Posted: 5th January 2023
Greetings from a chilly Edinburgh!
As I sat in my office earlier this week having a think about what my students said they'd like to study this year, I began to notice a common theme: everyone said they wanted to spend more time learning about Japanese culture and everyday life.
As it turns out, people who read my blog also appear quite keen on the cultural topics I post here, so I've decided to have a go at a new series covering some fun facts about life in Japan in each month of the year. Some will be more serious, some just silly, but either way, I hope you enjoy this new format!
Here are some links in case you'd like to skip ahead to any particular part of the article:
- The Japanese Word for January
- ① Japanese New Year Ends on the 3rd of January - Or Does It?
- ② January is an Important Time for New Adults
- ③ January is the Month of Strawberry Day
One quick note before we begin: none of the links in this post are affiliated, which means I don't make money when you click them.
The Japanese Word for January
Where better to start but by checking we know the Japanese word for January?
The most common Japanese word for January is 一月 (ichi gatsu), also written as 1月. This follows the normal pattern of giving each month a number (1月、2月、3月 etc).
However, did you know there's another word for January?
Japan has only followed the Gregorian calendar since 1873, and as such, you may still occasionally come across older names of the months. For January, this is 睦月 (mutsuki), the believed original meaning of which is "the month when family members gather for the New Year".
If you're interested in learning more about the (quite detailed and fascinating!) Japanese calendar, I recommend this nippon.com page as a place to start.
Now that we're all clued up, let's have a look at this month's fun facts.
1. Japanese New Year Ends on the 3rd of January - Or Does It?
In Scotland where I'm from, New Year is generally considered to encompass New Year's Eve (aka Hogmanay) on the 31st of December through to New Year's Day on the 1st of January, with the 2nd of January also technically being a bank holiday.
In Japan, however, things are a bit different.
While the bulk of Japanese New Year (お正月 - o-shōgatsu) festivities take place from the night of the 31st through to the 3rd of January (with the 1st to the 3rd known as 三が日 - san ga nichi, the first three days of the new year), it turns out that opinion is somewhat divided over when お正月 (o-shōgatsu) officially ends.
According to the graph above, which shows the results of a December 2020 survey of 7,801 people, only 62% of those surveyed agreed that お正月 (o-shōgatsu) ends on the 3rd of January. In fact, 30% responded that it went as far as the 7th, with a further 5% answering that it ended on the 15th and a final 3% giving other answers.
While it's worth bearing in mind that some of this variation will be down to regional differences, something I find interesting is that among those aged 60+ (a significant proportion of Japan's population), only 50% answered that お正月 (o-shōgatsu) ended on the 3rd, suggesting that older generations tend to view festivities as lasting longer.
Disagreements over precise dates aside, the beginning of the new year is a time when it's possible to witness many different customs and traditions taking place all throughout Japan, with one famous example being 初詣 (hatsu-mōde), the first visit to a shrine or temple in the new year. If you're ever in Japan at New Year, this is something worth witnessing, as many of the more popular shrines and temples become completely overrun with visitors, particularly on the 1st of January.
To get an idea of just how busy things can get, check out the video below for scenes from Osaka's 住吉大社 (Sumiyoshi Taisha). When I visited this particular shrine with my dad back in 2017, it was so crowded that we barely even made it inside!
As festivities have been more muted in recent years due to Covid-19, I've picked a video from 2019.
In terms of other お正月 (o-shōgatsu) traditions you're likely to encounter in Japan, there are dozens I could mention, but one I particularly like to share with my students is おせち (o-sechi), aka お節料理 (o-sechi ryōri).
おせち (o-sechi) are traditional Japanese New Year foods served in a type of box called 重箱 (juubako). Traditionally, there should be so much おせち (o-sechi) that you can live off the leftovers throughout 三が日 (san ga nichi - the first three days of the new year). The idea with this was that it would give the person responsible for cooking (typically the woman/women of the household) time off to relax (source).
My favourite thing about おせち (o-sechi) is that each and every food has a special symbolic meaning, such as academic success, a home with strong foundations or long life. To see how these meanings are linked to the nature or appearance of each food, visit this page by the Japan Society, where you will find two videos with optional English and Japanese subtitles. If you'd prefer to read rather than watch a video, click here for an article by Unseen Japan.
2. January is an Important Time for New Adults
Do you know the official age of adulthood where you live?
In Japan, this has historically been 20 - a fact you may have been made aware of if you've ever learnt ages in Japanese, as there is a special word for 20 years old: はたち (hatachi).
On the 1st of April 2022, Japan lowered the legal age of adulthood from 20 to 18, giving young people new rights such as the ability to sign a contract, get married and apply for a credit card without parental consent. This change also brought with it new responsibilities such as the possibility of being selected for jury duty, as well as stricter punishment for committing crime.
Despite this change, some things stay the same, such as the legal minimum age to buy alcohol and tobacco (which stays at 20 years old), while the voting age was in fact already dropped from 20 to 18 back in 2016.
So: what does this have to do with the month of January?
Every January on the second Monday of the month, Japan celebrates 成人の日 (seijin no hi - Coming of Age Day). Traditionally, this is a time when new adults (those who have turned 20 between 2nd April of the previous year and 1st April of the current year) are invited to a ceremony held by the government in their local municipality. The Coming of Age Ceremony itself is called 成人式 (seijin-shiki).
One year when I was in Japan, I remember watching the news about 成人式 (seijin-shiki) with bated breath as images were broadcast of people travelling through 大雪 (ōyuki - heavy snow) to make it to ceremonies. My friends at the time told me part of the reason many people are keen not to miss this event is that it will often be the first time they'll have seen their old high school classmates since graduating. It's also an excuse to catch up with other local friends and relatives, with many young people able to celebrate legally with an alcoholic beverage for the first time.
So what's happening now that the age of adulthood has changed from 20 to 18?
It appears that despite the legal change, 成人式 (seijin-shiki) are still taking place as usual, following the tradition of inviting 20 year olds rather than 18 and 19 year olds. The one notable change is to the names of the ceremonies, however, with examples including 二十歳のつどい (hatachi no tsudoi - gathering for 20 year olds) and はたちの記念式典 (hatachi no kinen shikiten - commemorative ceremony for 20 year olds).
If you haven't come across 成人の日 (seijin no hi) before, I strongly recommend looking some up some pictures or videos, as this special day can be quite a spectacle! In fact, here is a video below:
3. January is the Month of Strawberry Day
Japan is home to a great many creatively established days, one famous example being Pocky Day.
While to be honest, many are no more than clever marketing campaigns, as a Japanese teacher (and learner!) I do very much appreciate the linguistic humour involved.
So: if you know the Japanese word for strawberry (苺／イチゴ - ichigo), can you work out when イチゴの日 (ichigo no hi - Strawberry Day) is? (Hint: think of numbers!)
The answer: 1月15日, i.e. 15th January.
In case you're still scratching your head, this is the result of a wordplay (語呂合わせ - goro awase) based on 1月15日。It goes as follows:
- 1: normally pronounced "ichi", but in this case read as "ii", meaning "good"
- 1: ichi
- 5: go
Hence, 1 + 1 + 5 = ii ichigo.
So technically, it's Good Strawberry Day!
While days like イチゴの日 (ichigo no hi) are not typically a cause for widespread celebration, you may see them promoted when out and about in Japan, particularly in the supermarket or other shops. If you're a fan of strawberries (strawberry sandwich, anyone?), it may well be a good day to grab a special offer!
Below is a news report where you can see examples of shop displays and all kinds of strawberry-themed foods.
Despite the commercial nature of many such days, it's only fair to mention that similar wordplays are used to promote important public information.
For example, 1月10日 (10th of January) is 110番の日 (hyaku tōban no hi - 110 Day). 110 is the Japanese police emergency number, making it an important one to remember should you ever visit the country. If you're planning a trip to Japan and want to learn more about staying safe, including during natural disasters, this is something I cover in my Travel Japanese course.
The choice of the 10th of January for 110番の日 (hyaku tōban no hi) is of course based on another wordplay. Can you work it out?
Answer: if you write 1月10日 as 110, it's possible to read it as hyaku (100) and tō (a less common reading of the number 10). This is the same reading as is used for 110番 (hyaku tōban).
Check out the following (short!) song featuring Japanese actress and pop singer Sakurako Ōhara, released on the Metropolitan Police Department's official YouTube channel. In the song, Ōhara introduces not just the 110 emergency number but also #9110, which can be dialled for non-urgent police advice.
You've reached the end of this post! I hope you enjoyed it.
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