Unique and Enchanting, the Japanese Winter Traditions are Full of Wonder!
It is interesting to see how every country in the world, with its completely different religions and cultural backgrounds, has developed its unique customs, events, and festivals during the holiday season. Japan has long-established customs and special events as well and it is exciting to introduce some of them to you in this blog. However, to begin with, I would like to explain one aspect of our background to make it easier for you to understand the uniqueness of how we spend the holiday season.
Tolerance makes Japanese culture rich and enhanced
Since ancient times, we have learned, accepted, changed, and developed religions, customs, rituals, political systems, and ideologies from foreign countries and modified them to match our lifestyles. By doing so, the uniqueness of Japanese culture has become established and is now spreading worldwide.
Let’s look from the religious aspect. According to the Agency for Cultural Affairs, in Japan, religious affiliation includes 87.9 million Shinto followers (48.5 percent), 83.9 million Buddhists (46.3 percent), 1.9 million Christians (1 percent), and 7.3 million adherents of other religious groups (4 percent). The category of “other” and nonregistered religious groups includes Islam, the Baha’i Faith, Hinduism, and Judaism. However, many of us are not aware that we belong to a certain religious group.
You may think that we are very strange that most of us are atheists even though we pray to gods and goddesses at the shrines and Buddhist Gods at the temples, celebrate the Advent of Christ, and eat halal food. You may also think we are not religious, but we do have faith in things surrounding us. Therefore, approaching this from the other side, we are very tolerant towards many things and try to understand how we can honor them while also having fun.
Would you like to count the numbers of ….?
According to the Teachings of Shinto and indigenous beliefs, there are thousands of gods and goddesses living in our surroundings from the beginning of creation. To some of you, it may seem strange that we believe in so many deities and use the plural form when discussing them.
When we are children, our parents and grandparents tell us that we are always protected and watched by them. For example, my parents and grandfather always told my sister and me not to leave rice uneaten. They said the gods live in each grain of rice and bring people health.
If you are curious, why don’t you count the grains of rice the next time you eat sushi at a sushi restaurant? The more you have, the healthier you become!
Unique Japanese Traditions Based on Folk Beliefs
Now that you know our attitude towards religions, keep that in mind while we look at some of our winter holiday traditions passed down from generation to generation.
12/13 - The day of demons (an extremely auspicious day on the lunar calendar for everything but weddings)
The day of demons in Japanese is “Kishuku-bi (Kishuku-niche)” meaning that the demons stay in the house, so they don’t harm people but brides who stay in the house to do housework. That’s why we shouldn’t get married on this day.
Because this is a very fortunate day of the month, we start a traditional housecleaning.” This year-end family event is to welcome “Toshigami-sama,” the deities of abundance and luck in the new year.
12/22 - The Winter Solstice
Like the Winter Solstice Festival in China and Yule in the Northern European countries, we celebrate the Winter Solstice in various ways.
We have food whose names end with “n.” The letter references “un” which means “luck” in English. So, we eat pumpkins (Nankin with double “n”) with our families and hope for better health. We also eat rice and red bean porridge because we believe that its reddish-brown color has a charm against evil spirits.
It is believed that taking a citron bath (Yuzu-yu) on that day was originally a form of purification to ward off bad luck before bringing in good fortune.
Mid to End of December - The Year-End Markets
There are year-end markets at shrines and temples all around Japan. People buy lucky charms such as kumade and hagoita there.
Kumade is a farming tool to rake up grain and fallen leaves, and because of their usage, they became popular among merchants as a good-luck charm to "scrape up gold and silver" and bring prosperity to their business.
We use hagoita when we play hanetsuki, Japanese badminton. Hagoita used to be a gift for newborn girls. People decorated it with many ornaments to ward off evil spirits and wish for their healthy growth. Now hagoita has become a lucky charm for health and prosperity.
12/31 New Year's Eve
New Year's Eve is considered to be the day to prepare for welcoming and enshrining Toshigami-sama. We stay up all night on New Year's Eve to welcome and worship Toshigami-sama, entertain them, and pray for happiness and a bountiful harvest in the New Year.
Many people eat soba noodles on that day. Some people say it is a wish that one's life and bonds with others will last long just like long soba noodles, while others say that soba is easy to cut, and therefore, eating soba helps us cut off all the bad luck and bad relationships of the year.
We also ring "Joya no Kane" (New Year's Eve Bell) at the temples. According to Buddhist belief, the purpose of ringing the temple bell is to eliminate 108 worldly desires we have such as anger, jealousy, and vanity. We hear the bell ringing as we welcome the new year with a calm mind.
1/1 New Year’s Day
Since ancient times, it has been believed that on New Year's Day, "Toshigami-sama” comes to each household to bring abundant harvest, longevity, good health, family safety, and prosperous business for the year ahead. They are mythological Shinto deities and refer to the following three deities; Ohtoshi no Kami, Mitoshi no Kami, and Wakatoshi no Kami.
The well-known greeting, “Akemashite Omedeto Gozaimasu (Happy New Year!)" expresses our gratitude for safely passing the New Year and welcoming Toshigami-sama. It is such an honor to have those majestic guests from the beginning of the year, isn’t it?
Various New Year's events and customs were created to welcome and celebrate them to bestow a lot of happiness. Because there are so many more, I would like to introduce them in the next blog.
Have you ever heard of a “Christmas cake”?
As you know now, we are very accepting of different religious beliefs, and one of the most peculiar things about Japanese customs is that we celebrate Christmas even though we are not Christian. Many of us greet each other by saying "Merry Christmas!" or "Merikuri!" for short on Christmas day.
We usually prepare a “Christmas cake” and KFC chicken instead of Christmas pudding or pie and turkey for Christmas dinner. My colleagues also have sushi, pizza, chicken bento, or ice cream cakes for dinner. Moreover, instead of going to church, some go to yakiniku restaurants.
Although Christmas is not a religious event for many of us, we love to gather with our family members, friends, or partners to have a nice, big dinner and spend a wonderful time together on that day. We also enjoy beautiful Christmas decorations and light shows, often called Illuminations, with them, and Santa always brings presents to children. Now you know why we love Christmas!
Try something "Nice" to make your life richer and more interesting!
We have a variety of customs and events from many kinds of religious beliefs and traditions. That’s because not only we are tolerant of those beliefs, but also because these events are so nice to have in our lives. We always enjoy them with someone we care for and want to spend a wonderful time together with them. Those customs and events always enrich our lives and we always have exciting and fantastic times during the holiday seasons.
I could write more, but there are too many things about Japanese holiday customs and events to fit into one article. It would be nice if you became fond of our unique culture, learned more about customs and events, and experienced them. I’m sure you will discover something you want to try, and I hope the experience will make your life richer, more amusing and beautiful.