Every country has its own traditions and festivities during the last month of the year, and they all have one thing in common; many December traditions have merriment surrounding them. Japan is no different, although the customs and parties in December might be a bit different from what you are used to at home. What are some typical traditions in Japan at the end of the year? And which customs and parties should you know about if you happen to be in Japan at the most festive time of the year?
‘Tis the Time to be Busy in December
December has been regarded as the busiest season for many since the olden days. Another name for December is ‘Shiwasu’, which means that even higher-ranked Buddhist monks need to run because many Buddhist rituals are held in this season. For the merchants, it was the most important time to collect all the receivables. Many customers used to make settlements only once a year in December. They needed to run to visit all of their debtors and finally collect what they have been working hard for during the year.
And how about now? If you are a company employee, you will receive your year-end bonus in December. It is almost a custom and not optional to give bonuses to the employees, no matter whether the results of the business were great or not so great at all. You can imagine that it is a very happy day for many company employees once bonus day rolls around, but it’s just as well because December is also the time to spend a lot of money.
December is traditionally the time for the so-called ‘bonenkai’ parties, which literally means ‘forget the year party’. It is an opportunity to get very drunk without having to care about what other people think because all those around you are just as drunk as you are. It is a good thing that many Japanese people don’t become aggressive when they drink, but merely first become happy and a bit noisy, and then often just fall asleep because of the nation-wide lack of proper shut-eye.
While the company year-end party will not set you back much as it is usually sponsored by the company, the year-end meetings you will have with your various groups of friends will definitely cost you. But for many Japanese people, these expenses are worth it as it is a great way to get merry with your friends and look forward to the new year to come. And thinking about healthy eating? That can wait until January, as just like in much of the rest of the world, new year’s resolutions are a big deal in Japan too.
Another December tradition that might cost you a lot depending on who you are is ‘oseibo’, a year-end gift which you are supposed to give to your boss, customers, and other people that you have been associating with. This custom also comes twice a year, just like a bonus. If you are the owner of a business, you may receive a lot of oseibo, but you also need to give a lot of oseibo in return.
Oseibo usually comes in the form of physical gifts and not cash. The most popular oseibo goods are; beer and other alcoholic beverages, processed luxury foods such as ham and cheese, and sweets and fruits. These gifts are basically the kind of things you will buy if you want to treat yourself or someone else.
Winter Equinox Day
In Japan, the exact days when the seasons change also known as equinox days, are treated as national holidays. On the winter to spring and summer to autumn equinox days, people will get a day off and they will often use these days to visit their ancestors’ graves and clean them up. The winter equinox day is the shortest day of the year, and it marks the beginning of the cold winter season.
One interesting Japanese custom is that on this day people will put a yuzu or another small citrus fruit in their bathtubs. In Japan, they believe that you can stay healthy during the winter if you soak in for a while in hot water infused with yuzu. It is also regarded as auspicious fruits that can drive away evil spirits and draw happiness. And even if that would not work, at least it smells really good and makes you feel relaxed.
As we explained in this article about Christianity in Japan, Christians only make up 1% of the Japanese population. In spite of this low number of Christians, many Japanese people will still celebrate Christmas in their own way. The Japanese-style Christmas celebrations don’t have much to do with religion, but the cozy atmosphere is recreated with Christmas trees, illuminations, and decorations all over Japan.
Many Japanese children believe in Santa Claus and will wait for their gifts on Christmas morning. Their parents prepare presents and place them on their bedside during the night often disguised as Santa Claus just in case the children wake up. They don’t go to church, but they will learn some classic Christmas songs such as Silent Night and Jingle Bells.
Christmas is… KFC?
And do you know what’s for dinner at Christmas in Japan? Is it turkey like in the US? No, it is actually fried chicken, especially from KFC. KFC has been very successful to promote chicken as a Christmas dinner in Japan! We also eat Christmas cake which is a cake with a lot of whipped cream and strawberries which are seasonal in winter in Japan, and many young couples will celebrate the holiday with a romantic dinner and a stay in a love hotel.
Between Halloween and December, there are a lot of Christmas decorations everywhere. But many foreigners will be surprised to see that they are only displayed until the 25th. Once the morning of December the 26th rolls around, all the shops, restaurants, shopping streets, amusement facilities, and train station employees will take out all the Christmas decorations and put up the New Year’s decorations. This means that the poor shop workers are very busy on Christmas night and will not have time to enjoy Christmas with their significant others.
Japan’s school kids will have a two-week winter holiday that starts from Christmas day. It is not called the Christmas holiday because the new year’s days are culturally more important for Japanese people, even though they celebrate Christmas. School normally starts again on January 7th, and most companies will start again on January 4th.
The New Year’s holiday is an exciting season for the children. They will enjoy a two-week holiday, they receive Christmas presents, and they will get ‘otoshidama’, which is new year’s gift money that relatives customarily give to their younger family members.
New Year’s Eve in Japan
So what cool parties are on for those who want to ring in the new year in a truly festive mood during NYE? First of all, it is good to know that sleepy towns and smaller villages will be pretty dead during NYE. A lot of people will just stay at home with their families and go to bed on time in order to catch the first sunrise. If that sounds boring to you, you had better stick to Japan’s larger cities like Tokyo, Nagoya, or Osaka.
There will also not be any fireworks in most places, if you want to see them you will really have to seek them out (there is a pretty good one in Yokohama) and the firework displays will likely be a lot smaller than what you are used to if you are from a country that has a fireworks tradition for NYE. In Japan, fireworks are just more associated with summer.
That said, there is plenty to do on NYE if you actively seek out the parties in the big cities. In Tokyo, you can go to the Shibuya scramble crossing if you want to have a Times Squaresque experience surrounded by mainly younger people, buy tickets for a classy event at a luxury hotel, or go clubbing in Ageha if you would like to dance the night away. Many people in Japan also like to spend NYE in a karaoke room with their friends to ring in the new year.
Besides the fun stuff, there are also many traditional customs surrounding New Year’s Eve, here are some of them.
Big house clean-up: once a year, people try to clean the house completely, a bit like a spring cleaning. It doesn’t have to be on New Year’s Eve, but it does tend to happen during the New Year’s holiday. Borders are important in general for Japanese people. For example, the entrance of the house is a border, so we take off our shoes before entering.
A torii gate at a shinto shrine is also a border, so we bow to show respect before entering the sacred area. Year-end is also a kind of invisible border, so we take out all the dirty things of the year that has passed. Another reason to clean up is to welcome the god of the New Year, so we put decorations on the door to welcome the god.
Osechi-ryori: (usually) mothers prepare osechi-ryori or New Year’s dishes so that they don’t have to cook during the first days of the new year when many shops are closed. There are many auspicious things in the dishes, for example, konbu seaweed is a symbol of happiness because of the phonetic similarity.
Kohaku-Utagassen (Song Battle of Red vs White): Kohaku-Utagassen is the most popular TV program on Japanese TV during NYE. It started in 1951, meaning that it has been continuing for 70 years! It is a battle between male singers (white team) and female singers (red team). The best singers of the year are selected for the show. The program is evening-filling and lasts for more than 4 hours.
Toshikoshi-Soba (soba noodles): While watching the show, many people will eat soba noodles. We call it year-passing-soba. There are several meanings attached to the soba you eat on NYE; soba has a double meaning as the word also means ‘close’, so the Japanese believe that the family gets closer and new year is getting closer by eating soba. Also, soba noodles are long making it a symbol of longevity which is why you should try to eat the soba without breaking it.
Bells of the New Year’s Eve: at the moment of midnight, it will be crowded at larger Buddhist temples as people watch the monks ring the bell 108 times. This number is not a coincidence, as 108 stands for the Buddhist belief that human beings have 108 sins. If we hear the sound of the bell 108 times, all these sins go away and we can welcome the New Year with a clear mind.
Manywelcome the visitors all night long. And some temples allow the worshipers themselves to ring the bell in turn. You can see the bell ringing ritual on TV right after the song battle program, too, a bit like the traditional clock that we see in other parts of the world at midnight on NYE.
Your Japan Tour
As seasoned Japan experts, we can help you create your perfect Japan tour that can also take place during the Christmas holidays, it is, in fact, a great time to travel because there will be fewer international tourists. Contact us to start planning your unforgettable holiday to this fascinating country full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, culture, history, nature, and delicious food!