This post introduces various Japanese words and phrases that reflect/explain how Japanese people spend holidays before and after the New Year’s Day.
Table of Contents
Before New Year
師走 (しわす, shiwasu)
師走 (shiwasu) is a traditional Japanese word meaning “December”. It consists of two kanjis, 師 meaning “teacher/master/monk” and 走 meaning “run”. One theory of its etymology has it that it would originate from how busy monks are in December (and thus it often connotes the sense of “a hectic month”).
メリクリ (merikuri) is short for メリークリスマス (Merry Christmas) and is often used by young people. There is also a famous Japanese Christmas song titled “メリクリ”, sung by BoA.
クリぼっち (kuri bocchi)
クリぼっち (kuri bocchi) is a Japanese slang word meaning “spending Christmas Eve/Day alone”. It’s short for クリスマスぼっち, where ぼっち means “be (always) alone or isolated”. Every year, a plethora of Japanese people call themselves クリぼっち, lamenting not having company to spend Christmas with. The popularity of this word arises from the fact that Christmas is one of the most important events for couples in Japan, and their holly-jolly faces seen in brightly-lit cities on Christmas Eve/Day prompt クリぼっち to feel very lonely and wallow in self-pity.
忘年会 (ぼうねんかい, bounenkai)
忘年会 (bounenkai) literally means “forget-year party/gathering”. In Japan, it is very common to have such gatherings among friends at Izakaya (a Japanese-style bar) and enjoy drinking near the end of the year. In fact, even some companies organise 忘年会 to “foster camaraderie” in the workplace, although many people regard it as annoying and old-fashioned (especially because you feel almost obliged to attend it and yet have to pay for it by yourself.)
年越し蕎麦 (としこしそば, toshikoshi soba)
年越し蕎麦 (toshikoshi soba) literally means “soba noodles for passing the end of the year”— it is one of the Japanese traditions to have soba noodles on the New Year’s Eve. One theory says that people would have started eating soba noodles, which are thinner and easier to cut than other noodles like udon, to disconnect themselves from bad things that have happened to them in the year. (Another theory says people would have wished for long longevity by eating the long noodles).
大晦日 (おおみそか, oomisoka)
大晦日 (oomisoka) means the New Year’s Eve, i.e. 31 December. On this day, a lot of Japanese people watch the Japanese traditional TV show “紅白歌合戦 (こうはくうたがっせん)”, where a great number of popular male and female musicians perform their songs as we head towards the end of the year.
除夜の鐘 (じょやのかね, joya no kane)
Contrary to the boisterous way people in many other countries celebrate the start of the new year with fireworks and stuff, Japanese people traditionally welcome the new year in a very quiet manner: we listen to a temple bell ringing in the new year (either on TV or on the spot). The bell is called “除夜の鐘 (joya no kane)”, and usually tolled 108 times in total, 107 of which are done just before 0 am and the last one upon the arrival of the New Year. In Buddhism, the number “108” indicates the number of kleshas (worldly desires), and the bell ringing aims to get rid of such desires from people.
Japanese Greetings Before and After New Year
良いお年を (よいおとしを, yoi otoshi wo)
良いお年を (yoi otoshi wo) is a Japanese greeting meaning “Have a great new year”, which is short for “良いお年をお迎(むか)えください”. It is used when it’s getting close to the end of the year and you see someone that you are unlikely to meet again in the same year. The equivalent English phrases (in terms of when the greeting is used) would be “See you next year” or “Have a happy new year”.
明(あ)けましておめでとうございます (or あけおめ)
明けましておめでとうございます (akemashite omedetou gozaimasu), or あけおめ (akeome) in short, is a Japanese New Year’s greeting similar to “Happy New Year” in English. It literally means “Congratulations on the start of the year”, where 明ける means “(something) ends and turns into a new state”. See the following post for more details.
謹賀新年 (きんがしんねん, kinga shinnen)
謹賀新年 (kinga shinnen) is a New Year’s greeting that is often used in the title/first line of a message, especially on 年賀状 (new year’s greeting card; see below). It is short for “謹(つつ)んで新年(しんねん)をお祝(いわ)い申(もう)し上(あ)げます” and means “celebrate a Happy New Year with respect”.
Japanese Key Words in New Year
元旦 (がんたん)・三が日 (さんがにち)・お正月 (おしょうがつ)
元旦 (gantan) means the first day of the year (1 January), and 三が日 (sanganichi) indicates the first three days (1, 2, 3 January). お正月 (oshougatsu) refers to early January, especially the first three days.
おせち (osechi) means Japanese traditional foods to eat on New Year’s Day. Some of them are very unique and usually eaten only on this occasion. See the Wikipedia article for its detail.
十二支 (じゅうにし, juunishi)
十二支 (juunishi) is a Japanese zodiac calendar. It follows a cycle of 12 years and each year is coupled with a certain animal. Every year, people talk about which animal represents the new year, and there are a number of products and events made in January that are related to the animal.
The recent years are represented by the following animals:
2020, 子 （ね）: Rat (ネズミ)
2021, 丑 （うし）: Ox
2022, 寅 （とら）: Tiger
2023, 卯（う）： Rabbit (ウサギ)
2024, 辰 （たつ）: Dragon
2025, 巳 （み）: Snake (ヘビ)
2026, 午 （うま）: Horse
2027, 未 （ひつじ）: Goat/Sheep
2028, 申 （さる）: Monkey
2029, 酉 （とり）: Rooster
2030, 戌 （いぬ）: Dog
2031, 亥 （い）: Boar (イノシシ)
Note that the kanji characters used for 十二支 are different from those used in modern Japanese (e.g. 犬 instead of 戌 for “dog”, and 羊 instead of 未 for “sheep”). In 2032, the cycle goes back to the beginning, 子 “Rat”
年賀状 (ねんがじょう, nengajou)
年賀状 (nengajou) is a new year’s greeting card that we send to our friends/relatives, on which the animal of the year (see above) is often illustrated. A lot of people keep in touch with their old friends and relatives through 年賀状, and therefore some people send the cards to 100 or more people every year. However, this tradition has been getting less common nowadays among young people because they usually prefer texting online rather than writing letters.
新春 (しんしゅん, shinshun)
新春 (shinshun) means “New Year”. While 春 (はる) means “spring” today, it used to refer to the first three months of the year in the old calendar, and therefore 新春 (literally “new spring”) means “New Year” or “January”. Similarly, 迎春 (げいしゅん) means “welcome the New Year”.
新年の抱負 (しんねんのほうふ, shinnen no houfu)
新年の抱負 means “New Year’s resolution”. This is something that people plan on the first day of the year and break within three days, i.e. 三日坊主 (みっかぼうず, “three-day monk”)
お年玉 (おとしだま, otoshidama)
お年玉 (otoshidama) is a monetary gift given to kids by their parents/adult relatives. It is usually presented in small special envelopes designed for it, and, as you can imagine, the amount of the money varies greatly from family to family.
新年会 (しんねんかい, shinnenkai)
新年会 (shinnenkai) literally means “New Year’s party/gathering”, where people have a drink and celebrate the new year. Many people organise either this or 忘年会 (“forget-year party/gathering”) among friends. In particular, these gatherings often offer good opportunities to meet old friends (e.g. friends from high school).
福袋 (ふくぶくろ, fukubukuro)
福袋 (fukubukuro) literally means “a lucky/happy bag” and contains a mix of random/unknown products of a certain brand/category (e.g. clothes, snacks). Usually, it is sold at a much cheaper price than the total amount of the items (and hence called a “lucky” bag), but the downside is that you cannot check its content until you buy it (but this is not always the case nowadays). As you can imagine, the quality of the bag varies greatly, and while some people are lucky enough to grab a big bargain, others end up wasting money on a bag of poor/unpopular items, which is humorously called 鬱袋 (うつぶくろ, “depression bag”) on the internet.
初詣 (はつもうで, hatsumoude)
初詣 (hatsumoude) is a Japanese tradition to visit a temple in early January and make wishes for one’s happiness/success in the new year. Some people draw おみくじ (omikuji: a fortune-telling paper strip) there to test their luck. In early January, especially on the 1st January, the famous temples are very crowded with people doing 初詣.
初夢 (はつゆめ, hatsuyume)
初夢 (hatsuyume) means the first dream you have during the night of 1st January. In Japan, it is believed that the content of hatsuyume foretells your luck in the new year. See my previous blog post for its detail.
初笑い (はつわらい, hatsuwarai)
初笑い literally means “first laugh” and indicates the first laugh of the year. In early January, there are a lot of Japanese TV shows where comedian duos perform “manzai” (“double-act comedy”) and deliver 初笑い to Japanese people. See the following post for other Japanese words about laugh.