The Highlights of the Japanese New Year Celebration

How do New Year celebrations in Japan compare to other countries?

Tradition Japanese Family New Year Feast
••• Steve West/Moment Mobile/Getty Images

If you're visiting Japan during the New Year, congratulations! It's a great time to visit the country. Contrary to popular belief, all cultures don't celebrate the occasion in the same way. While it's customary to party on New Year's Day in many countries in the West, the event has more significance in Japan. So, how does Japan ring in the New Year? Get the basics with this overview.

Names for the New Year in Japanese

In Japan, there are two different words to describe New Year celebrations and New Year's Day itself.

The Japanese New Year celebration is called shogatsu, and New Year's Day is called gantan. Just as it is in dozens of countries, Jan. 1 is a national holiday in Japan. But here's where the similarities between Japan and other countries drift apart. In Japan, the New Year isn't just another holiday, it is widely considered the most important holiday. In many countries that might be the case for Easter, Christmas or an independence day, but it's certainly not the case for New Year's Day.

How the Japanese Celebrate the Holiday

It's customary for people in Japan to say to each other "akemashite-omedetou-gozaimasu," or "Happy New Year," whenever they see each other for the first time after Jan. 1. In addition to greeting one another, food plays a huge part in New Year celebrations.

Japanese people eat special dishes called osechi ryori during shogatsu. They are packed in a Jubako box, which has several layers.

Each dish has a particular meaning. For example, they eat prawns for long life, herring roe for fertility and other foods for specific reasons. It is also traditional to eat mochi (rice cake) dishes during New Year's festivities. Zouni (rice cake soup) is the most popular mochi dish. The ingredients vary depending on regions and families.

In Western countries, such as the United States, food plays a role in New Year's celebrations as well, but to a lesser extent. In the American South, for example, it is customary to eat black eyed peas for luck or greens or cabbage for wealth. But these culinary traditions aren't shared by all Americans. 

Money and Religion

It is customary to give money to children during New Year's celebrations in Japan. This is called otoshidama. If you are going to family gatherings, it's good to have money available in small envelopes.

In addition to money, it is traditional for Japanese people to visit a shrine or a temple during New Year's holidays. People pray for safety, health, good fortune and so on. The first visit to a temple or shrine in a year is called hatsumoude. Many well-known temples and shrines are extremely crowded. Some temples and shrines see a couple of million visitors during New Year's holidays each year.

Holiday Closures

Most of the businesses in Japan are typically closed from about the 29th or 30th of December to the 3rd or 4th of January. Closures depend on the kind of business and day of week. In recent years, many restaurants, convenience stores, supermarkets and department stores have remained open during New Year's holidays.

Many department stores now hold New Year's Day special sales, so if you're in Japan during this time, you might want to do some shopping then.