Before anyone had a chance to shrug off their beach sandals and pack away their tank tops to make room for long-sleeved shirts and jackets, the Seibu flagship department store in Ikebukuro Station announced that it would start taking reservations for osechi ryōri — traditional Japanese New Year’s Day food — on Sept. 21.
The 21st of September. No joke, that’s the earliest starting date ever — and a 17-day difference from last year. The Halloween decorations were barely up and most department stores had only just started advertising Christmas cakes. Seibu Ikebukuro seemed to have skipped two commercially important holidays and jumped right into 2014 with a prominent display on the food floor of the store featuring dozens and dozens of lacquer and wooden boxes crammed with colorful New Year’s delicacies.
“We wanted to give the customers a surprise,” says Toshikazu Kameya, a planning staff member from the food department at the Seibu flagship store in Ikebukuro.
According to Kameya, Seibu Ikebukuro’s decision to start marketing its New Year’s lineup was made to boost sales by getting a head start over its competitors.
The move reflects the growing confidence among Japanese consumers due to a set of economic policies undertaken by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe designed to stimulate economic growth.
“The economy has been improving as a result of ‘Abenomics,’ so we think that customers have more spending power. We have more customers who want to purchase something a bit nicer for New Year’s compared with last year,” says Kameya.
Department-store sales have been increasing since last year. However, the increase has been attributed to those who can afford luxury goods, while sales in other areas such as grocery stores remain stagnant.
“Those with assets are strongly benefitting from Abenomics, and that has an effect on the consumption of luxury goods,” says Masaya Sasaki, an economist at Nomura Research Institute’s Center for Strategic Management & Innovation. “The high sales of luxury osechi ryōri are likely one indication of this commercial effect.”
Nonetheless, the department store has taken its selection of osechi ryōri up a notch. In particular, Seibu Ikebukuro added more high-quality products to choose from in the ¥50,000-and-up range.
“On average, customers are spending ¥1,300 more than last year,” Kameya adds.
In other words, customers are upgrading the osechi that they’re buying this year. For example, last year’s ¥15,000 box of New Year’s delights is being turned down in favor for the more luxurious ¥20,000 or ¥25,000 items on display, which contain more delicacies or higher-quality ingredients. For those who are still tight on cash, the department store offers ¥10,000 options. If Abenomics has been kind to you this year, you can even dish out ¥205,800 to purchase a three-tiered lacquer box that includes evenly sliced sashimi, black beans with gold flakes sprinkled on top and an entire red snapper.
Although Seibu Ikebukuro declined to give exact numbers on how many boxes of osechi have been sold so far, it did reveal that as of the end of October, reservations are up by 136 percent.
However, the recovering economy doesn’t fully explain why Japanese people are willing to pay a little bit extra for their traditional treats this New Year’s Day. There’s another, warmer reason: If all your nearest and dearest are going out of their way to get together on a day that comes only once a year, you might as well splurge to have something nice on the table. The custom of serving osechi dishes at New Year’s stretches back 1,000 years and is steeped in symbolism, with items such as stewed black soybeans and herring warding off evil and inviting fertility, respectively. The dishes can be too complex to prepare at home, which is why many people splash out on prepared osechi boxes for the family table.
“The Great East Japan Earthquake was an opportunity for Japanese people to rethink their family ties,” says Kameya. “More people started to realize the importance of having the entire family together to celebrate a traditional Japanese New Year’s.”
For those not accustomed to celebrating New Year’s Day Japanese style, the dozens of different boxes filled with brightly colored treats may be a bit overwhelming. The first rule is to buy something big enough to fill the stomachs of the number of people you’ll be expecting on Jan. 1. Seibu Ikebukuro makes navigating the various products on display easier by putting a card next to each box indicating the number of servings.
Kameya’s best piece of advice: “If a lot of people come together, it’s only natural that everyone will have a range of different tastes. There are those who want Japanese-style food and there are those who want Western-style. In that case, osechi ryōri from a famous hotel is the best bet. Since there are a lot of restaurants within each hotel, the osechi ryōri boxes usually contain Chinese, Japanese and Western food.”
Finally, it’s never too early to place your order. The number of items in stock at any department store, hotel or even convenience store is limited — and the most popular osechi ryōri boxes tend to sell out quick.