No Nos on New Years: Don’t Do This.
This is Thersa Matsuura and you’re listening to Uncanny Japan.
Imagine you’re living in an older Japan.
Life is really hard. No Family Mart to stop by after work to grab a Fami Chiki or two for dinner. No vending machines to snag a beer or pack of smokes. And when you wake up in the middle of the night and need to visit the washroom, no heated toilet seats or gentle fountains of pulsating water for your more delicate parts. It’s outside in the cold and dark for you.
That’s okay, you say, you’re working for the weekend? Well, depending on your line of employment, there’s no day off your you, buddy. Except oshogatsu, the New Year’s Holidays. You’re allowed to enjoy January first, second, and third in absolute and exquisite peace.
Oh, wait, there are a couple rules though…
Here it is the end of 2022. 2023 lurking just around the corner. Are you excited? Nervous? Scared? Completely numb to any new and unique hell that might befall us. Yeah, me, too. Well, actually, that, but I’m also a little hopeful and excited, too. I’ve got a plan in the works, a personal Life Goal if you will, that I’ll announce on the next show, once it’s officially 2023, that is a little big huge, but should amount to a lot of fun, unique, and interesting content for the podcast and even more so for patrons. If you follow me on social media you probably already know what I’m talking about. If not, otanoshimi ni.
Life in Old Japan was Tough
Okay, where were we? Oh, yeah, you’re an farmer working dawn to dusk in your sweet potato fields or you’re weaving tabi sandales or your lacquering umbrellas or weaving baskets. Whatever you’re doing, you’re doing a lot of it, for many hours a day. But you’re trying to enjoy life, only you have no idea when the next bout of Cholera, measles, or smallpox is going to sweep through town and wipe out half your friends and family.
I’m not saying you’re ignorant, but science then wasn’t what it is now. Things like infectious diseases, earthquakes, and weather in general wasn’t quite figured out yet. So let’s just say you — this ancient you — were a lot closer to the gods. Your entire village or city, in fact, paid very careful attention to the natural world and acted in ways to continue to be favored by certain deities, to insure the safety, health, and long life for your family.
Toshigami/The God of the New Year
Speaking of gods, have you ever heard of the Toshigami or Ōtoshi? Who also goes by Nigihayhi no Mikoto. You might be able to guess from that last version of the name that this god is a Shinto Kami. There are some familial intricacies there, but just know that this Great Age God or Great Year God will be present at the new year.
There is also the belief that the Toshigami is merely our enshrined ancestors’ spirits visiting again to check up on us and offer some luck and protection. But only if we obey the six rules of the New Year. Six big no nos for the first three days, at the very least. Just imagine that your house is about to be visited by a very important god. So with that in mind. Here we go.
Rule 1: Don’t Clean Anything
1. Don’t clean. I’m not kidding. Don’t clean anything. This Toshigami/年神 seems to be a little skittish. Remember they’ll be packing some good luck, so if they show up at your house and your on your hands and knees scrubbing the tile in the bathroom or slaving over all the dishes your family dirtied in the last ten minutes, or even if you grab that rag to wipe down the table before eating, you’ll shoo the Otoshi away. Why risk it?
Especially, using water isn’t good. Washing dishes, doing laundry, or cleaning the toilet is in effect symbolic to washing your luck down the drain. Speaking of toilet. Remember there were no flush toilets back then so thank god (or the gods) that you didn’t have to prohibit your entire family from going to the privy for three days.
There’s also an old saying that goes: Gantan ni ofuton wo hoshite ha ikenai. Don’t hang your futon out on New Year’s Day. So even THAT isn’t allowed.
The way it was explained to me by my mother-in-law is whatever you’re doing that first day of the year, well, that’s what you’re going to be doing for the entire rest of the year. So if you’re waiting on your family hand and foot, or busting your butt to make the perfect dinner, that’ll be every day of your New Year. If, however, you’re completely relaxing, content and peaceful, enjoying your family and maybe having a little sip of otoso (that’s spiced sake you get to drink during New Years), and your ready to welcome that Toshigami with open arms, then THAT will be your coming year.
My mother-in-law also told me that women especially enjoyed Oshogatsu, because they could finally rest for a few days and not be made to feel bad about it.
2. Don’t use knives or sharp blades. For anything.
Rule Two: Don’t Use Sharp Objects
There are different reasons this might have been a thing, here are a couple. First, there was a saying (another one) that went something like this: Mikka ni hamono nado tsukawanakereba, kono ichinen wo buji ni kenko de sugoseru. If you don’t use any sharp instruments for the first three days of the New Year, then you will enjoy an entire year with no accidents and in good health. Worth it.
Remember that you have plugging away cleaning and cooking BEFORE the first of January. Remember osoji (big cleaning) and osechi (New Year’s cuisine)? You’ve already got your ozoni (New Year’s mochi Soup) ingredients cut and ready to toss into some dashi broth and, of course, your osechi ryori is not only cooked, but artfully placed in your fancy lacquered jubako, obento-like boxes. So tomorrow all you have to do is take is open the lid and everyone can eat.
A personal story: My mother-in-law used to keep the osechi jubako in the coldest room in the house. Which was just the next room, because only one room was heated. Then whenever anyone was hungry after that initial breakfast of osechi, someone was designated to fight the cold and go grab it. By day three, everything is picked over, and you pretty much just wait for someone to slap some fresh mochi cakes on the fire so you can eat them sprinkled with sweet kinako soybean powder or in adzuki bean soup or, any way you want, because no one wants to eat that last bite of vinegared daikon radish and carrot or tiny candied sardines.
Back to not using bladed objects. Another tradition says don’t even cut your nails. Again, that’s a sharp thing, and it will lead to or in the very least symbolize cutting ties with your family. Hey, but depending on the family maybe you want to cut your nails on January first.
Rule 3: Don’t Use Fire
3. On New Year’s Don’t use any kind of fire or flame.
Aku. This is something I’ve always wanted to talk about. When boiling something in Japan, a substance called aku is released. I mean, it’s not just Japan. But you’ll find it mentioned quite a bit in Japanese recipes. Aku is basically that scummy stuff that comes off meat or even vegetables, I guess. Anything you boil. And aku tastes bad, so you’ll be asked to skim it off. Aku with different characters means ‘bad’ or ‘evil’. So follow me here, aku coming out of some boiled food, is reminiscent of bad or evil coming out. And that is something you don’t want. You don’t want bad or evil coming out. Very inauspicious.
And you don’t want to use your stove either. There is a god of fire called koujin/荒神. This koujin protects your house and your family and does that every day of the year, relentlessly. So for a couple days a year let’s let ol’ koujin rest. If you don’t, if you’re busy cooking and stoking the fire, the god could get angry with you. And who knows what will happen. It’s a good idea not to upset a fire god. Just saying. The consensus seems to be to let koujin rest for three days. The first, second, and third. You can fire up the stove on the fourth day of the New Year.
Rule 4: Don’t Eat Animals with Four Feet
4. Don’t eat any animals with four feet. No pork, beef, horse, what have you. Seems like there are different ideas as to where this came from, but it seems quite a bit back in the day meat was even avoided in oseshi ryori, the New Year’s food.
Also, possibly is Buddhism’s influence, don’t eat meat. And I guess Emperor Tenmu issued a ban on eating meat by monks and somehow that spread to everyone at least during the first days of the New Year. I’m not sure. But I can tell you, if I’m not allowed to use fire to heat my food and I don’t have good refrigeration, then I’d rather eat some sweetened chestnuts than a piece of meat that’s been sitting in the next room for three days. So it could be it started as a way to keep people from getting sick.
Rule 5: Don’t Fight
5. No fighting. The beginning of the year is a happy, hopeful, relaxing time. It’s a fresh start. It’s also when the god (toshigami) or gods (those ancestors) are checking you out and deciding your fortune for the coming year. Best to be smiling and even tempered. Be a good host, who them you’re worthy of abundant health and fortune.
Rule 6: Don’t Spend Money
6. Don’t use money.
There’s an exception here. But basically, if you are spending a bunch of money those first days of the new year, then that’s the direction you’re headed ever day after. Spending too much money and you won’t be able to save any during the coming year. Bad habits and all that.
However, the gods will make an exception, if you’re making an offering to the them. Specifically, any donations to shrines and temples are a pass. Knock yourself out.
So there you go, the six prohibited activities for the first three days of the New Year. But there is some good news. Most people nowadays not only don’t practice these, they probably couldn’t name all six. I think the one that I did know about was the first one, no cleaning and no cooking, although my mother-in-law did fire up the gas range to make ozoni soup, so if she didn’t obey all these, you’re safe, too.
Some Comments and Thoughts on the Rules
It was funny to read the comments to these old timey oshogatsu rules. Someone said they had an IH stove, so that wasn’t actually using fire so they were safe on that one. Another said they would use denchi money/electric money, various accounts connected to your phone, — I have no idea what it’s called in English — so there’s no real‘money’ was changing hands so they weren’t breaking that rule either.
Anyway, these are difficult to obey, as you can imagine. The not cleaning and not using knives I can see. Not fighting, doable. Even not using money. But not being able to heat up food…especially as the New Year’s soup, ozouni, is quite popular all over Japan and even if you cut all the vegetables and mochi beforehand, you still need to heat the pot up. Not eating four-legged animals can be pulled off except yakibuta or ham has become a kind of New Year’s staple, I’ve noticed.
So what I’m trying to say is, as much as possible, if you can, no stress if you can’t, just spend those early January days relaxing and taking care of you. Be a little aware, though, because at some point that Toshigami will sneak up and pay you a visit, and when it does, you’ll want to show what an affable, awesome person you are, absolutely deserving of the copious amounts of good luck, heaps of health, and oodles of wealth they will no doubt bestow on you.
Thank you, every single listener out there, every single patron and supporter of the show. Richard and I are going to go to Joya no Kane (the midnight ringing of the temple bell at midnight on New Year’s Eve) as well as the first sunrise, so watch out for soundscapes and a little photo and video montage that I’ll be putting up on patron for all the tiers. Plus I’m kind of feeling like experimenting with mochi…so their might be some interesting mochi recipes, going up early in January, too. If you’re not already a patron, and you’d like to be, please consider that. Just do a search for Patreon and Uncanny Japan.
This wraps up season 6. It has been lovely to talk to you and with you, as the case may be. I’m looking forward to hanging out with you all next year as well. Thank you, Richard, for doing the sound, website, and Youtube work for the show. Thank you patrons and supporters for keeping the show and me, personally, going. I’m wishing you all an incredible, healthy, happy, and holy 2023. Yoi otoshi wo!
Intro and Outro music by Julyan Ray Matsuura
Koiwazurai by PeriTune