Japan from the inside out

Shogatsu: Japanese New Year decorations

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 1, 2008

JUST AS WESTERNERS observe Christmas by hanging wreaths or stringing colored lights on their home–or in some cases assembling elaborate tableux that cover the entire roof and front yard and use enough electricity to power a Thai village for a year–so do Japanese decorate their homes and businesses with distinctive displays during the New Year season.


One of the most common and visually striking of these decorations is the kadomatsu. The word literally means gate pine, because they are placed in the front of the home or business establishment. According to tradition, they were considered a dwelling place of the toshigami, the divinity who brings good luck at the beginning of the year. A kadomatsu incorporates several elements considered auspicious in Japan—pine, bamboo, plum, the colors red and white (represented with flowers), and crane and tortoise decorations. They are usually, but not always, displayed until 7 January. 

One horticultural company in Konko-cho, Asaguchi, Okayama Prefecture spent most of the month making kadomatsu decorations, and their work ended just two days ago. The company makes eight different models, ranging from those 50 centimeters high for placement on a desk to those two or three meters high for exterior use. Their mainstay product consists of three pieces of bamboo cut and arranged in a distinctive pattern. Ten employees worked all month to create about 100 by hand.

At one time, several companies in Asaguchi made this decoration, but demand has fallen in recent years, and only one remains. The chairman said the company makes the products with respect for the tradition so that everyone can enjoy greeting the New Year.


Another exterior decoration frequently seen at New Year’s is the shimekazari, constructed around a hanging straw rope. These are placed over the front door to signify that the home is the temporary residence of the toshigami and to prevent the entry of evil spirits. (No home should be without one!)

One company that makes the production of these decorations their seasonal specialty is the Shinshu Engimono Seisakusho in Minowa-machi, Nagano Prefecture.

The company hired 25 local farmers for the job, and they’ve been hard at work since September assembling these ornaments using straw harvested locally the month before. The company will ship 30,000 of them to area stores, where the most popular will sell for about 1,500 yen ($US13.36) each. This year, larger 70-centimeter models costing 6,000 yen ($US53.45) have been popular, with sales running 20% to 30% higher than last year. The company president observed that people often say New Year’s decorations sell the best when the economy is down, but after more than 30 years in the business, he hasn’t noticed a connection.


Just as American homes are decorated with poinsettias during Christmas, flowers are a common indoor decoration during the New Year season here. It’s no surprise that one of the most commonly used flowers is the chrysanthemum, which has been cultivated in Japan since at least the 5th century. It has long been associated with nobility, and a stylized representation of its blossom is used for the imperial household crest.

Okinawa is one of the primary chrysanthemum production regions in Japan, and horticulture companies there have been working overtime to ship their product to the four main islands. Starting at 3:00 a.m. on the 20th, there were five late-night flights from Naha filled with the flowers to Haneda airport for the Kanto region alone. They shipped an estimated 52,500 cases in that five-day period containing 10.5 million plants weighing 630 tons. The first flight was filled with 2,000 cases of spray designs of 400,000 flowers.


Just because an activity is traditional doesn’t mean people can’t come up with new twists, and one recent trend in New Year’s decorations has been the use of the phalaenopsis orchid. Companies have been putting in overtime to meet the demand for orchid shipments, producing flowers both in pots and cut for the market. The orchid is produced and shipped year round in Japan, but demand peaks at year end.

Companies report the most popular potted variety used for decorations contains three plants. A spokesman for one company says the business may not be so profitable this year, however, due to high fuel prices and heating expenses.

My wife tends to be a traditionalist, but which of these decorations did she choose for our house this year? The orchids, which are the least traditional decoration of all.

Women are inscrutable the world over!

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