Lunar new year — also known as Chinese New Year or Chinese Lunar New Year — is not only famous across East Asian countries, but also the world. It’s celebrated around late January to early February, which is the start of the new lunar calendar that bases its months on moon phases, meaning that all the countries which follow the lunar calendar join in with their own cultural version of these celebrations. These lunar-calendar-following countries include South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China, where it’s the biggest and most important festival of the year.
As Japan stopped following the lunar calendar in the 1800s and switched to the Gregorian calendar, it stands to reason that the lunar new year celebration in Japan isn’t quite as full-blown as it is in China. It’s not an official public holiday, meaning the majority of people will still head off to work and don’t necessarily celebrate en masse. But there are still aspects of the Lunar New Year that are celebrated throughout Japan, often in the neighborhoods where more Chinese people live, and in the country’s three large Chinatown areas (chuukagai) located in the cities of Yokohama, Nagasaki and Kobe. In fact, the Tokyo Tower has been lit red for the past 4 years in celebration of the Chinese New Year. The word "future" is displayed on the south side of the main observation deck in both Japanese and Chinese. There are also plenty of Chinese tourists visiting Japan throughout the year, so chances are there are visitors who personally appreciate a Japanese Lunar New Year!
Japanese Lunar New Year Customs
As you may expect, many aspects of the Japanese Lunar New Year traditions are directly influenced by those that take place in China. For instance, people will visit their friends and relatives, and children are given red envelopes from their elders with crisp new bills inside. This is known as ‘lucky money’ or otoshidama in Japanese, and symbolizes good wishes for the year ahead.
But there are also many Japanese-centric customs that have made their way into the occasion too, which are strikingly similar to the Japanese January 1st celebrations. A common custom is deep cleaning the home. This is a follow-on from the Japanese practice of oosouji, which translates as ‘big cleaning’; the chance to clear your home, office, and workspace of anything negative which no longer serves you. This effort to start the new year completely cleansed also helps to rid the house of any bad luck from the previous year, as well as creating space for good luck to enter in its place. Keeping doors and windows open further allows for luck to be welcomed inside.
A somewhat ancient new year custom in Japan that’s still celebrated in the modern day also has its roots in the lunar calendar. Setsubun, which translates to ‘division of the seasons’, is a festival that marks the official beginning of spring – although it has a fixed calendar date of February 3rd. People chase away demons with none other than roasted and dried soybeans, which are scattered outside the front door and around the local temple, and sometimes even thrown directly at masked performers who represent the ‘evil’ oni, or ‘demon’ (this is often the father of the family). The scatterers also chant the words ‘Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!’ which translates as ‘Out with devils! In with happiness!’ The Setsubun festival is a beloved tradition with plenty of events held around the country to mark it. There are usually celebrities, sumo wrestlers, characters and TV stars involved in the bean-throwing too!
Food for Lunar New Year
On the eve of Lunar New Year, some Japanese people will eat similar foods to the Gregorian calendar's equal of December 31st. That means a meal of toshikoshi soba noodles in hot broth, along with ozoni soup filled with mochi rice cakes, and plenty of other snacks. Other popular Japanese New Year foods include osechi ryori, a box with 5 compartments similar to bento. Datemaki, Ebi, Kazunoko, Kuromame, and Kohaku Kamaboku are the most common New Year's dish options you can expect when consuming an osechi box.
The typical Lunar New Year foods also make an appearance in Japan, with ingredients and dishes that are all thought to bring good fortune to those eating. Dumplings and spring rolls bring wealth, steamed whole fish brings prosperity, and a proliferation of pork dishes to represent strength, riches and a prosperous life. Other lucky foods include noodles for longevity, and sweet sticky rice balls for togetherness.
A more Japanese-oriented New Year food is wagashi, traditional sweets that are shaped specially into the zodiac animal represented on the lunar calendar that year: in 2022 it was the year of the Tiger, while 2023 is the year of the Water Rabbit. This animal theme can be seen in other foodstuffs too, such as breaded goods at Japanese bakeries.
Lunar New Year Superstitions
The color red is typically used in as many forms as possible, thanks to a Chinese legend which depicts an evil monster being effectively repelled by red paper hung about the place. That’s why the ‘lucky money’ envelopes are red, and all kinds of wall hangings, clothing and XX will be in the same vibrantly warm shade too, or similarly lucky colors like yellow, orange and gold.
But there are also superstitions around taboo behaviors for Lunar New Year. Having a shower or cutting your hair are two activities that are off limits, as the act of washing or cutting could mean you lose your accrued good luck. Wearing old clothes and unlucky colors like black and white (the colors of mourning) are a bad idea, and buying a new pair of shoes isn’t possible either: the Chinese character for ‘shoe’ sounds too similar to the character for ‘rough’ in Cantonese and ‘evil’ in Mandarin – wholly too unlucky to tempt fate with!
In the same vein, there are positive associations between various words at Lunar New Year too. The Chinese words for ‘tangerine’ and ‘orange’ are similar to ‘wealth’ and ‘luck’, meaning these fruits are often gifted at this time of year.
Festivals in Japan for Lunar New Year
The best places to see Lunar New Year celebrations in Japan are amongst the most active Chinatown communities.
Yokohama, a city close to Tokyo, was home to the country’s first foreign trade port in the 1850s and thus quickly became a place where many Chinese traders chose to live. The historically preserved Chinatown is 160 years old and is the largest in Japan. For Lunar New Year, you’ll see plenty of live events including street parades, dragon dances, lion dances, and plenty of fireworks. You can also visit Kanteibyo Temple when it’s been decorated for New Year celebrations, eat a delicious array of street foods, and immerse yourself in local Chinese culture with a slightly Japanized twist.
In Nagasaki you can attend the Nagasaki Lantern Festival, which brings together both an historical New Year festival and an overall celebration of Chinese culture in the Nagasaki region. The Lantern Festival was originally begun by Chinese settlers as a modest celebration but has grown exponentially since 1994. Along with more than 15,000 lanterns strung across the city, you’ll also see Chinese dragon dances, acrobatic performances, beauty contests, empress parades, and a sky filled with dramatic fireworks. The entire festival is free to attend, meaning tourists flock to the city every year.
As the southernmost prefecture of Japan, Okinawa has a strong historical relationship with China and has long woven aspects of Chinese culture into local Okinawan and Ryukyu culture – including following the lunar calendar. On some of the smaller islands, you’ll still see local families following traditional rituals on Lunar New Year (‘Soguwachi’), including making offerings of freshly brewed tea to their ancestors, burning incense at family altars, and reenacting traditional dances, musical celebrations and parades through the villages. There is even a ritual that takes place at a cave on Hamahiga-jima island where the first Ryuku god and goddess once lived. The sacred limestone cave is usually closed to visitors, but at Lunar New Year traditional prayers and music take place at the opening of the cave.
How to Taste Japanese Lunar New Year
Happy Lunar New Year from Bokksu! If you’ve ever asked yourself ‘does Japan celebrate Christmas or New Year’, you can easily find out for yourself with the delicious Japanese New Year box! This ‘lucky box’ contains plenty of the same traditional sweets that Japanese families enjoy over the festive season, like Sakura Dango mochi and Daruma Senbei rice crackers.
While you’re browsing the Bokksu Boutique shelves, you can also pick up some of the much-loved Puku Puku Tai, a taiyaki fish-shaped treat that comes in delicious strawberry and chocolate filled flavors, and our favorite Uni rice crackers too.
New subscribers will be treated to a Mount Fuji sake cup and a kimono robe when they buy a 12-month subscription – not to mention their first Bokksu box will be wrapped in a traditional Japanese furoshiki cloth which you can reuse time and time again!