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What is Shogatsu?

By Devon Pryor
Updated May 23, 2024
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Shogatsu, or oshogatsu, is the Japanese New Year. Shogatsu is celebrated from the first through the third of January. As a national Japanese holiday, Shogatsu is a time to be with family, and most businesses close. For the Japanese, Shogatsu not only marks the beginning of a new year, but also brings the previous year and all its goings-on to a close. Therefore, projects and duties should be completed. A bonenkai party, or “year forgetting party,” is the celebratory marker of the departure from the previous year, and all its worries.

As is the case with most holidays, Shogatsu carries with it a number of characteristic customs. Homes and entryways are traditionally adorned with kadomatsu, decorations made from pine, bamboo, and plum branches.

Customary Shogatsu foods include toshikoshi soba, a long buckwheat noodle eaten on New Years Eve that symbolizes long life. It is also customary to eat Osechi-ryori, a collection of traditional foods served together in the small sections of jubako box. Each food served in the jubako box carries its own symbolic meaning. For example, black soybeans symbolize health, while herring roe symbolizes the prospect of many children. Mochi, or sticky rice cakes, are made in the last days of the closing year, and eaten during Shogatsu. Mochi may be topped with persimmon or orange, and are used as a decoration as well as a food.

In addition to the bonenkai party, Shogatsu activities may include watching popular music television shows or flying kites. Games such as Hanetsuki, or Japanese badminton, and the card game karuta are also common. More traditional Shogatsu activities include sending nengajo to family and friends. Nengajo are decorated cards marked with greetings and auspicious symbols.

Otoshidama, or pocket money, is traditionally handed out to children in colorfully designed envelopes known as otoshidama-bukuro. It is also customary to visit shrines or temples during Shogatsu. The Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, for example, attracts millions of visitors during the three-day celebration.

During Shogatsu there is special meaning assigned to the first time something is done since the end of the previous year. Particularly important is Hatsuhinode, or the first sunrise of the year. After celebrating New Year's Eve, many people drive to particular spot where the sunrise can be clearly seen. Hatsumode is also of particular importance, as this is the first trip to a temple or shrine. Other important events include hatsugama, the first tea ceremony of the year, and shigoto-hajime, the first day back to work after the Shogatsu holiday.

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Discussion Comments

By aLFredo — On Nov 11, 2011

I have always thought our New Year's celebration here in America are pretty commercial and overall lame, at least from what I have experienced, as most holidays are overly commercialized and lame.

In light of this article, it makes me feel that our American New Year's celebration is extremely fake and lame. At least what is televised for us to watch is sad, because it is just so superficial and seemingly pretty meaningless.

Instead of us Americans getting together and becoming closer to one another, we usually end up further apart by the end of New Year's eve. Also, a lot of Americans just end up getting so drunk that they do not remember celebrating the new year, even if it was a meaningful night.

By tolleranza — On Nov 11, 2011

Shogatsu sounds like a very meaningful holiday. I wish America a couple days just to focus on spirituality and to focus on family and friends. This article makes me want to go to Japan to see for myself just how special this festival is.

It makes a lot of sense to celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of another. This is like celebrating the fact that when one door closes, another one opens. It is also a way to celebrate a new, bright beginning, which was made possible by the year ending and by having the festival.

I vote we add Shogatsu to our holiday list as of today! Who is with me? I know we can do these things on our own time, but it is difficult to get together unless most businesses shut down.

By fify — On Nov 11, 2011

The best part of Shogatsu traditions is definitely the food! My family is Japanese and my entire extended family lives here in the US and we have so much food for Shogatsu in our house, it's unbelievable!

My mom and aunts pride themselves with the food they make. They basically slave in the kitchen for three days before Shpgatsu because we're not supposed to do any kind of work during Shohatsu (so we can't cook). That's why there is a need for a lot of food, so that it lasts for at least three days.

My favorite Shogatsu dish is Osechi. I just love eating from a box! The fish, omochi (the rice cake) and sweet chestnuts are delicious too.

I did almost choke on an omochi once, so I eat it very very slowly. Apparently, many Japanese die from eating omochi on Shogatsu every year. It's really sticky and can get stuck on the throat if you're not careful. I always get scared eating omochi but I love it too.

By burcinc — On Nov 10, 2011

I lived in Japan for several years. It's true that O Shogatsu is a very spiritual or religious time for many people. Japanese like to welcome the new year with prayers and blessings, no matter what their faith is.

But every other aspect I think, is similar to New Years everywhere else. There is lots of good food, presents and partying!

I don't know why people think that the Japanese don't party on New Years, they certainly do, especially the young generation. Not everyone sits at home and plays games with family members. But they can if they want to since the celebration lasts for about a week, there is plenty time for everything. There are great New Year parties in Japan. The clubs are generally jam packed with people dancing and partying all night.

Gift giving is really popular too. All my Japanese friends would gift me on New Years. O Shogatsu is a really fun time. I miss it a lot, I can't wait to go back and have New Years in Japan again.

By candyquilt — On Nov 09, 2011

@whiteplane-- I agree, it seems more like a traditional family affair. I'm surprised to hear that there is a spiritual angle as well. If we had to compare it to the holidays celebrated in the US, it's probably way more similar to Easter than it is to New Years.

Do Japanese give gifts to one another on Shogatsu? It's generally a tradition in many different countries to gift each other small presents during New Years. Some countries that don't celebrate Christmas, generally buy gifts for New Years instead.

Is it the same in Japan?

By whiteplane — On Nov 09, 2011

I went to a Japanese New year arty when I was in college. It was hosted by the Japanese cultural club.

It was really a nice ceremony. There was traditional food, music, dancing and lots of good feelings. It was a nice counterpoint to the American celebration which seems to be mostly about drinking yourself into the ground until you can't remember anything that has happened in the last year. As far as festivals and holidays go this is one of the more elegant that I've ever been to.

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