TsukuBlog

A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Akemashite Omedeto! – ( the Japanese greeting for the beginning of the New Year )- a revealing look at the origin of the expression

O-Zoni

O-Zoni, the traditional New Year`s soup which is eaten during the first three days of the year. The ingredients used to make it vary from region to region. Pictured above is a batch cooked up in Nara Prefecture. It has a white miso based broth and is filled with thinly sliced radish, a block of tofu and a round MOCHI rice cake.

 

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.

On January 1, 2016 a festive KAGAMI MOCHI (Mirror Rice-Cakes) at the front-desk of a hotel in Narita.

On January 1, 2016 a festive KAGAMI MOCHI (Mirror Rice-Cakes) at the front-desk of a hotel in Narita. The two round rice cakes are meant to absorb the spirit of the New Year deity (and will be consumed a few days after the holiday is over) the daidai (orange in Japanese) is a homophone for generation after generation- signifying continuance of the family line) and the lightning bolts (which were believed to enrgize the rice -fields are in the festive colors- red and white. Note the long and beautiful strip of kelp!

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.

Festive decoration at a hotel in Narita. The red banner proclaims: "Spring, we welcome you !" The branches decorated with pink and white balls represent both fruit on a tree and silkworm cocoons. The bamboo, plum, and pine are also auspicious symbols- pines are evergreen, plum blossoms bloom in the early spring while the weather is still quite cold, and bamboo grows straight and tall

Festive decoration at a hotel in Narita. The red banner proclaims: “Spring, we welcome you !” The branches decorated with pink and white balls represent both fruit on a tree and silkworm cocoons. The bamboo, plum, and pine are also auspicious symbols- pines are evergreen, plum blossoms bloom in the early spring while the weather is still quite cold, and bamboo grows straight and tall

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):

http://blog.alientimes.org/2009/01/traps-are-back-up-as-three-day-new-years-moratorium-on-mouse-catching-ends/

Jo-ya no Kane (New Year`s Eve Bells)- millions braved the cold across Japan last night to listen to and perhaps blast out a ring on some large temple bells- which end up being tolled 108 times - the number of human desires which they help to peel away. It has long been constomary to spend the end of the year listening o these bells

Jo-ya no Kane (New Year`s Eve Bells)- millions braved the cold across Japan last night to listen to and perhaps blast out a ring on some large temple bells- which end up being tolled 108 times – the number of human desires which they help to peel away. It has long been customary to spend the end of the year listening to these deep reveberations

 

HATSU MO-DE ( the first visit of the year to a shrine or temple). During the first week of the new year, and especially during the first three days MILLIONS of Japanese will visit either nationally or regionally famous shrines or temples and/or ones in their own neighborhood to pray for one year of health, happiness and good fortune. Many will get all dressed up before getting into the long lines  which lead up to the offering boxes into which coins and bills are tossed. Before going back home they might also draw their fortune and/or buy some lucky charms (arrows, amulets, or wooden tablets with a pictures on them).

HATSU MO-DE ( the first visit of the year to a shrine or temple). During the first week of the new year, and especially during the first three days MILLIONS of Japanese will visit either nationally or regionally famous shrines or temples and/or ones in their own neighborhood to pray for one year of health, happiness and good fortune. Many will get all dressed up before getting into the long lines which lead up to the offering boxes into which coins and bills are tossed. Before going back home they might also draw their fortune and/or buy some lucky charms (arrows, amulets, or wooden tablets with a pictures on them). This is HUGE business for the shrines and temples and they vie for a larger share of worshippers by advertizing- with the major players buying expensive commercial time on TV.



3 Comments

  • Rurousha says:

    Hallo! This is a long-time fan of your blog finally leaving her first comment to say happy dragon year! I’m looking forward to your stories in the next 12 months!

  • ginni-California North Coast says:

    Omedeto! Happy New Year – Avi & All!
    So – please tell this ‘foreigner’ trying to get it right – can you give the kanji for “Omedoto” pretty please? I’ll put it in my Japanese Glossary! Thanks ever so much – and Have A Really Good One! May You Be Happy!
    ginni, California North Coast
    you gave this:
    > originally derived from the Kanji characters ome (お芽) de (出) to (度う) <

  • alice says:

    Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu, Avi! Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu.