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New Year's in Japan: Introduction

Every year, the Asian Art Museum celebrates the New Year with a bell ringing ceremony. A 2100 pound 16th century Japanese bronze bell originally from a temple in Tajima Province in Japan, and now part of the museum's collection, is struck 108 times with a large log to ring out the bad luck from the past year, and prepare for a fresh start.

How do you celebrate the beginning of a new year? In Japan, people celebrate the New Year on December 31 and January 1. Oshogatsu (Japanese New Year; literally, new month) is an important time of the year, a joyous period imbued with good feelings and nostalgia. People clean their homes, prepare special feasts and stay up past midnight to usher in the New Year.  

Symbols for health, long life, and prosperity are found in special meals (osechi), decorations, and practices to do away with any bad luck and bring in the new year with good fortune. Mochi and tangerines bring happiness and wishes for a long and healthy future, and are eaten and also combined to make household decorations. Families visit their neighborhood shrines, burn candles and incense sticks at family altars, and adorn their homes with symbols such as a bamboo and a pine on each side of the entrance to keep away evil spirits. Buddhist temples all over Japan ring their bells a total of 108 times (joyanokane) symbolically ringing away the bad luck in preparation for a new start.

Many of today’s New Year’s celebrations have their origins in the early 7th century CE, when Japan’s elite looked to its powerful neighbor, China, for ideas about government, art, and culture. At this time, Japan adopted the Chinese lunar-solar calendar, and celebrated the lunar New Year.  It wasn’t until 1873 that Japan started celebrating the New Year on January 1st, however, the many traditions, such as the twelve cycles characterized by the zodiac, and the lion dance, are still practiced in Japan today.

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