Akemashite Omedeto! – ( the Japanese greeting for the beginning of the New Year )- a revealing look at the origin of the expression
By Avi Landau
I have said it again and again. Japanese culture and the Japanese language are endlessly interesting. The deeper you look, the more surprising it gets.To illustrate this point once more, this time on the the first day of the new year, I`d like to talk about something which in most countries and most languages is quite simple- New Year`s Greetings.
Well, as you might expect, in Japan things are a bit more complex. On the last days of December, when meeting people for what is probably the last time of the year, the Japanese part with an expression which is equivalent to what is used in most languages, YOI OTOSHI O, or Have a Good New Year.
What is difficult to remember ( for foreigners) when speaking Japanese, however, is that this expression is only used UP TO midnight of December 31st. Once the clock strikes midnight, for the next seven days or so, people greet each other with AKEMASHITE OMEDETO- GOZAIMASU, or in its simplest and most casual form OMEDETO-.
Since in modern Japanese OMEDETO is an expression used in very much the same way as the English word CONGRATULATIONS, this New Year`s greeting could now be literally translated as- CONGRATULATIONS UPON THE (OCCASSION OF THE) OPENING (OF THE NEW YEAR).
Besides the fact that there are different greetings for BEFORE and AFTER the ringing in of the new year, both these greetings sound quite usual, aand at first glance simply like two slighty different ways of saying the same thing.
However, a look at the etymology of the word OMEDETO- shows OMEDETO to have quite an unusual meaning for a New Year`s greeting . It is also quite revealing about the roots of Japanese culture.
Omedeto, originally derived from the Kanji characters ome (お芽) de (出） to (度う), which together mean: May your sprouts appear, or May your sprouts sprout forth.
In other words, the opening of the new year, which before the Japanese adopted the Western Calendar took place sometime in February, was a time to pray for good crops and the coming forth of vegetation in general, in the upcoming year.
This use of this expression as a New Year`s Greeting by the aristocrats and courtiers and the members of the Imperial Family was a reflection of the fact that it was the role of the Emperor , as a high priest of the nation of sorts, to carry out rituals and pray for bountiful crops. I think it could even be said that the romantic ( sexual) daliances so famously associated with the court,(which are celebrated at New Year`s by many Japanese through the card game Hyakunin Isshu- which is based on a collection of classical poetry) were in fact also believed to be part of the ritual function to guarantee success in agriculture throughout the land.
It goes without saying that it would have been only natural for farmers in early spring ( at the old New Year) to greet each other with- may your seeds sprout!
The connection of New Year`s to agriculture is still clearly evident by the fact that even in big cities Japanese families put up New Year`s decorations consisting of rice stalks and other plant matter. These decorations, and O-Shogatsu ( New Year`s) itself, are a celebration of LIFE, RENEWAL and the BOUNTY of NATURE.
So on the occassion of this New Year`s Day, Id like to wish you a big OMEDETO-
May all your seeds take root and flourish!
And if you are interested I have written about an obscure but fascinating Japanese custom- to refrai from killing mice during the first 3 days of the year, during which the little critters are called YOME GA KIMI (嫁が君):