“Shogatsu,” the term for the New Year’s holidays in Japanese, is a time when people take the first three days of the New Year off to spend time relaxing with their families and engaging in traditional activities to remind themselves of their heritage.
Japanese children, especially those in rural areas, play some shogatsu-specific games. In urban areas, adults teach them how to play as they are becoming less and less familiar with those traditions.
Below are some examples of these traditional games.
Koma-mawashi (Spinning top)
As sung in the Japanese traditional song “Oshogatsu,” in which the lyrics, “Let’s fly a kite and spin a top during oshogatsu,” the koma, or top, is traditional entertainment over New Year’s in Japan, along with kite flying.
The word koma, when used in haiku poetry, is taken as a descriptor meaning January.
Tops became popular entertainment at New Year’s because toy shops worked to market them that way, according to the website of the Japan Spinning Top Museum in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture.
“In other seasons, there were many toys and things to do, but toy shops had very few items to sell in winter,” the museum says on the website.
A top stands up as it spins, and people associate it with the Japanese phrase of “standing on one leg,” which connotes a person becoming recognized as a responsible adult. A top, therefore, carries a positive image and toy shops decided to promote tops at New Year’s, according to the website.
After that, the “Oshogatsu” song debuted and newspapers and TV programs featured playing with tops as a New Year’s activity, according to the museum website. Eventually, tops came to be regarded as a New Year’s toy.
Tops are said to have come to Japan from China and the first written mention of a top in Japan was in a 10th-century document. The first time the shape of a top was clearly drawn was the 12th century, according to the website.
The oldest top was found in Egypt and is said to date from about 2,000 B.C. to 1,400 B.C., according to the website.
Tako-age (Kite flying)
Kite flying is one of the traditional activities done over New Year’s in Japan. It was a children’s favorite at New Year’s until a few decades ago, when computer games and other entertainment options became popular, leading to fewer children flying kites today.
However, convenience stores and toy shops still begin selling kites in mid-December, ahead of the peak demand period.
Kites are not necessarily a worldwide thing for New Year’s. Only in Japan is it popular at the beginning of the year.
The reason for this is because the Tokugawa shogun in the late Edo Period (1603 to 1868) only allowed people to fly kites during the New Year’s period, said Masami Fukuoka, the secretary general of the Japan Kite Association.
“Kites became extremely popular then. People had kite battles and sometimes kites fell on daimyo and aristocrats as they were traveling, and they got angry,” Fukuoka said. “So the government decided kites should only be allowed over New Year’s, when traffic was not so heavy. Also, New Year’s is a special time of a year, so they probably thought ordinary people should be allowed to fly kites at that time.”
While kites nowadays are solely for entertainment, they were used for military purposes when they were invented in China more than 2,000 years ago. On battlefields, people flew kites to measure the distance to their enemies and attached whistles to them to frighten or confuse opposing armies, Fukuoka said.
Kites are said to have come to Japan from China in the Heian Period (794-1185) and were mainly flown as entertainment for aristocrats, he said.
Hanetsuki, traditionally a girl’s activity, is a game in which two people each hold a “hagoita” wooden racket and hit a “hane,” or shuttlecock, to the other person, who has to hit it back without letting it drop to the ground. Whoever misses traditionally gets black ink painted on their face as a penalty.
The hagoita looks like a short cricket bat with a wider blade. The shuttlecock is made with feathers and a spherical piece of wood.
It is believed that hitting a shuttlecock back and forth will help one to avoid bad luck or evil, according to the website of Japanese Culture Iroha Encyclopedia, and playing hanetsuki over the New Year’s holidays is believed to ensure a year free of bad lack.
Also, flying shuttlecocks resemble dragonflies, which eat mosquitos, and thus it is thought that the longer the hane remains in the air, the greater the protection players will have from mosquitoes throughout the coming year.
Hagoita are often sold around the end of the year as decorations as well. Expensive hagoita can cost tens of thousands of yen.