Celebrating the New Year: American vs Japanese Style
New Year’s Day
New Year’s Day is a holiday celebrated around the world to welcome the start of a new year. Many commemorate the new year by attending events, making a toast with champagne, and eating delicious food. While many countries share the same holiday, it can be a different and unique experience depending on cultures, traditions, and customs. Many look forward to festivals and parties for the big day here in America, but it is considered to be one of the most important holidays in Japanese culture and represents much more than a single night of festivities.
American New Year’s
An American New Year’s consists of classic traditions including attending parties, watching the Times Square Ball Drop for the midnight countdown, watching fireworks displays, creating a New Year’s resolution, hosting potlucks, and much more. Some of the food that has significance for the new year in American culture include black eyed peas for good luck and wealth along with cooked collard greens to symbolize a prosperous new year. When midnight strikes, it is an American tradition to say “Happy New Year!” to friends and family and even share a New Year’s kiss between loved ones. Celebrations begin on New Year’s Eve and typically end on New Year’s Day before many head back to the office.
Japanese New Year’s
Japanese New Year’s consist of many activities including watching fireworks and the first sunrise of the new year, sending out greeting cards known as “nengajo” and money gifts known as “otoshidama”, along with hosting or participating in an event called “mochitsuki” to make fresh mochi. Similar to American New Year’s, New Years in Japan follows the same calendar and many stay up until midnight to participate in the ultimate countdown. While the Times Square Ball Drop is broadcasted in America, Japan hosts a live show known as Kohaku Utagassen, a singing competition between males and females to ring in the new year. Temple bells known as “joya no kane” will also chime 108 times, in which the 107th bell chimes on the 31st at 11:59pm and the 108th bell at 12:00am. It is a Japanese custom to say “Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu” to family, friends, and loved ones, which directly translates to “Happy New Year.”
New Year traditions and customs in Japan are much more complex and it is considered to be the most important holiday. Unlike America, the New Year celebration continues through January 3rd which allows people to spend quality time with friends and family and visit shrines and temples to pray for happiness along with good luck in the new year. Right before the start of the new year, homes are thoroughly cleaned following an annual tradition known as “oosoji” and decorated with items known as “kado matsu,” in which pine and bamboo stalks are set up on both sides of the home entrance to symbolize longevity and prosperity. Another traditional house decoration is known as “kagami mochi,” which translates to “mirror rice cake” and consists of a stack of two rice cakes or mochi topped with a Japanese orange. The round shape of mochi represents harmony in the family and the stretchy texture symbolizes hope for longevity.
Food is an incredibly important part of Japanese New Year’s, in which each type of dish holds a special meaning and serves well wishes for the upcoming year. A traditional New Year’s Eve meal is a hot soba dish known as “toshikoshi soba” in which the soba noodles represent longevity. New Year's Day is filled with dishes including sashimi, mochi soup called ozoni, and most importantly, osechi ryori. Osechi ryori consists of traditional Japanese foods packed within a 2-3 layer box known as jubako. This multi-tiered box symbolizes the hope that happiness and wealth will come in a continuous cycle, and consists of classic dishes including sweet rolled omelette or datemaki, sweet black beans or kuromame, and daikon and carrot salad or namasu.
Even with cultural differences, an important factor that both American and Japanese New Year’s share is that it brings people together through celebration and food, along with emphasizing the importance of family, health, wealth, and happiness.