Good-bye Rabbit, Hello Dragon

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Only one month to go, and the Year of the Dragon will be upon us. Shogatsu, the transition from one year to the next, is undoubtedly Japan’s biggest holiday period. Here are a few things you can expect:


While most Anglophone Westerners will soon be filling out stacks and stacks of Christmas cards to mail to friends, relatives, and acquaintances, the majority of Japanese will be doing something very similar with nengajo — New Year greeting cards. In years past I have done both nengajo and Christmas cards, and I am here to tell you that nengajo are better. Here’s why:

First, they’re cheaper. A nengajo is the size and shape of an ordinary post card. They don’t require envelopes and cost less in postage than Christmas cards do. Also, you can buy nengajo with the postage printed right on them so you don’t even have to lick a stamp. Best of all — at least according to a certain friend of mine — is that there’s nowhere to insert a form letter.

Second, they come in more variety. Nengajo themes change annually on a twelve-year cycle. That’s because each year in Japan is related to an animal of the Chinese zodiac. For example, 2000 is the Year of the Dragon, so everyone will be sending out dragon-themed cards this year. Last year was the Year of the Rabbit, so the available nengajo were adorned with cartoon rabbits, watercolor rabbits, woodblock print rabbits, and photographed rabbits. Because 1998 was the Year of the Tiger, I saw one nengajo on which a tiger in running shorts was handing off a relay baton to a similarly dressed rabbit. So, the rabbit may also come back for a curtain call this year, but all of the nengajo I’ve seen so far feature only dragons.

Another source of variety is the fact that although most people buy their nengajo at stores, a large minority makes their own. (This is true with Christmas cards, too, but I think it is more common with nengajo.) A postcard may not sound like much of an artistic canvas, but people do make the most of it. Some draw their own designs, others carve their own printing blocks, and many show off their calligraphy. Family photos are not unusual, especially if there has been a new baby during the year. A small number of families even have their kids do the designing

Third, nengajo can make you rich. The Japanese post office runs a lottery every year based on the serial numbers of pre-stamped cards. The winning numbers are published in every newspaper during the first week of the year. The only prize I’ve ever won was a booklet of commemorative stamps from the last Year of the Horse, but that was thrill enough.

One of the few drawbacks, however, is that regardless of how early the cards are mailed, the post office saves them all up to deliver in bulk precisely on January 1st. So, if someone mails you one and you forgot to send one to them, you will have no time to cover up. You’ ll just have to send them one late. Another potential pitfall is that families inmourning should not be sent nengajo. But just in case you didn’t realize that the mother-in-law of a casual acquaintance had died during the year, mourning families usually send out their own black-bordered postcards in early December to ask you not to send any nengajo, and to explain why you won’t be getting one from them.


Almost every worthwhile holiday on earth is associated with its own special foods, and New Year in Japan is no exception. Soba is especially popular because the long noodles remind people of long life. Eating soba during the holidays therefore supposedly increases your chances of surviving the coming year.

More distinctive than soba is osechi-ryori, or “New Year Cuisine.” This “dish” is actually a three-day supply of food served in a stack of lacquer boxes. It includes numerous small servings of many different items, each carefully prepared and pleasing to the eye. Like soba, most of them have some symbolic value. For example, golden candied chestnuts express a wish for wealth — or at least a more prosperous year than last.

Most osechi items are dried, pickled, candied, or otherwise preserved. In this way, the box can be left unrefrigerated in a household’s living room for several days for everyone to nosh on. With mom freed from her usual kitchen duties, the whole family can spend a few days together at home in an atmosphere of complete relaxation.

Of course, preparing the osechi in the first place was a huge project in itself for the traditional Japanese mother, and it required culinary skills that are no longer common. For this reason many families these days enjoy commercially prepared osechi. It has to be ordered in advance and can sometimes be quite expensive, but at least it fulfills its intended purpose.


The start of a new year is always a good time to reflect on what you want to achieve in the next chapter of life, which is why Americans like myself make (and break) so many New Year resolutions. Japanese with wishes to fulfill often invoke a higher power … in the form of a roly-poly egg-shaped doll.

His name is Daruma, and centuries ago he was a Buddhist monk who spent so much time absorbed in meditation that his arms and legs were said to have melted away. His eyes are very round, very white, and very large. They occupy most of his face, which in turn occupies the upper half of the ovoid dolls that represent him. The lower half is usually covered with red and white stripes. He’s basically just a giant head.

People often buy Daruma dolls at the beginning of some big project, or at the beginning of the year. When making their wish, people paint a black pupil in one of the doll’s empty eyes. When the wish is granted or success is achieved, they paint in the other eye. Until then he remains half-blind.

Kita-in temple in Kawagoe, Saitama is famous for its annual Daruma festival during the first week of the year. People from far and wide come to turn in their old Darumas and buy new ones. The old ones are burned in a bonfire, along with a variety of last year’s other good-luck charms. I went to the festival one year in the company of a bilingual friend to interview random strangers who were dropping off their old dolls. What had they wished for? Did they get it?

Almost everyone had wished for the exact same thing:

“Happiness for my family.” Only a few had asked for something more specific, such as that their adult children would finally get married or that their family would have a safe vacation in Hawaii. With only one exception, everyone said that they were satisfied with the results. The single dissatisfied party was a woman who complained that the Daruma had failed to bring her luck because a fire had destroyed half of her house. But who knows? Without the Daruma, maybe the other half would have burned down, too!


I can predict with a high degree of certainty that nearly every man, woman, and child in the entire Japanese archipelago is going to visit at least one shrine or temple during the first week of 2000. I can predict with nearly equal certainty that very few of them will be back again before 2001. This is a little ironic because the practice of visiting a temple or shrine at this time of year is called “hatsumoude,” which means ” FIRST temple visit.”

Christian churches usually save their most elaborate services for the high-attendance days of Christmas and Easter, but shrines are the same at Shogatsu as they are the rest of the year. At temples the only added frill is that the bell is tolled 88 times around midnight on New Year’s Eve. Each reverberating tone is meant to drive off one of the 88 evils that are said to beset mankind. The typical temple bell is a bronze object the size of a phone booth. When struck with a stout log, the result is a divine din.

Other than that, it’s the usual drill. You approach, you toss some coins in the offertory box, you clap your hands together, you bow your head for a moment of silent prayer. You leave. Normally the whole procedure takes less than two minutes.

If this takes considerably longer at Shogatsu — hours, in other words — it is only because of the crowds. When I paid a visit to Hikawa Shrine in Omiya, Saitama two years ago, there were about 30 police officers on hand for crowd control. This probably worked out to one policeman for every 1,000 visitors.

A crowd that large tends to be slow-moving and tightly packed. It’s not easy to drop your coins right into the collection box, so a lot of people just hurl a fistful of change in its general direction when they think they are within seven or eight meters of it. The temples and shrines try to provide larger targets by rigging up temporary lumber-and-canvas baskets the size of small cars, but people in the front ranks of the crowd feel an intermittent hail of coins bouncing off of their heads and shoulders.

One of my Japanese friends told me what I hope is an exaggerated story about his impious brother. The brother wore a sweatshirt to hatsumoude, pushed its hood back, and then stood for a long time at the front of the crowd in a pose of intense prayer. By the time he left his hood was bulging with money.

I hope that you enjoy your New Year holidays however you observe them, but this is one form of celebration that I don’t recommend. Aside from that bit of advice, you’re on your own!

Happy New Year.

Kotoshi mo Dozo Yoroshiku.

APPENDIX: Animal Years, 1901-2020 by Tom Baker

1901 Ox –1961
1902 Tiger 1962
1903 Rabbit 1963
1904 Dragon 1964
1905 Snake 1965
1906 Horse 1966
1907 Sheep 1967
1908 Monkey 1968
1909 Rooster 1969
1910 Dog 1970
1911 Pig 1971
1912 Rat 1972
1913 Ox 1973
1914 Tiger 1974
1915 Rabbit 1975
1916 Dragon 1976
1917 Snake 1977
1918 Horse 1978
1919 Sheep 1979
1920 Monkey 1980
1921 Rooster 1981
1922 Dog 1982
1923 Pig 1983
1924 Rat 1984
1925 Ox 1985
1926 Tiger 1986
1927 Rabbit 1987
1928 Dragon 1988
1929 Snake 1989
1930 Horse 1990
1931 Sheep 1991
1932 Monkey 1992
1933 Rooster 1993
1934 Dog 1994
1935 Pig 1995
1936 Rat 1996
1937 Ox 1997
1938 Tiger 1998
1939 Rabbit 1999
1940 Dragon 2000
1941 Snake 2001
1942 Horse 2002
1943 Sheep 2003
1944 Monkey 2004
1945 Rooster 2005
1946 Dog 2006
1947 Pig 2007
1948 Rat 2008
1949 Ox 2009
1950 Tiger 2010
1951 Rabbit 2011
1952 Dragon 2012
1953 Snake 2013
1954 Horse 2014
1955 Sheep 2015
1956 Monkey 2016
1957 Rooster 2017
1958 Dog 2018
1959 Pig 2019
1960 Rat 2020