Shared Stories: Japanese New Year

Nobuyo Avery grew up in Manchuria before World War II, and she describes the importance of the New Year in Asian culture. It is a time of cleaning, clearing out, and “opening a new book.” Readers will notice that common household activities were carried out under strikingly different circumstances in Manchuria at that time. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Nobuyo Avery

Living here in this country for over fifty years, I should be used to the celebrations and excitement at Christmas, but to me the New Year’s Day celebration is more meaningful.  The beginning of the New Year means opening a new book.  It is the most important start line.  Don’t you agree?  

This is the way my mother kept the traditional New Year’s Day celebration while we five children were growing up.  My memory goes back to our old home in Hoten, Manchuria, which today is Shenyang, China, where we lived from 1932 to 1947.  We are a Japanese family, but my father’s business took us to Manchuria for fifteen years.

The winter break for school usually began a week or so before December 31st and lasted until January 7th or so.  I still have a hard time getting used to going back to school or to work on the second day or third day of the new year. 

We children, except our brothers, helped Mom with cleaning the house inside and out, getting rid of the things that were old and no longer needed, and washing dirty windows, doors, and floors. 

Mother started cooking the New Year’s traditional dishes - vegetables cooked with beef or chicken meat, fish with head attached, dried small fish cooked sweet, sweet black beans, colored hardboiled eggs with a face and body cut to look like yakkosan (a samurai), blue or green colored, and mashed sweet potatoes with chestnuts, to name the few.

I must admire and give credit to Mother who worked so hard to have everything ready and arranged, colorfully decorated, in ojyuu (stackable dishes) and special plates when we got up on New Year’s Day.  She was not to cook for three days except ozoni.

She not only prepared special food, but also she set out our clean or new clothes to wear on that day.  It was customary that we bathed and cleansed our bodies the night before.  On December 31st, our family stayed up until midnight, we ate soba, the traditional New Year’s Eve buckwheat noodles, and heard the one hundred one New Year’s Eve bells before we went to bed. 

On New Year’s Day, we were all dressed up, sitting at the table, and greeting each other “Happy New Year”.  Mother had a warm sumi, charcoal in the hibachi heater, ready in the dining room beside the table and we cooked the mochi on the heater.  The typical New Year’s Day breakfast is ozoni, tasty clear soup with rice cakes that were broiled over the charcoal and added to the soup.  We stuffed ourselves with the tasty dishes that Mom cooked for many hours and had a great time. 

The post office would hold the New Year’s Day greeting postcards until January 1st and deliver them on that day.  It is customary to write the New Year’s greeting cards and exchange the news among friends, relatives, and acquaintances.  It is similar to the Christmas cards you write.  

In general there are New Year’s Day decorations.  Outside the gate or door, people place a pair of decorative pine, bamboo and plum trees.  Inside the house in the rooms they place small decorative mochi or hard rice cakes made by pounding steamed sticky rice and a leaf.   Today these decorations are already made and sold for easy access.  It is also traditional to go to a shrine and people promise God what they hope to accomplish in the New Year.

Today we have the TV New Year’s Eve program, kouhaku singing contest.  It lasts for five hours before midnight.  The selected popular singers are teamed up as females and males, they compete in solo or group performances.  The audiences, TV listeners and special judges decide the winners. The White men’s team has been the first place winner for a few years. Most of the family watch this show.

Do I still follow the traditions? I tried to do some but not always.  This year on December 31st I came home sick with a cold from visiting the family in Virginia.  I washed all dirty clothes but had no energy to clean the house or to cook food.  Carl and I ate typical American food with our oldest son’s family on January 1st.  My niece cooked and treated me to the traditional dishes on January 2nd.

There are many Japanese families here in California who celebrate the New Year’s Day in traditional ways.  One year I might surprise myself by celebrating the Oshoogatsu (New Year) in traditional ways.