minded in January, spending the whole month working. But I have to suspect there’s something in the DNA that makes them pine for the old days.

Instead of turning January into a month-long party, they’ve just moved it up a month to December. That’s when everyone–even the local knitting club for old women–has their bonenkai, or forget the year parties.

One Response to “New Year’s in Japan: A month-long spree”

  1. Durf said

    People in agricultural Japan today take things very easy during the winter. When I lived in rural Tochigi the months from November to March seemed to be dedicated mainly to pachinko.

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