Language | New Year Special 2019

Traditional activities to ring in the new year

Shogatsu, or New Year’s holidays, are a special time for Japanese, who typically revisit and take part in long-standing traditions. It’s a time when those who left their hometowns go back to visit their families, invite relatives and friends to their homes and wear kimono. It’s also a time for foreigners spending the holidays in Japan to get a taste of the country’s traditions. Below are some of the traditions Japanese participate in over the New Year’s holidays.

Kakizome

Kakizome, the direct translation of which is “first writing,” is the first calligraphy written in the new year, typically on Jan. 2.

Jan. 2 was traditionally the first day for people such as farmers, merchants and others to go back to work and kakizome is said to be in line with this. In traditional practice, kakizome are burned at a dondo yaki, or bonfire, where kakizome, shimenawa (rice straw ropes), kadomatsu (bamboo and pine decorations) and other items unique to shogatsu are burned around Jan. 15.

However, writing was not for everybody until the Edo Period (1603 — 1868) when ordinary people began learning writing, reading and mathematics. At terakoya (a term for schools in the Edo Period), children first learned calligraphy and thus performed kakizome, and schools in the Meiji Era (1868 — 1912) and later eras carried on this custom.

In earlier years, educated adults used to write ancient Chinese poems with many kanji characters for their kakizome.

Nowadays, writing just a few kanji is the common form of kakizome, but not many adults engage in it.

However, most Japanese schools, from elementary through high school, still teach calligraphy and kakizome is often homework during the winter break.

Every year on Jan. 5, some 3,000 calligraphers gather at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward for a kakizome event.

Fukuwarai

Fukuwarai, a Japanese word combining “luck” and “laughter,” is a game played typically during the o-shogatsu period. Fukuwarai players don blindfolds or close their eyes and put paper facial feature cutouts — eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth and so on — onto a blank paper face.

The resulting face with the features randomly placed in the wrong places elicits laughter from those playing the game.

The face used for fukuwarai is typically called okame or otafuku, a woman with puffy cheeks — a look that was considered the epitome of beauty in medieval Japan, but comical today.

The origin of fukuwarai is unclear, but it is said that people began playing it in the late Edo Period and it became popular o-shogatsu entertainment during the Meiji Era. These days, with smaller households, grandparents living apart from their children and the emergence of modern board and video games, fukuwarai has fallen out of favor.

Fukuwarai is considered a lucky game because it is played by family members and makes them laugh during o-shogatsu. Also, Japanese associate the game with a proverb, “Warau kado niwa fuku kitaru” (“Luck comes to a house with lots of laughter”) as the game and the proverb both have the kanji character “fuku” (luck) in common.

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