WIT Life #82: 春分の日

WITLife is a periodic series written by professional Writer/Interpreter/Translator Stacy Smith (Kumamoto-ken CIR, 2000-03). She starts her day by watching Fujisankei’s newscast in Japanese, and here she shares some of the interesting tidbits and trends together with her own observations.

Happy 春分の日 (shunbun no hi) or Spring Equinox Day!  Like as with the autumnal equinox, on this occasion the day and the night should be of equal length.  The mere mention of spring makes me feel like I should be seeing flowers popping their heads out of the ground.  Unfortunately, here in Michigan where I’m translating at a local law firm there is no sign of greenery, although the snow flurries we had all day yesterday were quite a sight!  I heard we’re getting much better weather back home in NYC, and all I can say is I’m jealous…

In Japan spring seems to have sprung, as I have gotten reports of the sakura beginning to bloom around the Imperial Palace.  I also just received an email from my former co-worker at the Kumamoto International Center who was kind enough to send pictures of the sakura down south (you can see Kumamoto Castle in the background).  Enjoy and happy spring!

New Years in Japan – How to Celebrate

So it’s holiday season in Japan. Christmas and New Years are both coming up, and it’s the time for gift giving, partying, being with family right? Yes, but not like the typical American would expect. Christmas is actually party time in Japan, where companies and friends hold get together’s. Maybe for a small few presents are given (namely Christians in Japan), but the majority of presents given on Christmas are more of a potluck style. New Years, however, is a time for serious family get together and celebration.

Celebrating New Years is a three day event in Japan. The first day, Jan. 1st, comprises eating special food called “osechi ryori”:  http://hillslearning.com/2009/12/22/osechi-new-years-food-in-japan/ When you wake up on January 1st you’re supposed to eat crab, shrimp, specially prepared roots, potatoes, etc. Each combination of food will bring you a different kind of luck in the new year. These baskets of specially prepared food can be bought at your local department store, and generally run about 100 dollars or so.

After eating, Jan 1st through 3rd are the most important 3 days of the year for a Japanese shrine. Families get together, dress up in formal wear such as a kimono, and visit their local shrines (and larger famous ones, depending on your preference) to bring in the New Year. While at a shrine on New Years everyone buys an arrow, a symbol of good luck for the coming year. As a foreigner myself, I always forgot to do the second part of the ceremony, and that was bring your old arrow in from last year and burn it in a communal fire. After receiving the arrow, every visitor needs to line up and pray for the coming year, and ring the bell of the shrine for good luck.

Culturally celebrating New Years in Japan is a unique experience, but of course any article about celebrating New Years  wouldn’t be complete without teaching how to say “Happy New Year.” In Japanese, it’s three words: akemashite omedeito gozaimasu.

1 – A KE MA SHI TE (A as in HA sound, KE as in OKAY, MA as in WOMAN, SHI sounds like SHE, TE as in LATTE)

akemashite represents the coming of the new year, literally “opening”

2 – O ME DEI TO (O as in hoe, ME as in MAY, DEI as in DAY, TO as in TOTAL)

omedeito means congratulations

3 – GO ZAI MA SU (GO as in go, ZAI as in Zaion, MA as in WOMAN, SU sounds like SUE)

gozaimasu is a word that adds formality to the expression

So the expression literally means “I formally congratulate you on the opening of a new year”

I hope you enjoyed learning about how to celebrate new years in Japan. Next time you have the opportunity to ask a Japanese person about celebrating the new year in Japan, please say “akemeashite omedeito gozimasu” and ask about their experiences with osechi ryori and shrine visits. Culturally and linguistically it should be an interesting conversation!

Osechi – New Year’s Food in Japan

Special dishes known as osechi-ryouri (御節料理 or お節料理) are served on New Year’s in Japan. Large stackable boxes known as juubako (重箱) hold the food, and the dishes can stay good for several days since osechi are traditionally eaten through January 3rd. Cooking was finished by New Year’s Eve since long ago it was forbidden to cook during the first three days of the new year. These days, many people purchase osechi in stores since the cooking process is long and difficult, and waiting lists for some of the most popular or well-made kinds begin in October. Each osechi dish has a special meaning for the new year, whether it be for long life or a good harvest. More information can be found here.

Common Osechi:

Konbumaki (昆布巻)
Rolled kelp seaweed, often stuffed with salmon and tied with strips of kanpyou (干瓢 – dried shavings of the calabash gourd).
Kuro-mame (黒豆)
Black beans simmered in a sweet sauce of sugar, soy sauce, and salt. Mame also means “health” in Japanese, so these represent a wish for good health in the coming year.
Datemaki (伊達巻 or 伊達巻き)
A kind of rolled, sweet omelet containing white hanpen (半片) fish paste or mashed shrimp.
Kurikinton (栗きんとん)
Mashed sweet potatoes with chestnuts, often formed back into a chestnut shape.
Kinpira gobou (金平牛蒡)
Burdock root braised with sugar, sake, soy sauce, and mirin. It is often served with carrots and sesame seeds.
Tazukuri (田作り)
Candied dry-roasted sardines which you eat whole (head and all). The kanji in Japanese literally means “rice paddy maker” since tazukuri were used historically to fertilize rice fields. The symbolism is of an abundant harvest.
Namasu (膾)
Raw vegetables and sometimes seafood slightly pickled in rice vinegar. Often features daikon radish and carrot.
Nimono (煮物)
Simmered vegetables that often include gobou (burdock root), taro, renkon (lotus root), carrots, shiitake mushrooms, and pea pods.
Kazunoko (数の子)
Herring roe. It clumps naturally, giving it its long shape. Kazunoko literally means “many children,” and it symbolizes fertility and family prosperity.
Ebi-no-saka mushi (えびのさかむし)
Sake steamed shrimp, served whole. You eat everything – head, legs, and all. In this photo, it is being served with edamame.
Kamaboko (蒲鉾)
Processed fish cakes made from varieties of whitefish and additives like MSG. Spiral-shaped loaves are often called “naruto” after the Japanese city which has a well-known whirlpool. The white fish paste is called surimi (擂り身), and is also present in fake crab in the US. Red/pink and white cakes are often layered or arranged in a pattern on New Year’s. The half-circle shape is similar to that of the rising sun, and the food has a celebratory, festive meaning.
Tai-no-shioyaki (鯛の塩焼き)
Sea bream grilled with salt, and served whole. I’ve seen people eat the head, though it’s not required. But the fins and tail are fair game. The word tai (sea bream) is associated with the Japanese word medetai, indicating an auspicious event and present in the phrase omedetai gozaimasu (congratulations).
Daidai (橙)
A Japanese bitter orange. Daidai written in a different kanji is 代々, meaning “from generation to generation.” It symbolizes a wish for children in the new year.
Zouni (雑煮)
A soup made with mochi rice cakes either in a clear broth (mostly in eastern Japan, with rectangular mochi) or miso broth (in western Japan, with round mochi). Sometimes taro or tofu is used instead of mochi, usually in areas where rice isn’t abundant. Other ingredients include meatballs (often chicken or fish), komatsuna (コマツナ) or spinach greens, mitsuba (similar to parsley), kamaboko, carrot, and yuzu citrus peel (similar to grapefruit).
Toshi-koshi soba (年越し蕎麦)
“Year-crossing soba.” A traditional dish, but also a practical one in kitchens where special foods have been cooking for days. Soba is an easy meal during the hectic holidays, but it is considered unlucky by many to leave any toshi-koshi soba uneaten.

Thanksgiving in Japan – Celebrating and Enjoying the Holiday

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays you’d expect to be an American only holiday. After all, according to our elementary school education it celebrates American pilgrims and Native Americans coming together to celebrate, eat, and give thanks. Why would a country like Japan, whose history starts 1,000 years before America, celebrate Thanksgiving?

Surprisingly, Japan does celebrate Thanksgiving. Not surprisingly, the official holiday, called Thanksgiving Labor Day, was started after the American Occupation in 1948. Thanksgiving in Japan is an opportunity for unions and other workers to celebrate their hard worked days of labor through parades, parties, and well an actual day off.

As an American living in Japan though it wasn’t easy to celebrate the holiday. Although the Japanese do have an official holiday to commemorate Thanksgiving, no traditional American “Thanksgiving” foods are served in people’s households. It’s also extremely difficult to find a prepared turkey, and only select foreign grocery stores in Tokyo carry them. Once you’ve found a turkey though, in my mind you basically have two options for celebrating Thanksgiving in Japan:

The first way to celebrate Thanksgiving in Japan is to have an actual party at your house, a potluck of traditional thanksgiving foods. Don’t be surprised though if people show up with California rolls, seaweed salad, shrimp chips, and other traditional Japanese foods. It’s always fun in Japan to do a potluck because not only do the Japanese attend but its highly possible Australians, British, Singaporeans, Chinese, and other multicultural friends will all come to your Thanksgiving feast. The greatest part about having a multicultural thanksgiving is most people say “This is my first Thanksgiving,” so you feel like you’re almost experiencing it yourself for the first time.

The second option for celebrating Thanksgiving in Japan (which in my opinion isn’t as fun as the first), is to go to your local American Club or other select restaurant that offers Thanksgiving dinner. Basically anywhere in Asia where American ex-pats live select restaurants will prepare a Thanksgiving feast. For anywhere from 30-100 or so dollars you can get a traditional Thanksgiving meal buffet style, just don’t be surprised if you have to order in Japanese.

Thanksgiving in Japan is a memorable experience, one that if you’re in Japan during Thanksgiving my recommendation is to host your own party or attend a local buffet. I’m sure there are other options for celebrating Thanksgiving in Japan, and please feel free to add commentary to this article about that or ask other questions.

Japanese News and Culture Blog Roundup: 10/22/09-10/28/09

An Englishman in Osaka

Kurama Fire Festival 10/24/09: Kurama in flames
Coverage of the Kurama Fire Festival (Kurama no hi matsuri – 鞍馬の火祭り) which was held on 10/22. People with huge lit torches parade through the streets on the way to the Yuki-jinja Shrine. More pictures and information can be found here.


10/28/09: Cultural differences, again
Humorous article on the differences between how celebrity gossip is covered/prosecuted in Japan and in the US. Answers the all-important question: “What’s wrong with being naked?” (quite a lot, apparently). Written by a former JET teacher who is now married and living in Japan.

Japan Probe

Japanese Mascots 10/25/09: Japanese mascots hold summit in Hikone
Many towns and cities in Japan have their own mascots used to promote tourism. What do you think New York’s mascot would be? I can think of a few unsettling examples, but a big apple would probably be the most kid-friendly.

Japanese Pod 101

Soba Package 10/26/09: Learn Japanese Kanji – Everyday Kanji (Food Packaging)
Another very useful post from Japanese Pod 101. Venture into Japanese grocery stores without fear!


Japan Peace Sign 10/26/09: Contributing factors to the popularity of the “Peace” sign in Japanese photography
This is something I’ve often wondered myself. The best explanation I got while in Japan was, “It’s just something you do in pictures.” This post gives some much more detailed theories as to the origins of the practice.

Pink Tentacle

stereoview_19 10/28/09: Animated stereoviews of old Japan
Really cool colorized 3-D images from Meiji-era Japan. The animation makes me a little dizzy, though…

10/26/09: ‘Tele Scouter’ retinal-display translation glasses
The concept is awesome: glasses that display translations for foreign languages as you hear them (via a built-in microphone). However the reality is not quite up to par since machine translation technology is simply not advanced enough. However the glasses, which are set to go on the market in 2010, could still be used in other situations to display text for workers.

Japanese Holidays: Taiiku no hi

This year, Taiiku no hi (体育の日) falls on Monday, October 12th. Known in English as “Health and Sports Day,” this day commemorates the anniversary of the opening of the Olympic games in Tokyo in 1964. The summer games were held late that year in an effort to avoid Japan’s rainy season, and began on October 10th. The national holiday was moved to the 2nd Monday in October in 2000 so as to give students and workers a long weekend.


Many schools celebrate with an undoukai (運動会), or field/sports day with mini-Olympic events such as races and relays, but also with group events like tug-of-war that can involve teachers and other members of the community acting as a team. At the end of the day, awards are given to groups rather than individuals, and are extremely practical in nature! I remember some of the most coveted prizes at the sports day I attended in Japan were dish cloths and trash bags. I came away with some plastic wrap and tissues, even though my team lost our event. The awards are meant to make sure that everyone is happy and feels like a winner at the end of the day, no matter what the results.

One odd thing any foreigner is bound to notice at an undoukai is the synchronized group calisthenics set to music performed at the beginning and end of the day’s activities. I saw this frequently during gym class at the school where I taught, but some companies in Japan still stretch together in the mornings, and again at 3:00 pm when everyone starts getting sleepy. It turns out that this is the “Rajio Taisou” (ラジオ体操 – Radio Exercise) which has been aired almost daily in Japan since 1928! The current version you can hear today features slow counting set to piano music and was recorded in 1951 by the Japanese government. It airs each morning on NHK at 6:30 am, and according to this article, about 20% of the population still does it each day, along with 76.4% of elementary schools in Japan. Below is a video of Rajio Taisou at a sports day in Japan.