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The Budo Odyssey: Living and Training in Japan

The Japanese New Year and the Martial Artist

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The end of the year is a particularly special time of the year for Japan. There are several “cultural” group related events for colleagues, businesses and for groups, including martial arts. Respectively, there are three main types of parties surrounding the New Year: before the New Year, New Years and after the New Year, so to speak. Many smaller dojo in Japan do not have official tests to assign rank. In turn, they use the end of the year as a time to assign rank. That is not saying that tests are not unheard of as there may be tests (this is especially true in modern martial arts) but many have special events to assign rank and the News Years is one of the most common.
Sound complicated? Yeah, it is. Remember, this is a country that made the simple act of making and drinking tea into an entire ceremony…so let me break it down:

First things first:
The story goes that during the 15th century, parties occurring around the New Year, *other than* the New Year’s party itself were collectively known as noukai (
納会"achievement gathering"). In about the 17th or 18th century, new words started popping up describing these parties: bonenkai and shinnekai which then fell into fashionable use. With these new words came “new” traditions, and so the nature of the parties also changed and they took on new lives of their own (or at least became more complicated). So, this gave a certain kind of order to the parties that occur in Japan during new years. There are exceptions, but they usually follow some kind of rationale according to the thinking of the group or the organizer. In general, these are the (1) bonenkai and following that is (2) shogatsu, which is followed by a 12 day period called (3) matsunouchi: which include shinnenkai, kagami biraki and for martial arts groups in particular, the hatsugeiko.

Bonenkai (
忘年会"Forget the Year Gathering")
Gatherings occurring before the New Year are known as bonenkai, which have no date other than sometime in December. Bonenkai are close to what we would call a New Years Eve party in the west, with copious amounts of drinking, food and merriment. It's a time to forget the problems you had in the past and to look forward to a new year. It's also a rare time that you can be your true self in front of one another in Japan and an opportunity to get everything troubling you off your chest and start afresh. The Japanese, while claiming to be a very tight knit group from a social standpoint, actually have some very serious problems in communicating to one another. This alleged "openness" is allowed at the party which makes this a very important social event. It's the one time you can speak your mind without fear of criticism and being ostracized. Although while open, straightforward and earnest talk is ideal, it is probably not a reality as most will keep silent and just act drunk. Generally, martial art groups will hold a bonenkai according to the dojo tradition, following the social norm. This is a bonding party for you at the dojo, a time of the year that you can remember the good times and forget that which was bad. It’s also important to re-assert your relationships with your fellow budoka and keep the spirit of goodwill and training alive in the dojo. Remember, drinking is going on at these parties and it is not unusual to see very drunk behavior that we as westerners would deem inappropriate. Keep in mind the openness that is supposed to surround these events and be prepared.

Shogatsu (
正月“New Year” literally “Proper Year”)
This traditionally starts from ganjitsu (
元日”1st of January”), with events extending into the 15th , called koshogatsu. This is the actual New Year celebration and usually a very private event over the first three days of January, called sanganichi (三が日”three days”). This time is usually spent with the family and close friends and the first visit to the shrine or temple or hatsumode (初詣) occurs. People often go visiting and likewise receive family and close friends into their homes. In budo, if you are invited to an event during these days, it would be wise to attend in that it does not conflict with your own family’s activities. Not doing so without good reason, especially for an expatriate, would be considered insulting. This usually doesn't happen, as the “house doors” are closed, but it is important to keep etiquette in mind and attend if you are invited. If you are invited, please make sure to wear nice clothes and be ready to act formal. Many times the western holiday takes on an aloof sense of relaxation, and while this is true among family members attending each other’s houses during these times, when receiving guests a proper attitude is taken on with high regards to manners. In any case, do not over dress and do not under dress and be prepared to “read” the feeling of the party and act accordingly.

Matsu no Uchi (
松の内 “Pine Tree’s House”)
January 4th until January 15th is period of 12 days called matsu-no-uchi. This is when shinnenkai, kagami biraki, hatsugeiko and other events occur. There is no particular order to these, and they can even be a single, mixed event or spread out into smaller combined events. Remember, if one is invited to these events in a martial arts group, it is in good form to attend them if possible, if not be as polite as possible in declining, in which “no” is usually not spoken; instead regrets is shown as being unable to attend. Usually there will be an RSVP for the parties, but in some cases it invitations may be sudden or come up in conversations. If anything else, if one is unable to attend it might be wise to make arrangements to send a gift or telegram to express that you are thinking of them and wish you could attend. This may or not be the case, but in formal situations (such as the giving of rank) it is best to do this and congratulate those receiving rank. If the event is designed to assign rank, and you are getting one, you had better be there.

Shinnekai (
新年会 “New Year’s Gathering”)
This is a party held anywhere from January 4th until the 15th, generally. There are exceptions of course, varying group to group, but traditionally the gathering is held between these two dates. This is a party similar to a bonenkai in that drinking and food is a centerpiece of the event, but usually includes foods and activities associated with the shogatsu festivities (such as making pounded rice cakes or mochi <
>). It also may be a little more formal and maybe not the best time to unwind, but again this is based on the group and their perception of the gathering. There is definitely drinking and eating going on, ushering in the good spirit of the new year and again, solidifying relationships. This can also be a place where ranks are awarded and gifts are exchanged, and can be mixed with kagami biraki and hatsugeiko.

Kagami Biraki (
鏡開き “Opening the Mirror”)
This is an event that is traditionally held on December 11th, but can vary according to tradition (usually, for martial art groups it occurs on the closest weekend or training day).

Kagami Biraki are usually formal events with ceremony, however drinking and food are still a major part. Traditional foods are oshiruko (
お汁粉, or 善哉 “sweet azuki bean and rice-cake soup”) and ceremonial sake is drunk. The amount of sake varies…so be wary not to drink the entire bottle when everyone else is having a sip.
Allegedly the tradition started with the Shogun Ietsuna Tokugawa called together all his Daimyo after the New Year. Ietsuna opened the doors to his shrine, exposing the ceremonial mirror and prayed for prosperity and luck in the days to come. Afterwards, according to lore, he smashed open the top on a barrel of sake and cut up mochi (
- a soft, gluey rice cake) which he then served to his guests. The following year was fortunate for him, so the tradition caught on and it has been a popular event for a little over 300 years.

While all the festivities hold significance culturally, the kagami biraki holds particular importance for the martial arts practitioner. Not only does it serve to bless the training in the dojo for the New Year, but it has cultural “warrior" roots as well, so it makes it a fairly big event for most dojo. Many times this becomes a mixed event, with ceremony, blessing and purifying the dojo by a Shinto priest, the awarding of rank, the first year’s training (hatsugeiko) or even a dojo shinnenkai. Sometimes a student is promoted and rank is awarding during the event and gifts are exchanged.

Hatsugeiko (
初稽古 “First Training”)
This is literally the first day of training at the dojo after the New Year. It can fall anywhere between the 4th or the 15th, or maybe a little afterwards; it varies from dojo to dojo. In any case this is an important event and it can be accompanied by ceremony and take on the same rights and ritual as a kagami biraki. Sometimes a dojo visits a local shrine or temple for prayers or a blessing, other times a Shinto priest is brought in to purify the dojo, sometimes a shinnenkai or kagami biraki can follow it. It can truly be a mixed event and take on many guises. Sometimes the party happens right there in the dojo. Sometimes rank is awarded and gifts are exchanged. This all varies on the tradition of the dojo, but regardless of the caliber of the event attending it is a good idea. It ushers in the new year to the dojo in the proper budo style, with sweat and work.

Koshogatsu (
小正月“Little New Years”)
January 15th, is called koshogatsu and it is generally viewed as the final day of the New Year celebration. On this day many people eat of azuki gaiyu (
赤小豆粥 a rice gruel/congee with sweet azuki beans). It’s a wind down of the year’s festivities and a day of “rest” from visiting and events.
It’s also a day to clear out the house of New Years decorations and to dispose of the following year’s omamori (
御守 good luck and protection amulets given out by Shinto shrines) in a ritual called Sagicho (左義長) or Donto-yaki (どんと焼き). One usually takes these items to a shrine and tosses them into a large fire or in a box for the shrine to burn and dispose of later. In the countryside there is the practice of Torioi (鳥追い ”driving off birds”) where children walk through the rice paddies and towns singing prayers/songs to drive away birds from the rice paddies. In some places a Tsunahiki (綱引き”tug of war”) takes places between two neighboring districts or villages to compete for bragging rights and to pray for good crops. While these aren’t of particular importance of to the martial artist, it’s good to know what is going on and understand these are the events that close the New Year celebration.

And so it ends, only to start up again next year. With the same fervor and exhaustion that drive it, the New Year has passed, (only to come again in twelve months).
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Updated 02-26-2012 at 01:34 by Mekugi

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Comments

  1. Tripitaka of AA's Avatar
    Thanks Russ, that was fascinating. I've heard many of the terms without ever bothering to ask what they meant. My wife who was raised in Tokyo, probably half-knows this stuff, but for her it entered the system by osmosis and she often doesn't know that she knows, until I try to talk about it. Some of these events are attended since childhood without ever knowing the origins or symbolism.. a bit like Christmas, Easter or any number of traditional events that we all know but don't always KNOW.
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  2. Mekugi's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Tripitaka of AA
    Thanks Russ, that was fascinating. I've heard many of the terms without ever bothering to ask what they meant. My wife who was raised in Tokyo, probably half-knows this stuff, but for her it entered the system by osmosis and she often doesn't know that she knows, until I try to talk about it. Some of these events are attended since childhood without ever knowing the origins or symbolism.. a bit like Christmas, Easter or any number of traditional events that we all know but don't always KNOW.
    Glad you liked it. Sometimes things like these slip through the cracks but it makes up an important part of budo culture. While budo itself is not entirely the culture, it is an integral part of it. The new year represents a lot of things in Japan and so it goes for budo!
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  3. Abbax8's Avatar
    Thanks Russ. I enjoy learning about other cultures. It' great to have a western reporter who knows what he's talking about.

    Dennis
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  4. Mekugi's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Abbax8
    Thanks Russ. I enjoy learning about other cultures. It' great to have a western reporter who knows what he's talking about.

    Dennis
    Glad you liked it! Certain parts of the culture bleed into everything, just like in the USA, so it's interesting to see contrasts.
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