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For the past few years, the media has been commenting that the Japanese お正月 (o-shōgatsu, new year) has become more カジュアル(kajuaru, casual) and 軽い (karui, light/trivial). While that may be true, 元旦 (gantan, the first day of the new year) is still a 祝日 (shukujitsu, holiday) of considerable weight. This year’s gantan also marks 平成最後のお正月 (Heisei saigo no o-shōgatsu, the last new year of the Heisei Era) and as such, we are expected to be a little more than casual about it.

Not that we need prompting — Japan has always had a special place for o-shōgatsu, arguably its most important celebration. The period affords us the perfect chance to ditch whatever is getting old in our lives to welcome (or in many cases shop for) the fresh and new. During the mid-to-late Edo Period (the 1750s till the 1860s), it was customary for the 豪商 (gōshō, wealthy merchants) to renew all the 畳 (tatami, tatami mats) and 襖 (fusuma, sliding doors) in their shops and living quarters — an undertaking that, by modern standards, costs as much as opening a new branch office. It was an extravagance some merchants could hardly afford, but they went ahead and did it as a way of indicating a 商売繁盛 (shōbai hanjō, thriving business).

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