Japanese symbols abound as new year approaches
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
Others know them better as "the mochi thing with the tangerine on top," "the rake with the charms," and "the bamboo stuff outside the door."
While the symbols of Christmas are most associated with our winter holiday celebrations, it is the transplanted Shinto and Buddhist traditions of Japan that provide some of the most prominent images of the new year in Hawai'i.
Indeed, it's not unusual to find those plastic-coated mochi towers and mass-produced matsu arrangements on local store shelves next to Christmas lights and gift wrapping.
But while these physical symbols of the season are popular, some say the values and good wishes they signify are in danger of being forgotten by those who inherited the rituals but not the belief systems.
"A lot of Japanese people here now are third- or fourth-generation, and they've pretty well forgotten a lot of the meaning behind these traditions," said Augustine Furumoto of the Japanese Cultural Center.
"A big part of the New Year's Day celebration used to be centered around a visit to a Shinto shrine, but a lot of Japanese Americans are Christians or nonbelievers now."
In Hawai'i, Japanese New Year (or Shogatsu) traditions have become tightly interwoven with Western observances, in part because both recognize Jan. 1 as the start of the calendar year. Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1873, roughly a decade before Japanese workers began immigrating to Hawai'i. Shogatsu traditionally was observed to worship Toshigami, a deity.
Other Asian new-year celebrations such as Chinese New Year, Tet for Vietnamese and Seol for Koreans are observed with the traditional lunar calendar. For Native Hawaiians, the October celebration makahiki offers similar recognition of seasonal renewal and bountiful harvest.
Here's a primer on some of the most recognizable (if not easily identifiable) symbols of the Japanese New Year.
Kagami-mochi: The aforementioned "mochi thing with the tangerine on top" is typically composed of two flat, round mochi cakes shaped like kagami (mirror) and a tangerine. The roundness of the mochi is said to symbolize fulfillment within the family. The stacking of the pieces represents the accumulation of another year. According to tradition, kagami-mochi is taken down on Jan. 11 and eaten by members of the household. Families sometimes add the hardened mochi to their New Year's Day ozoni (see below).
Kanenonanuki: The "moneymaking tree" traditionally is made of bamboo and decorated with ornaments signifying good fortune. Ornaments may include a fish (happiness in life), a gold coin (prosperity), dice (success), a target and arrow (achievement of goals) and a fan (more happiness).
Kadomatsu: Consisting of pine and bamboo branches, kadomatsu ("kado" = entrance; matsu = pine) is placed at gateways or doorways of homes. The pine branches symbolize long life, faithfulness and enlightenment; the bamboo, strength, flexibility and vitality.
Under Shinto tradition, kadomatsu were not thrown away but ritually burned at the temple where acquired; some traditions say burial is also an option. This may date to the origin of the kadomatsu, which was as a sort of fire extinguisherÊÊa container of water kept at the door of paper-walled homes in case of fire. From this grew the idea that a protective god lives in the kadomatsu. For this reason, it was considered disrespectful merely to throw the shrine away. As burning isn't convenient (or even legal) these days, and shrines only dispose of the kadomatsu from their congregations, folks today are told to wrap the kadomatsu in cloth or plastic and dispose of it.
Shimekazari: This decorative rope made of rice husks is placed at the entrance of the house or in the kitchen above the stove, indicating a sacred area though which no evil can pass.
Ozoni: Many Japanese families start New Year's Day with a bowl of this mochi soup, which is typically made with a fish stock or soy base with vegetables and chicken. While complementary ingredients vary among regions, it's symbolic oomph comes from the simmered mochi, which is associated with long life. Some believe that the longer you stretch the mochi between teeth and chopsticks, the longer you will live.
Osechi ryori: These elegant Shogatsu meals are presented in multi-tiered lacquered boxes, with each part of the meal signifying something important. Sweet black beans, called kuromame, are believed to protect against evil. Datemaki, (sweetened egg) enhances intelligence. Shrimp, bent like the aged, signifies long life.
Omamori: Originating in Shinto shrines but also offered at Buddhist temples, omamori are small prayer talismans that offer protection in different spaces and situations. Many in Hawai'i are familiar with omamori bukuro, written or carved blessings encased in a small brocade bag. It is customary for people to visit their local shrine or temple during New Year's to get new omamori. It is also customary to return or destroy the previous year's omamori as a way of disposing of past misfortunes.
In recent years, Japanese companies such as Sanrio have offered their own graphic redesigns of omamori. This year, Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha-Hawaii Dazaifu Tenmangu has gone pop, offering brocade omamori in pastel colors, with sea turtle and hibiscus designs. Cotton Hawaiian print and patriotic print omamori are also available.