New Year’s Superstitions in Japan

If you’ve spent some time in Japan, you’ve probably become pretty familiar with many of the most well-known traditions of shogatsu (New Year): heading back to one’s hometown for the holiday, staying up late with family and friends and watching beloved shows like Kohaku Uta Gassen, and making the year’s first visit to a shrine.

But did you know that there are also some superstitions here about what you should and shouldn’t do during the holiday, which runs roughly from January 1 to 3? To give you a little more insight into shogatsu, GoConnect has put together a short list of some traditional beliefs that have grown up around this major Japanese holiday.

Ring in the Year with a Fresh Slate

As midnight approaches, the New Year is literally rung in—to the sound of temple bells around the country. This tradition is known as Joya no Kane, and it involves ringing temple bells 108 times before the start of the New Year. The number is significant because in Buddhist belief, there are 108 desires or passions that can influence us in a negative way. By ringing the bell once for each desire, the bad deeds of the past year are washed away, letting us all start the New Year on the right foot.

Stay Away from Cleaning

And now that you’re off to a good start, there are some things that are traditionally avoided during shogatsu. The first of them is not cleaning during the holiday. In Japanese households, a thorough cleaning is done before the end of the year. But once the New Year is here, not only is it a time to take a break from tidying up, it’s also traditionally believed that cleaning during the holiday will scare away any benevolent spirits that might be planning to pay you a visit. So keep that vacuum cleaner in the closet!

Cooking Don’ts

There are also two superstitions related to cooking during the New Year holiday. Similarly to cleaning, food preparation for shogatsu is done beforehand. (The hallmark food of this time of year is osechi ryori, which you can learn more about here.) That means that families mainly spend their time feasting on traditional dishes and not spending much time in the kitchen. And if you need a little more motivation not to cook during the holiday, these two superstitions should do the trick.

The first is not to do any cooking that involves boiling water. Why, do you say? Well, it has to do with the Japanese word for the residue that often boils off from ingredients when you cook them—aku. Even though the word is usually written in hiragana, its kanji is 灰汁. But this word shares a pronunciation with the kanji used to write the word evil: 悪. In olden times, this association was enough to keep those pots off the flame.

The next no-no relates to using knives to cut ingredients during the holiday. The meaning behind this superstition doesn’t have to do with words, but actions. It was believed that if you use knives to cut ingredients during the holiday, you may cut ties with people in the year to come. So our recommendation is just to stick to the osechi—or make a run to the konbini if need be.

Good Ideas, Any Time of Year

Sometimes you need the power of superstition to make you do things that you know are good ideas to begin with. That’s where these two shogatsu superstitions come into play. One of them says that you shouldn’t have arguments with people during the holiday. The belief is that if you start the year fussing with people, you’ll spend the whole year doing the same thing. And—whether you believe in bad luck or not—because you’re probably going to be spending time with friends and family during the holiday, these are the last people you want to be arguing with during your time off.

Another superstition is a hard one not to fall afoul of these days: that it’s bad luck to spend money irresponsibly during the break, because it will mean that you will have a hard time saving money in the year to come. Traditionally, many businesses close during shogatsu, which can make it easier to hold on to that cash. But, between sales online and retailers selling fukubukuro—”lucky bags” that contain a trove of items that are usually worth more than the total price of the bag—we won’t blame you if you fudge things a little on this one…

Dream a Little Dream

For thousands of years, cultures around the world have found significance in dreams. Japan is no different, and also has a shogatsu spin on the practice. The first dream that you have in the New Year is called hatsuyume, and is believed to reveal what will happen to you in the coming year. Of course, you want this dream to be an auspicious one, so there is one practice that is said to help you have a good dream: putting a picture of the traditional Seven Lucky Gods under your pillow.

Some of the luckiest things to dream about are Mt. Fuji, hawks, and eggplants. One theory about the good fortune connected to these elements has to do with the sounds of the words and their associations. Fuji sounds similar to a word that means immortal (fushi), and is the tallest mountain in the country; the word for hawk (taka) shares a pronunciation with the word “high” or “lofty”; and the word for eggplant is nasu, which can also mean “to accomplish.”

The holiday is just around the corner, and even if you take all of these superstitions with a grain of salt, here’s hoping you have a relaxing New Year’s break, and a happy 2022!

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