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).
Remnants of this custom still hold, as o-shōgatsu is widely recognized as a time for conspicuous consumption and hoping for 福 (fuku, prosperity and happiness), along with a strange desire to pipe out cliche 琴 (koto) music through public speakers.
Speaking of the past, the Japanese of old used to put more effort into their new year traditions. Nowadays, many can’t be bothered to write the proper 新年の挨拶 (shin’nen no aisatsu, new year greeting) of “明けましておめでとうございます” (“Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu,” literally “Congratulations on opening the year” but a stand in for “Happy New Year” said after Jan. 1) on a 年賀状 (nengajō, new year greeting card) unless it’s work-related — or to grandma and grandpa. Millennials tend to simply send out an “アケオメ” (“Akeome,” an abreviation of the longer greeting) on Line, or ditch the Japanese altogether and go for the English-esque “ハッピーニューイヤー” (“Happii nyū iyā,” “Happy New Year”).
If you’re wondering what to write on a nengajō, it’s best to avoid akeome and stick to akemashite omedetō gozaimasu. A more casual take on the formality are terms such as 迎春 (geishun, welcoming the spring), 初春 (hatsuharu, first spring), 賀正 (gashō, celebrating the new year).
One thing with nengajō, they shouldn’t be sent to people in 喪中 (mochū, mourning). If you should run into them after Jan. 1 and want to say something, leave out the “omedetō gozaimasu.” When sending a greeting in writing, use a plain postcard or letter paper instead of the usual nengajō. “謹んで新年のご挨拶を申し上げます” (“Tsutsushinde shin’nen no go-aisatsu o mōshiagemasu,” “I respectfully extend my greetings for the new year”) is the acceptable phrase in these cases.
The verb 謹む (tsutsushimu, to be mindful) is convenient to remember during the new year, and can be used in greetings to older people and workplace bosses, as well as family and friends. 謹賀新年 (kinga shin’nen, respectfully welcoming the new year) is a one-size-fits-all greeting, applicable to everyone and absolutely inoffensive.
The Japanese traditionally equate the new year with 春 (haru, spring), which may seem odd considering that the season is still a couple of months away. And we take for granted that gantan falls on the first day of January — but is that really true? The answer to both stems from the year 1872, when the Meiji government made the huge and sudden decision to switch the national calendar system from 旧暦 (kyūreki, an old-style calendar) to the western グレゴリオ暦 (Guregorio reki, Gregorian calendar). Until then, Japan went by the lunar calendar like everyone else in East Asia. 名残 (nagori, traces) of the old days can be seen in the way months are counted using the same kanji as 月 (tsuki, moon) and the days use 日 (nichi, sun).
On the old calendar, o-shōgatsu came in February. It was still cold, but the hint of spring was in the air and the 梅の花 (ume no hana, plum blossoms) were set to bloom later in the month, so people went ahead and called it spring. On the old calendar, o-shōgatsu also coincided with 立春 (risshun, the first day of spring) and that’s still seen in the way people refer to the new year with phrases like 新春 (shinshun, new spring) and the aforementioned geishun. In haiku, hatsuharu is still a very popular 季語 (kigo, seasonal word).
According to the old calendar, gantan for the year 2019 falls on Feb. 5, but for now I’ll leave all readers with a reliable 明けましておめでとうございます!