Obon: Summer tradition concerning souls and fire

Summer is a a time myself and family enjoy going on vacation. When we travel to Japan, we take advantage of seeing the sights, shopping, and visiting relatives & friends. This is also a unique opportunity to experience seasonal traditions and practices, some of which can appear dark in nature. Today I will introduce one of these traditions called “Obon”, which is an age-old practice of connecting with ancestors. Celebrated widely throughout Japan, the official dates are set from dusk of August 13th¹ to nighttime of August 16th².

For this article, we’ll cover a brief summary of Obon’s fabled lore, it’s history in Japan, the standard way of celebrating in a homely setting, and the other unique ways Obon is carried out around Japan in a public setting.

BEGINNINGS: A BUDDHIST TALE

The word “Obon” is written as “お盆” in Japanese, and has the meaning “Festival of the Dead”. It also is known as “Lantern Festival”.  The history behind this practice is related to Buddhism, and is practiced not only in Japan, but in India and other Asian countries. From surviving sources, it is said to have 1st been practiced by Buddhist monks, nobles, and military families around the year 606. Later, from the 1600s and forward of Edo period, commoners adopted the practice.

Obon is associated with Buddhist beliefs

Originally it was called “Ura Bon-e” (盂蘭盆会), with Ura Bon being derived from the sanskrit phrase “suffering being suspended upside down”. Sutras that are chanted during this celebration are called “Ura Bon-kyō” (盂蘭盆経). This is derived from the story where Shakyakuni instructed a disciple who wanted to save his deceased mom from hell to hold a memorial service with other Buddhist monks on a certain date. Traversing the 3 trails of suffering, the disciple was able to guide his mom from hell to nirvana, where she could find peace.

For some prefectures, extra lore may accompany this origin story, to paint a particular picture unique to the locales in their respected areas.

GUIDANCE BY FIRE: MUKAEBI AND OKURIBI

Fire has a prominent symbolism in Obon, as it represents a means for souls to be guided during this event. As a lighting source, souls can both find their way to visit those who are still alive, as well be lead back to the land of the dead. A popular lighting source are candles, which was introduced as a means to celebrate Obon during Edo period. This was a major contribution for commoners to adapt Obon into their lives and carry it on as a tradition. Fire is used during the start and the ending of Obon, where the former is called mukaebi (迎え火, light of guidance), and for the latter it’s called okuribi (送り火, light for sending off).

Here’s a general way residents carry out Obon, which also my parents-in-law followed this year. A lantern is hung in front of a family’s entrance way of a house or mansion on the evening of August 13th as a means to guide souls into one’s home. For those who don’t live in their own personal and/or detached home, they can also hang a lantern at their family grave, which serves the same purpose. Once in the home, the spirit will temporarily reside in an ihai (位牌), which is a Buddhist mortuary tablet with the name of the deceased family member’s name inscribed on it. This sits in a butsudan (仏壇), which is a small cabinet that is adorned with flowers in a small vase, a bowl, incense, and pictures of those loved ones departed, which serves the purpose of remembering those individuals dear to one’s heart. For the next few days, families eat specific foods that can be shared with the visiting souls in a figurative sense, such as cucumbers, eggplants, peaches, grapes, and pears. Incense is also burned during this period.

Finally, as Obon comes to a close on the eve of August 16th, a lantern is be hung outside in front of the home as a means to lead the souls out from the house so they may head back to nirvana. As mentioned earlier, there may be some slight variations based on prefecture or people’s preferences. As an example, on the night of August 16th there is a simultaneous spectacle called “Gozan no Okuribi” (五山送り火) which takes place on 5 mountains in Kyōto³. A Buddhist ritual is conducted where many torches are assembled to form large kanji on each one as a means to send off the visiting souls properly.

MANY PREFECTURES, DIFFERENT WAYS

Obon is observed nationwide. Depending on prefecture, it can be a personal experience for families, or celebrated together as a community. For example, some areas retain the old calendar date for this and celebrate on July 13th, while others follow the modern calendar and begin on the August 13th. There are areas that also begin Obon with “Shōrō Nagashi” (精霊流し), where locals gather by the ocean to let numerous floating lanterns sail out into the distance. This is also accompanied by special boats set out to sea, or a large boat-shaped float similar to a dashi called a “Shōrō-bune” (精霊船), which is adorned with many lanterns in a grand manner and is pulled through the streets at night.

Then there are some areas where a public festival called “Obon Odori” (お盆踊り) is held, which has participating performers dress up in traditional garb like yukata, and perform a dance routine. Some have a routine that is much slower and performed on or around a wooden stage-like platform called a yagura (櫓), while some have the performance done in the streets. Some areas also use fireworks as a means to mark the commencement of Obon. On a more subtle level, those who have a family grave, where their ancestors are buried at, and have the time may do Obon no Ohaka Matsuri (お盆のお墓参り). This is a process of showing respect to those who’ve passed by going to the grave site and paying respect which involves paying respect through prayers, as well as performing maintenance from cleaning with water to adding fresh flowers.

CONCLUSION

In closing, Obon is but one of few traditional celebrations that is carried out widely throughout Japan. Although how it is practiced varies, the purpose remains the same, which is the superstitious belief of connecting with ancestors and deceased loved ones.


1) This is based on the modern calendar. On the old calendar, Obon fell on around July 15th.

2) Not all areas in Japan end Obon on this date, for some places end late August 15th.

3) The 5 mountains are the following: eastern mountain of Nyoigatake (東山如意ヶ嶽), Mt. Matsugasakinishi (松ヶ崎西山), Mt. Nishigamofune (西賀茂船山), Mt. Ookita (大北山), and Mt. Mandara (曼荼羅山).

4) 山車. There is an article about dashi on this site, which can be read here.

The Symbolism Behind Kagami Mochi

Over the years I’ve written several articles on a new year-related celebration called Kagami Biraki, which takes place on the 11th of January. Possibly the most iconic component of this is the kagami mochi (鏡餅), which is a rice cake made of a type of sticky rice that can be eaten. It is designed as 2-tier (either in one mold, or two separate pieces), and is often decorated in a beautiful manner. There is also a segment where a mallet is used to divide it by “breaking” the top surface, which means opening it to release the blessings kept inside by the toshigami (歳神), a deity that comes to visit one’s residence at the start of the new year to bring good fortune. Although this is a widely-known tradition, having kagami mochi isn’t practiced widely throughout Japan today due to modernization, although some families, or certain organizations for specific events, still keep this tradition going on.

Kagami mochi

As with most things in Japanese culture, there are plenty of symbolic meanings behind the kagami mochi and its appearance. For this article, the back story behind kagami mochi will be covered. We’ll look into the traditional practices regarding its shape, the superstitions behind the types of decorations used, as well as its relations to the mallet instead of a sharp instrument.

MEANING BEHIND SHAPE

The accepted practice for kagami mochi is to make it circular. This is obvious when this rice cake is looked at from above. There is one prime reason behind the circular shape, one that pays homage to ancient beliefs and practices.

Example of an ancient bronze mirror.

Centuries ago, mirrors were made in a circle shape out of bronze. Going as far back as the Yayoi period (before 300 BC ~ 300 AD), these were valuable objects where only those of prestigious status could obtain one. From that time forward a strong belief regarding how mirrors can grant eternal life, or deliver good fortune to one’s descendants was attached to mirrors, giving it an auspicious nature. Also, shintō belief added to this with the idea that mirrors were like a gateway to different gods that were worshiped, such as the sun goddess Amenoho Akari no Miko (天火明命)¹.

Today, much of that ancient practice has been carried to present day, and influences the practice of Kagami Biraki. This gives us a clue as to the ancient bronze mirror being the reason for kagami mochi being circular, as well as a means to receive blessing from the toshigami for a long life.

WHY 2-TIER?

One of the more interesting features of the Kagami mochi is that it’s made as a 2-tier rice cake. While it may seem unusual, especially for something that should be more recognizable as, say a mirror. However, this 2-tier structure is symbolic, with reasoning behind it. Below are a few acceptable theories regarding this:

Why 2-tier?
  1. Having the kagami mochi as 2-tier is believed to reinforce the blessing one receives, to ensure good fortune, and longevity for one’s life.
  2. Having a 2-tier design is a representation of the phrase fūfu wagō (夫婦和合). This phrase stands for happy union between marriage couples, and can be viewed as following the philosophy of inyō (陰陽, ying yang). The layers of the kagami mochi represent this union, and is important for those who are married.
  3. Under Shintō and Buddhism practices, the layers represent the connection between humans and the gods. Due to the influence of these two belief systems, Japan had a long history of being polytheistic, with many people revering gods for all purposes and matters in their lives.

Each of these theories are feasible and can honestly be identified as so based on the Japanese culture. It would be wrong to just pick only one, for there are many ways of life styles in Japan’s past, and it’s not common for different groups to celebrate the same theme, but with a different reasoning behind it.

DECORATIONS

The items used to adorn a kagami mochi is not random. Over several centuries a formalized practice was devised in how to visually present it. Below is an explanation of the items used as decoration, based on the image provided. Note that there are slight variations in the arrangement of the decoration, as well as items used, so this design is not written in stone as the only way to go.

Popular decorations
  • Shide (垂) – A new year decoration consisting of 2 strands of square-shaped papers hung on either side of the kagami mochi. This is a type of gohei (御幣)² used in Shintō practices. Generally white can be used, or can be mixed with red color. This is symbolic as warding away evil spirits that can bring bad luck and misfortune.
  • Sanpō (三方) – A small stool to sit the kagami mochi on. Based on Shintō and Buddhist practices, this is a necessity. In the past, those of prestigious status could afford to obtain this. Present day, sanpō is an easily obtainable item at many outlets that can be purchased.
  • Daidai (橙) – Originally a fruit called daidai (橙, bitter orange) would be placed on top of the kagami mochi. Nowadays, a small mikan (蜜柑, mandarin orange) is used in its place, although the title “daidai” still remains. The meaning behind using this fruit is “seimei saisei” (生命再生), which is “restore one’s life”³. Another thought on this is how daidai do not fall off of the tree they grow on even after ripening. This signifies having a strong family line.
  • Urajiro – A type of leaf that comes from the fern species, called shida (歯朶) in Japanese. Two of these are used. This is not the only type of leaves that can be used for decoration of the kagami mochi, but this is the most common.
  • Shihōbeni – This is a square white sheet of paper with red trimming placed underneath the kagami mochi. The meaning behind this is protection from misfortune, sickness, and disaster from all four cardinal directions.

Since all these are part of Japan’s culture, acquiring these items is relatively simple. This is especially true when new years is around the corner, for many stores and retail outlets will have these in stock and put out advertisements.

TABOO OF SPLITTING WITH SHARP INSTRUMENTS

For those who’ve seen images or an actual Kagami Biraki event would notice that a mallet is used to split open the kagami mochi. This is the same for a taruzake (樽酒), which is a barrel full of blessed sake used in the same fashion as kagami mochi at certain gatherings and events, especially at shrines. Although I’ve spoken about this in another article, I’ll reiterate it here as well since it’s related.

Bladed instruments are not allowed!

Early in the practice of Kagami Biraki, there are recordings about it once being known by the title “Kagami Wari” (鏡割り), which can be interpreted as “splitting the mirror”. This is because a bladed instrument was used to open up the kagami mochi. As a practice devised by prestigious military families, this makes sense as a to-go action. However, over time this was frowned upon due to its rather violent connotation; for a practice that was auspicious, “cutting” something that is said to be inhabited by a deity felt like a direct attack. It also didn’t help that the practice of seppuku (切腹, suicidal cutting of one’s belly) was a form of ritual punishment that forfeited a person’s life.

A mallet is just fine!

A movement was made to change the interaction with the kagami mochi that appeared both humane and non-violent, which is where the mallet was introduced. For this, one taps the top layer in order to “open” it, which means to separate it into two. This is a more acceptable depiction to release to blessing one would receive from the kagami mochi. On another note, it is OK to simply use both hands to separate the kagami mochi.

ENDING

This covers the significance of the kagami mochi during the new year, and the symbolism behind its presentation. As mentioned earlier, Kagami Biraki is not widely practiced nowadays throughout Japan, except by those families or groups that have reason to keep this tradition going. One thing for sure is there is still many images and public coverage on kagami mochi, much like this article, so it won’t easily be forgotten.


1) Hailing from Japan’s legendary tales. Known under many different titles, too numerous to mention. However, all point to the same goddess who shut herself in a cave after being the target of mean tricks by her brother, which brought darkness to the world. The other gods set into motion a plan to get her to come out, including having a mirror be the 1st thing she sees, to convince her that she was the most beautiful goddess of all.

This episode can be read in old texts such as the Kojiki (古事記) and Nihon Shoki (日本書紀).

2) Gohei is a stick consisting of streams of paper that is carried at the front of a procession or during a ceremony.

3) Daidai’s importance is based off of the tale concerning the deity Tajima Mori no Mikoto (田道間守命), and how he traveled to China to retrieve this bitter orange from China in order to make a medicine that would save the 11th emperor’s life.

Nengajō: Happy Wishes on New Years Day

As the year comes to a close, people send different forms of heartfelt messages around the world. This is done for all types of purposes, whether it be reaching out & staying in touch between family and friends, or keeping good relations between businesses and customers. In the US, many usually do this in the form of holiday cards, such as Christmas cards or New Years cards. Similarly, Japan has a practice of using cards as well, which is called nengajō (年賀状). What is the story behind nengajō? In this article, we’ll explore the history behind these letters of happy new year wishes & when they came about in Japan, along with the iconic appearance that has become a mainstay. We’ll also touch upon the rules & hardships that come along with following this tradition, as well as how technology is changing people approach sending out new year wishes.

MEANING AND HISTORY

The word “nengajō” stands for a written letter used to wish good fortune in the new year. In today’s standards, this is labeled simply as a holiday card. Such practice in Japan was recorded around the later part of Heian period (794 ~1185). Evidence of this is found within the collection of letters called “Unshū Shōsoku” (雲集消息), which were of the possession of Heian aristocrat and Confucius scholar Fujiwara Akihira. In this collection, there are exchanges of messages of New Year wishes between him and others. Considering the time period and how aristocrat families primarily had access to literacy education, it is believed that the practice of nengajō started with this group. Other examples of expressing new year wishes can be also found in educational resources called “Teikin Ōrai” (庭訓往来), which were used at private temple schools starting sometime in the 1300s during the Muromachi period. In the past, the most common phrases found in these letters included expressions of fortune or wishing happiness to the recipient as Spring was opening up throughout Japan. Along with the elite families, military families would also follow this tradition, as many warlords saw it important to uphold good relations with their allies.

Here’s an opening page in a version of Teikin Ōrai from Sakamoto Ryumon Bunko & Nara Women’s University Academic Information Center that was written in 1520. The underlined section is an example of nengajo, where the message is expressing luck and plenty of fortune to the recipient as Spring is upon them. This reflects the time period when the old calendar was prominent in Japan’s past, for the new year fell on the beginning of today’s February.

In the Edo period, this practice was slowly being adopted by the common people. This is due to literacy education being made available through private elementary schools, which helped society as a whole develop with each generation. Still, the catch was that family had to be making a well enough income to afford education lessons. Education as a whole made it possible for many towns & prefectures to incorporate cultural traditions primarily elite families partook in the past. As nengajō became a growing practice among the masses, one form of transportation that became essential was the mobility of machibikyaku (町飛脚), or express messengers in English. This special service was introduced as a simple solution to meet the demands of Japanese citizens having their holiday cards reach their families, friends, and acquaintances on the exact day of gantan (元旦), or 1st day of the new year. Machibikyaku were depended on for this task up until the ending of the Edo period, as this service would be replaced by a more systematic process known as the postal system.

The postal system was introduced in Japan around 1871, with post offices slowly constructed in each prefecture throughout the country. The postal service would become fully established around Japan within the years, which from there a formal delivery service could be provided throughout the country. Citizens took advantage of this, for in late 1880s onward post offices had to handle the bulk of these holiday cards from everyone throughout Japan in the last month of the year, as postal workers had to work around the clock to ensure each and every nengajō made it to their destinations on the 1st day of the new year. This approach was adopted from how the machibikyaku were used for express deliveries in short periods of time.

DESIGNS AND FEATURES

Over the course of history, nengajō went through several visual and physical transitions. More ancient examples can be seen from resources like Unshū Shōsoku and Teikin Ōrai, where In the beginning this letters were sent that contained new year wishes in the form of one to two line greetings. Once Japan was unified by one sole power called the Tokugawa Shogunate and giving birth to Edo period in the early 1600s, nengajō retained its letter form as common people emulated what was done in the past. In some of these, illustrations were added along with the message depending on the sender’s taste. These new year letters were folded into a smaller, compact size, which made easy to carry by those who could travel, or be piled with other letters in a square box and easily distributed by machibikyaku once they reached their destination.

An example of nengajō in modern times. From Wikipedia.

As Edo period came to an end, with Meiji period taking its place in late mid 1800s, advancement in modernization would influence how people would send out nengajō. With an actual postal system in play, actual holiday cards called nenga hagaki would be made available for purchase. This version was especially well received during the early to mid 20th century, as people could go to their local post office, book stores,or specialty shops and purchase these pre-made cards. This period saw a very iconic look for these holiday cards, where on one side would be for the address of the sender & recipient and the stamp, while the other side would feature some form of illustration followed by space for one’s message.

An example of otoshidama-zuki nenga hagaki. From Wikipedia.

Speaking of which, with the inclusion of the card design came other features that gave sending nengajo more appeal. The 1st one being otoshidama-zuki nenga hagaki (お年玉付き年賀はがき), which are holiday cards equipped with lottery numbers. These lottery numbers are issued by the postal system and give the recipient a chance to win small prizes. Take note that these cards are only purchasable from post offices, as this is one of the ways the postal service makes money. There are 2 periods in which these lottery holiday cards can be purchased, with the earliest being July, and the latest during August. These lottery cards are different from regular cards used as nengajō, which are generally made available from November 1st. Surprisingly, these lottery holiday cards became the “expected” way of sending new year wishes at one point.

The other appealing feature would be the nenga kitte (年賀切手), or new year stamps. These specialized stamps were introduced to the public in late 1935, and were designed to be placed on nengajō. Over the years, these stamps featured unique art themes to make them more eye-catching, such as having a national landmark, a symbol attached to a specific prefecture or island in Japan, a person in an attractive outfit, and to the ever familiar Zodiac animals. New year stamps are still in play today, both physical and digital stamps (more on this later).

RULES & HARDSHIPS

Nengajō has a pivotal place in Japanese society. In modern times, people took sending these holiday cards out seriously, especially for maintaining good business relations. Since their purpose is to wish the recipient a fortunate new year, they need to be prepared & sent out at on time. There are actual protocols that need to be followed when sending these out.

  1. The period for sending out nengajō is from the last week of November to around 2nd~3rd week of December
  2. Cut off time for the post office to receive nengajō is December 25th
  3. While any type of holiday card can be used, official ones issued by the post office were the expected type
  4. Nengajō had to be bought at a particular time, especially otoshidama-zuki nenga hagaki

While this is a seasonal practice, just keeping in mind when to prepare for this isn’t too much of a hassle, especially when sending out personal holiday cards for family and friends. On the other hand, businesses are hard pressed with getting all of their holiday cards out at a timely fashion. Companies are expected to take seriously the custom of sending out new year wishes to everyone they communicate throughout the years, whether it be customers, associates, and vendors. This includes individual workers who are the position of working directly in business transactions.

Picture of a Print Gocco. From Wikipedia.

Speaking of which, there was a point where sending nengajō was a serious endeavor that equipment was needed to assist with the volume of holiday cards that was required to be to sent out. From the late 1970s to early 2000s there was a handy device called “Print Gocco” (プリントごっこ), which allowed anyone to custom design their cards with the typical designs found on nengajō. It was small & simple to use, and would allow anyone to fully design a typical holiday card in a short amount of time (specially-supplied cards from the post office generally were used). Of course, what a Print Gokko could not do was duplicate a hand written message, which a person had to do themselves. In terms of experience with a Print Gokko, my Japanese father-in-law invested in this during his years of full-time employment at a company. It wasn’t for personal use though, but instead needed to prepare nengajō for customers and business partners he interacted with over the years. Every year he had to prepare around 200 of these holiday cards at home using the Print Gocco, and making time to write personal messages based on recipient. My wife explained that was a daunting task on him, and how others in Japan had the same routine as him. This is an example of how important keeping good relations through nengajō was viewed upon throughout the years.

Another example of the importance nengajō presented was impacted on the Japanese postal system. Pressure was placed on post offices around Japan for many years, especially during the late 21st century, when the economy was at its highest point and many high-profile businesses doing well worldwide. During this period, the volume of mail that included nengajō was unmanageable during regular postal schedule. This instilled a critical end-of-the-year overtime during the last week of December, where Post Offices had to hire part-time workers, usually students, to handle the task of delivering nengajō on January 1st. This is reminiscent of how machibikyaku worked during the Edo period. As of recent, this end-of-the-year overtime was lifted off the post office, due the lesser volume of physical holiday cards they see nowadays.

DECLINE DUE TO MODERN ADVANCEMENT

Nengajō has cemented its place in Japanese culture. However, how people continue this tradition of new year wishes is changing. Advancement in technology has given the world options for ease of accessibility for many areas of interest with the introduction of computers and smart devices. People can enjoy nengajō through these methods, but in return interest in sending out physical mail has dwindled considerably.

Let’s take a look at how technology has given people options with nengajō. From the late 20th century to early 21st century, print shops, as well as online services that can be accessed on one’s personal computer, offer options to customizing and designing unique holiday cards. Through such service, customers do such things like choose font type, adjust layout, to adding their favorite pictures, including of family members. The popularity in this was due to the departure from the more traditional look of nengajō since the start of the Meiji period, to a modern standard that fit everyone’s personal taste and style.

Snapshot of new year stamps that can be purchased for use in messages, which can be used through Line app.

Technology of smartphones in the early 21st century would further give people greater ease of sending holiday wishes through digital nengajō using SMS, such as Line app. Along with one’s personal message and decorated picture, users can add cool looking new years stamps. Digital nengajō is a very cost-efficient way of staying in touch and is extremely popular way among different age groups in Japan. Of course, with this ease in communicating with both family and friends through tech, the more traditional method of “snail mail” using paper cards and physical stamps is not relied on as it once used to be decades ago.

ENDING

This concludes our look at nengajō and its impactful history in Japanese culture. As a well-documented practice, there are some really nice designs that can be viewed online of cards & stamps used within the last century. Even though there’s a departure from physical nengajō, sending them digitally is also cool, as it still retains the spirit of wishing a happy new year to loved ones & friends. As a whole, one can have fun making a comparison of this holiday card practice in Japan with one’s own country’s standards.

Tanabata and the Customs involving Tanzaku

Tanabata, which falls on July 7th in modern times, is one of the more anticipated holidays during the summer. It is especially a major attraction for kids, as they partake in this during school. One aspect to Tanabata’s popularity is due to its relatively fun & involving practices. Along with learning about the stories involving star viewing and actually experiencing this with telescopes, kids also take part in tanzaku (短冊), where they engage in small crafts and decorate the sasa leaves on the bamboo stalks.

A starry night sky, and papers of wishes hung among sasa leaves.

For this article, we will look into the latter, and learn about what tanzaku is, its history, and other crafts that are similar to it.

MEANING BEHIND TANZAKU

Tanzaku (短冊) means “strips”, as in strips of paper. On the day of Tanabata, kids write their special wishes on strips of colored paper, which are then hung on sasatake (笹竹), which are stalks of bamboo that have sasa leaves. It is a spectacular sight to see bamboo stalks covered with numerous tanzaku. Usually, those who are learning writing, or going to private school at a temple, would do this during Edo period. For the sake of success in their academics and calligraphy, they would partake in this practice of tanzaku.

One of the origins to tanzaku is thought to have started from a unique practice of writing on the large green leaves of sato imo (里芋, type of Asian potato). The practice involves waiting for water from the morning dew to form on these leaves from the cool air the night before. Then one would take ink, and begin writing different kanji as a form to wish for improvement in one’s calligraphy skills.

The reason behind using water that had naturally formed is due to the divine symbolism of sato imo leaves; the water is seen as coming down from the heavens, which the leaves can naturally hold within its center. Plus, the leaves are big enough to be used as umbrellas.

It is said that due to this origin, the wishes made on Tanabata are not the needy ones, but instead are those that are focused on improvement in one’s skills or abilities.

On a separate note, tanzaku is kept up on their bamboo display during an entire day, even throughout the night. On the next day, all the tanzaku are removed and the bamboo stalks are disposed of. In the past, the tanzaku would be cleansed in a river, then brought to a local shrine or temple, where they would then be placed into a bonfire so that the wishes may rise up and reach the gods so they may be granted.

ROLE OF GOSHIKI

Generally, the paper strips used as tanzaku come in 5 colors. This color variation is called “goshiki” in Japanese. The use of the 5 colors is derived from the ancient practice of Inyō Gogyōsetsu, which originated from China. These 5 colors are green (青/緑)¹, red (赤)², gold (黄), white (白), and black (黒). These colors represent the elements (or elemental flow) that influence both life and the world as taught in Inyō Gogyōsetsu. These elements are wood (木), fire (火), earth (土), metal (金), and water (水)³.

Tanzaku in the general 5-color scheme. Click on each one to see their full size.

An interesting note is that for the practice of Tanabata, the color black has been replaced with purple. So it is most common to see the strips of paper in the colors green, red, gold, white, and purple⁴. Here’s what each of the colors stand for, and how they influence what type of wish one would make:

  • GREEN: Improving one’s traits as a person
  • RED: Having the ability to maintain respect to our parents and our ancestors
  • GOLD: Being able to treat others well by improving relations
  • WHITE: Living up to our obligations and responsibilities
  • PURPLE: Excelling in our academics

This was the role the colors originally assumed. Nowadays this practice isn’t followed so strictly, as anyone can freely use whichever one of the colors they choose for their tanzaku.

OTHER DECORATIONS

Along with tanzaku, there are other types of decorations that were used in the past in conjunction to Tanabata. While these are not part of the general format of celebrating Tanabata, some establishments and events may still incorporate these for the sake of honoring traditional practices, such as street parades.

  • Fuki-nagashi (吹き流し): Long strands of different colored papers joined together, sometimes attached to different types of ornaments such as a star-shaped origami. Based off of colored threads that a seamstress would use, it also acts as a type of talisman to ward off evil.
  • Ami kazari (網飾り): A decoration using a long piece of paper cut in an intricate design in the form of fish wire. This is to wish for successful fishing trips.
  • Orizuru (折鶴): An origami crane. Originally the crane represents a long life. So, with this one would wish for longevity and a healthy life.
  • Kamiko (神衣): An origami kimono that looks like it could fit a doll. Along with wishing for improvements in one’s sewing skills, the kamiko also can double as a charm to prevent bad luck by catching it, which can then be passed on to a doll.
  • Saifu (財布): An origami wallet or purse. As one would expect, you would hang these when you want to wish for financial gains.

CONCLUSION

This wraps up our article on the finer details of tanzaku and its significance during the Tanabata celebration. An important one in Japan, it is not unusual to see this practice done in other countries. If you had a chance to participate with your own tanzaku, what qualities would you wish to improve on?


1) In older Japanese culture, the word aoi (青い) stood for both blue & green. However, usually it is associated to what we in the West would call “green”. To avoid confusion in modern times, aoi mainly refers to the color blue, while midori (緑) is used for the color green.

2) Quite often, paper that is a pink color is used to represent red.

3) Another set of virtues that comes from Inyō Gogyōsetsu that was attached to the 5 colors was gojō (五常), which means “the natural 5 habits”. Here’s how the same colors represent these virtues:

  • Blue/Green = Respect
  • Red = Benevolence
  • Gold = Righteousness
  • White = Understanding
  • Black/Purple = Belief

With a few exceptions, the color scheme of gojō aligns with that of Tanabata. You can read more on the virtues of gojō in another article on this site here.

4) Depending on preferences, there are variants of this color combination. It is not unusual to also have the following used as tanzaku:

  • blue, red, gold, white, purple
  • blue, red, gold, green, purple
  • green, blue, red, pink, gold, white, purple

The Modern and Older form of Kodomo no Hi

Many older holidays and celebrations from Japan have a deep and intricate background. Nowadays they have been simplified one way or another, with the focus on the core component. This has to do in part with social practices of old do not have the same role in Japan’s society as a whole as it once used to. Still, some areas in Japan pay recognition to the older history of these celebrations, while great efforts are made to preserve their details in documentations.

LOOKING AT KODOMO NO HI

Let’s look one of Japan’s more well-celebrated holidays, “Kodomo no Hi” (子供の日), or “Children’s Day” in English, which takes place on May 5th this year. Kodomo no Hi is a celebration for kids, where parents pray for the to grow up healthy and strong. This is similar to how girls’ healthy future is prayed for during the holiday known as Hinamatsuri. There are different ways to go about celebrating this. One way that has a traditional background is where families place a small display featuring a kabuto (兜, tradition helmet used with armor), yumiya (弓矢, bow with arrows in a quiver), and a tachi (太刀, battlefield sword) out in their home, which is symbolic for protection from harm. Another is shōbuyu (菖蒲湯), where stalks of iris are used in conjunction with water or sake in the form of a remedy to drive away bad spirits.

The more popular practice during Kodomo no Hi is to celebrate with koinobori (鯉のぼり), which are carp-shaped streamers. Koinobori are generally strung together in a large mass on a pole or on a cable in between poles in one’s area or around public places, with a yaguruma (矢車, wheel consisting of arrows) on top. Looking at the history behind the concept of koinobori, we learn that It has a connection with the Chinese myth of carps that are able to swim up a particular waterfall will turn into dragons, which was adapted into Japan’s culture. Carp are also seen as a creature of spiritual significance, where they have a long lifespan, and can adapt to different environments. These traits, and more, are what parents pray for in their children. Adding a yaguruma on top of a pole is symbolic for informing the gods of children’s birth and residence in the area in order to receive their blessings, as well as to drive away evil spirits.

Koinobori are made in different colors. The meaning behind these colors have changed over the centuries since mid Edo period. At first the colors used was based on what was popular in one’s region, such as families in eastern Japan would use gold and silver, while families in western Japan would use black and red. Later, the colors became generalized as koinobori were designed in predetermined sizes and colors. They were displayed in a pack on Kodomo no Hi to represent one’s family. For example, the largest koinobori would be a black color and represent the father, the 2nd largest would be a red color and represent the mom, while the smaller one would be a blue color and represent children. Eventually this would be expanded, featuring much smaller ones in a green or pink color.

As mentioned earlier, the design that is commonly recognized as koinobori was popular in eastern and western parts of Japan. Other regions also adopted different designs and shapes as the practice spread. For example, there are hata sashimono (旗指物, flag banners) such as enobori (絵のぼり, picture streamers) and furafu (フラフ, flags), which consists of images of carps, famous warriors from fairy tales, and other artworks that are related to the theme of Kodomo no Hi.

LOOKING AT TANGO NO SEKKU

Kodomo no Hi is actually a modern naming convention petitioned in 1948, in an attempt for reformation of a new holiday that was more suitable to support the new, younger generation¹. Before this change, it was originally known under the title “Tango no Sekku” (端午の節句). Practice of this starting as early as the Kamakura period (1185~1333), the meaning of this title can be interpreted as “the seasonal celebration of the beginning of the 5th”. However, this title has more components due to its connection to the older Lunar calendar and the Zodiac signs, which can be easily explained If we break down the words individually:

  • Tan (端) = Edge, side (beginning)
  • Go (午) = Horse (Zodiac), fifth month (Lunar Calendar)
  • Sekku (節句) = Seasonal festival or celebration

The kanji or Chinese characters used incorporate a bit of play on words in order to grasp the meaning. The use of “tan” here is to identify the start of good weather in the new season, which would’ve been summer according to the old calendar². The word “go” has two sources but line up perfectly in meaning, for while the kanji “午” means horse according to the Zodiac signs, it is designated to the 5th month on the old calendar. On top of this, its pronunciation is the same as the number 5 (五, go) in Japanese. Along with all of these points, Tango no Sekku takes place on the 5th day of the 5th month, which makes it an auspicious occasion to receive blessings from revered gods, as well as has strong ties with divination practice Onmyōdō (陰陽道) and what are considered lucky numbers. With number 5 being one of those lucky numbers, this makes the 5th day of the 5th month an important date³.

Originally, Tango no Sekku was a day to celebrate young boys and pray for their healthy growth. One of the reasons is credited to an older practice of “Shōbu no Sekku” (菖蒲の節句), where shōbu (菖蒲, iris) and other types of herbs & vegetation were used for medicinal practices and environmental purification by Imperial & noble families. As a play on words, “shōbu” (尚武, militaristic spirit) was used to inspire creating a festival were families prayed for boys to grow into strong warriors. Since from the Kamakura era onward the road to success was believed to be in becoming a military family, a large display called “gogatsu ningyō” (5th Month Dolls) was placed within one’s home to represent this belief. On this display were items that symbolized protection from harm and ill fortune, such as a miniature kacchū (甲冑, armor), a musha ningyō (武者人形, a warrior figurine), a toy horse, mock weapons such as bow & arrows and a battlefield sword, taiko (太鼓, drums), kamon hata (家紋旗, banners with family emblems), and so on. Dolls of famous fabled characters were also included, such as Momotaro, Musashi Benkei, and Kintaro. Koinobori is also believed to have been used at some point as well, although not throughout Japan until later in the Edo period.

IMPORTANT DISHES FOR THE CELEBRATION

There are popular snacks and food to eat on Kodomo no Hi today, which were passed down from the older Tango no Sekku:

  • Kashiwamochi (柏餅)
  • Chimaki (粽)
  • Takenoko (竹の子)

Kashiwamochi is mochi wrapped in a kashiwa leaf. Other than mochi being the common treat in many celebrations, the use of the kashiwa was due to the fact that it was a leaf that stayed on a tree for a very long time. This resilience was inspiring, and would symbolize having the ability to keep one’s family line intact. Chimaki is similar to Kashiwamochi, except that it’s made of a sticky rice such as mochikome (もち米), consisting of a variety of fillings, and wrapped in bamboo leaves, which molds it into an elongated or triangular shape. Lastly, takenoko is bamboo shoot that is steamed and eaten in various ways, with it being topped over rice (called takenoko gohan / 竹の子御飯) being one of the more popular ways.

According to the Tango no Sekku theme, these foods are meant to promote a long lifespan for boys using natural ingredients. Of course, this has now been extended to girls as well, as Kodomo no Hi promotes all kids should be taken care of evenly. Note that depending on the region, there are numerous ways in which the following foods are made, with some being more different than others.

ENDING

In conclusion, Kodomo no Hi is but one of the many examples of how a day of celebration can look simple visually, yet possesses layers of deep and complex history once delved into. While its older form, Tango no Sekku, has historical components that are a telltale of how society used to be, this doesn’t take away from the modern development of Kodomo no Hi and how families celebrate it.


1) Along with praying for kids’ health and fortune, Kodomo no Hi also includes giving thanks to mothers for giving birth to and helping to raise kids.

2) While Tango no Sekku was a celebration for boys, there were special events for girls as well almost at the same time. However, they greatly varied depending on the region.

3) These 5 numbers are the following: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9. They make up the positive or yō (陽, yang) numbers of the in-yo (or yin-yang). In turn, there are 5 seasonal celebrations, called Go-sekku (五節句), which take place on the following dates:

  • January 7th
  • March 3rd
  • May 5th
  • July 7th
  • September 9th

Hinamatsuri: Celebration of Girls’ Prosperity with Paper Dolls

March 3rd is the celebration of “Hinamatsuri” (雛祭り), or “Doll Festival”. This is a tradition of praying for good heath, prosperity, and a happy future for young girls. This is an age-long tradition that dates back as far as the Heian period, and is still viewed as an important one even today. For this article, we will look into the components of this celebration, from its meaning, how it’s practiced, as well as were its roots started.

COMPONENTS OF HINAMATSURI

For this celebration, cute “hina-ningyo” (雛人形), or paper dolls, are bought and arranged on a “hina-dan” (雛壇), which is a multi-tier display covered in a red cloth, along with other accessories. As the theme of this is the Imperial court of old, the dolls are placed on the tier according to their rank, with the emperor and empress on top, and others such as attendants and musicians descending lower. On this day, this hina-dan is displayed in one’s home, followed by other festivities.

Hinamatsuri was a celebration first practiced by those of noble families, which would then later spread amongst the populace as Japan started to modernize. Those who specialized in making the dolls, mulit-tier display, and other accessories were able to turn this into an important business. Large hina-dan with many tiers became expensive overtime, so it is not unusual for some families to opt for ones that have fewer, or just one tier. In these cases, fewer dolls may also be used.

ROOTS AND MEANINGS

The original practice of Hinamatsuri was to use paper or hay to make simple dolls, and place them on the hina-dan as a means to absorb bad luck. At the end of the celebration these dolls would be placed in rivers and sent afloat, in hopes that whatever bad energy was absorbed would be cleansed and discarded away.

Over time, higher quality dolls with more impressive craftsmanship were made, so families become less inclined to discard the dolls, but instead would pack them away securely after Hinamatsuri, and keep them for use for the following years. Of course, in keeping these dolls the parents had to encourage their daughters to practice good manners and staying clean, or else it is thought that bad luck would return and prevent them from getting married. These higher quality dolls were also durable enough that in some rare cases little girls were allowed to play with. Attachments like this turned them into heirlooms that could be kept within one’s family for generations.

The concept behind the original Hinamatsuri practice comes from China centuries ago, where water was viewed as a purifying source. It is recorded that back then people would step into lakes and rivers to cleanse themselves if they felt they had bad luck. The idea of using paper or hay dolls for dolls comes from Onmyōdō (陰陽道), which is a divination system utilizing the theories of yin & yang and the five elements. Onmyōji (陰陽師), or diviners, spent much of their time visiting the Imperial palace or people’s homes performing ceremonies to rid of negative energy, read fortunes, and to cure those afflicted with illnesses thought to be related with evil spirits. At times, dolls made out of paper or hay was used, which would serve as a medium to trap bad energy, then discarded away from the house.

CULINARY ASSOCIATED WITH THE CELEBRATION

Along with the paper dolls, there are special foods and treats associated with Hinamatsuri. These unique dishes include the following:

  • Hina-arare (雛あられ)
  • Hishi mochi (菱餅)
  • Chirashi-zushi (ちらし寿司)

Hina-arare are sweet small rice crackers that features the colors pink, green, yellow and white. Hishi mochi is a 3-layer diamond shaped rice cake that has a pink top, white center, and green bottom. Chirashi-zushi is the main dish for this celebration, which consists of sweet yet vinegary sushi rice topped with renkon (蓮根, lotus roots), ebi (海老, shrimp), mame (豆, green beans), and strips of fried tamago (卵, eggs).

These dishes feature elaborate colors and ingredients, which all are symbolic with special meanings. For example, the 3-layers of the hishi mochi each are to promote fortune for girls, with pink warding away evil, white symbolizing purity, and green representing good health. The colors of the hina-arare represent the 4 seasons, which is symbolic for a full year of good luck. Lastly, more than the ingredients of the chirashi-zushi being nutritious, they are selected for what they represent in Japanese culture, with the shrimp being longevity, the lotus roots being foresight to a good future, and green beans for healthy body.

Note that depending on the family or the part of Japan one’s from, some of these dishes may have slight arrangements. For example, it is not unusual to find ikura (いくら, salmon roe) or other seafood added to chirashi-zushi, or the inclusion of sakura mochi (桜餅, sweet redbean paste in the center of pink mochi wrapped with a sakura leaf) as a treat on this day.

ENDING

Here concludes this article on Hinamatsuri. It is quite astonishing to see how some traditions transcend centuries and continue to be in practice, even with how technologically advanced Japan has become. One thing’s for certain, it’s easy to see how little girls would find this day enjoyable, for the dolls, the multi-tier display, and the foods are all visually appealing.

2/22 & the Relationship between Cats and Ninja

February 22nd is a special day, as it is a day of recognition for 2 separate themes in Japan. The first one is “Neko no Hi” (猫の日), or “Cat’s Day”¹, which has been around since 1987. The second is “Ninja no Hi” (忍者の日), or “Ninja Day”², which started in 2015. In this post I will pay tribute to both by introducing a topic that relates how cats were useful to the ninja.

There is a method for telling time called “neko no medokei” (猫の眼時計), or “cat’s eye clock”. During a time with no electricity and dependency was on the light from the sun, people in the past could use this method to tell the time by looking at a cat’s eye and observe how the pupils adjust based on the position of the sun. This is considered a special method used by ninja when they were active during middle ages in Japan. A few points to keep in mind regarding this is that while the method is indeed old, it was not originated by ninja, nor was it only used by them.

The concept behind the neko no medokei actually comes from a set of documents written in China in the year 860 called “Yūyō Zasso” (酉陽雑俎, Yŏu yáng zá zǔ in Mandarin Chinese). Within this text is a mixture of educational lessons and bizarre stories. Physical traits, coupled with some odd interpretations, regarding cats and their behavior with their eyes, nose, ears, and so on are included in this. Eventually, this text was brought over to Japan during the cultural exchanges in Japan’s earlier history, with the information on cat’s eyes being the inspiration to using it as a method for telling time. Of course, as with many things that have been adopted into their culture, the Japanese would put their own spin on it in order for it to fit with their culture and needs…this includes the ninja as well.

The poem regarding neko no medokei from the Mansenshukai

There is an old text called Mansenshukai (万川集海), which is considered one of the 3 important manuscripts of the ninja³. Within this text is a section called “Tenmonben” (天文編) which details information regarding weather conditions, operating at night, and telling time. There is a poem that describes how the neko no medokei works, which goes as the following:

「猫眼歌二 六ツ丸ク 五七ハタマコ 四ツ八ツ柿ノ實二て 九ツハ針」

“nekome uta ni mutsu maruku itsutsu nanatsu wa tamago yotsu yatsu kaki no mi nite kokonotsu hari”

Although written in code, this poem states simply the different shapes a cat’s pupils would undergo, which is related to the time of day based on sunlight. The details work according to the old clock system used before modern times, which incorporates the Zodiac signs from the Lunar calendar to indicate the specific hour(s) in a day. Here’s a breakdown of the poem:

  • Mutsu (六ツ) refers to the 6th hour of both the morning and evening, which would be at dawn and sunset respectively. At these times, a cat’s pupil will be a circle shape since dawn occurs before sunrise, and evening should arrive after sunset.
  • Itsutsu (五) represents modern time range 6~8 in the morning, and nanatsu (七) refer to 3~5 in the afternoon. A cat’s pupil will become an egg shape as sunlight is nowhere near being its brightest.
  • Yotsu (四ツ) represents modern time range 9~10 in the morning, while yatsu (八ツ) refers to 1~2 in the afternoon. A cat’s pupil will look like the shape of a persimmon seed as outside is pretty bright.
  • Kokonotsu (九ツ) represents the time around 12 pm, where the sun is at its brightest. Due to how bright outside is with the sun being at its highest point, a cat’s pupil will become thin and look like a pin.

Prior understanding of how to read this old clock system was critical in deciphering this poem in the past, although nowadays there are plenty of sources that explain it. Visually there are diagrams that interpret the details very clearly, such as the ones presented below.

One would imagine that the neko no medokei would’ve been useful for those who stayed in one location. While it is claimed that a ninja could use this while on a mission, most likely this would’ve been so during the day, for the neko no metokei wouldn’t be effective at night.

For those who own a cat could test this time reading method and see if the results are the same as above. If I did, I totally would give this a shot!


1) One of the reasons February 22nd was chosen as Neko no Hi is because the number 2 is pronounced as “ni” (nee) in Japanese. It is said that if you say just the numbers that represent this date as “ni-ni-ni” fast, it resembles the sound a cat makes.

2) One of the reasons February 22nd was chosen as Ninja no Hi is because of how the number 2 sounds close to “nin”, which is one way to say the word “忍” (nin, perseverance) and is usually associated with the image of ninja especially in pop culture. Basically, if you say just the numbers that represent this date as “ni-ni-ni” fast, it sounds like you are saying “nin-nin-nin”, which is like a shorthand of saying ninja.

3) These 3 are the following: Mansenshūkai (万川集海, also called “Bansenshukai”), Ninpiden (忍秘伝, also called “Shinobi Hiden”), and Shōninki (正忍記). Together, these are often categorized as “sandai ninjutsu densho” (三大忍術伝書, the 3 great secret texts of ninjutsu) in Japanese.

Setsubun 4 times a Year?!?

This year’s Setsubun no Hi (節分の日) fell on February 2nd, one day earlier than normal. Like many traditional celebrations in Japan, this is a day were people take part in activities to bring forth fortune by cleaning their homes, scattering mame (豆, roasted soy beans) within their homes to ward away bad luck, and consuming ehōmaki (恵方巻, long sushi rolls) while facing the designated lucky direction. But did you know that long ago the tradition of Setsubun actually took place 4 times a year?


The translation of Setsubun indicates this, for it means “the division of the seasons” (季節を分ける)¹. According to the old Lunar calendar, these 4 points were designated several days after the current season is waning, and one day before the official season change. The day right after Setsubun has a unique name that indicates the start of the next season. It is said that this practice originated from special rituals that took place in the Imperial buildings during the Heian period (794~1185) called “Tsuina” (追儺, Driving out Evil Spirits)². Onmyōji (陰陽師, diviners of Onmyōdō) performed these rituals as a means to prevent disease and calamity brought upon by evil spirits befalling on the Imperial palace during the transition from one season to another. Essentially, these Onmyoji had to do this ritual 4 times a year.

Below is 2021’s designated days for each season change according to the Lunar calendar. The day Setsubun would’ve been for the seasons of Spring, Fall, And Winter is also added.

Winter→Spring2/2 (節分, Setsubun) → 2/3 (立春, Risshun, 1st day of Spring)
Spring→Summer5/4 (節分, Setsubun) → 5/5 (立夏, Rikkan, 1st day of Summer)
Summer→Fall 8/6 (節分, Setsubun)→ 8/7 (立秋, Risshu, 1st day of Fall)
Fall→Winter11/6 (節分, Setsubun) →11/7 (立冬, Ritto, 1st day of Winter)


Note that while these dates are correct, the only one that’s officially observed is the change from Winter to Spring. Even though these other Setsubun periods are not in use, you can find the 1st day of Summer, Fall, and Winter listed on Japanese calendars. For those who have a liking of divination can find special calendars that list the seasonal changes, along with a lot of information that was once a norm in society when the Lunar calendar was still in use, such as uranai (占い, fortune telling), kyūsei (九星, 9 Star chart) rokuyō (六曜, 6 auspicious days), and so on.

An example of the modern calendar mixed with the old Lunar calendar, with information related to divination, moon phases, and so on. From AJNET.

While this can be interesting to review for personal studies, just remember that the tradition of Setsubun has a lot of differences with modern day calendars. For example, the official first day of Spring in America is March 20th. That’s quite a gap! When Japan adopted the modern calendar, older practices associated with the Lunar calendar didn’t quite follow along so smoothly. Some practices had to have changes and adjustments implemented. This is noticeable when comparing certain season-influenced days dependent on the structure of the Lunar calendar to the new format brought on by the modern calendar.

By the way, I recently did a project based on the yearly seasons and days in accordance to the Lunar calendar. You can learn more about the unique days mentioned above, along with others and how they related to the seasons in the Translations section here.


1) The meaning of this word has been altered over time based on the current social perception of this tradition. It is not unusual (even in Japanese) for people to say that Setsubun means “driving out demons by scattering soybeans”. Actually that meaning comes from the term mame maki (豆撒き), which is the action performed on the day of Setsubun. As a whole, Setsubun is just the indication of the change of the season to the next, while those traditional practices on that day have their own individual labels.

2) There are other names for this ritual, such as Oni Yarai (鬼遣).

Kagami Biraki: Open Up to Good Fortune ~ Part 2

We continue with our discussion about Kagami Biraki and how it is celebrated in Japan. As mentioned in part 1, this ceremony has important ties with the martial arts community. Yet, it is but only but one part of the overall experience, as there are other manners in which people can acknowledge this without having to be a martial artist. In this article, we will take a brief look at the origins of Kagami Biraki, and how it is observed by the general public, both on an individual level and in a public setting.

MEANING BEHIND THE CEREMONY

Sometime in the Edo period, Kagami Biraki originated through strong roots to buke (武家), or military families. According to resources such as “Nihon Kokujo Daijiten” (日本国語大辞典) and “Nihon Daihyakka Zensho” (日本大百科全書), the original date was set for the 20th day of the 1st month, but was then changed to the 11th day due to the 3rd Tokugawa shogun Iemitsu passing away on the 20th of the 4th month in 1651¹. Some references still remain concerning the original date. For instance, In Japanese the 20th day of the month is pronounced hatsuka (二十日, 20 days). To tie it in with their heritage as warriors, the characters of hatsuka were changed to “刃柄”, which can mean “sword”, as the characters reference a blade and a handle.

To celebrate, men would have mochi set up before a fine suit of armor. Not only was this mochi called “gusoku mochi” (具足餅, armor mochi), but the ceremony itself was once called “Gusoku Biraki” (具足開き) or “Gusoku Kagami Biraki” (具足鏡開き). On the other hand, for women of these same families, they would instead setup the kagami mochi on a kagami dai (鏡台), which is a small platform where a mirror would normally go on. As a play on words, women also referred to the original 20th day as “hatsukao” (初顔) or “hatsukagami” (初鏡). This points to them seeing themselves in the mirror the 1st time of the new year and admiring their beauty.

For either manner, these families followed a belief about inviting the toshigami (年神) into their home through the use of a kadomatsu (門松, paired decoration of pine and large bamboo shoots) within the first week of the new year². Shortly after this, they would further wish for luck from the toshigami presently residing in their home through eating kagami mochi (鏡餅), which is a 2-tier rice cake that is slightly firm on the outside, yet soft on the inside. For public events, the kagami mochi is often very large, and may be in the familiar 2-tier shape or separated. Normally a powder white color, in some events the top mochi may be dyed pink. For those occasions where the presentation is simpler, the kagami mochi is much smaller, and placed on a kagami dai.

To the right, a decorated kagami mochi placed on a kagami dai. From AC-Illust.

To consume a kagami mochi, the standard practice is to first split the top layer, then separate it. People can do this by hand, or with a small wooden mallet. Spreading it open in this fashion is symbolic as one’s fortune growing ever so widely. This action is usually described with the phrase suehirogari (末広がり), which stands for opening up like a folding fan called a sensu (扇子). This phrase is one of the reasons why a small sensu is used dress the kagami mochi. There are other terms used to describe Kagami Biraki, as well as how one goes about conducting this ceremonial-like practice, but the above one is currently the most recognized one.

WHEN & HOW TO CELEBRATE

In terms of general observation, there is “Kagami Biraki no Hi” (鏡開きの日, Kagami Biraki Day). While it is officially appointed on the 11th day of January, there are other dates depending on which part of Japan a person is from. On whichever day it falls on, the general population may choose to consume a treat that is believed to promote longevity and good luck. These treats usually consist of mochi in it. A few examples are the following:

  • kinako mochi (きな粉餅, roasted soybean powder-covered mochi)
  • age mochi (揚げ餅, deep fried mochi)
  • yaki mochi (焼き餅, roasted mochi)
  • kurumi mochi (くるみ餅, mochi covered in grounded walnut sauce)
  • oshiruko (おしるこ, sweet redbean soup)

Note that these can be eaten regularly anytime one feels like it, but tend to be chosen as the to-go choices on Kagami Biraki no Hi. From my personal experience, kinako mochi is a great treat on it’s own or, following popular trends, with green tea. It’s especially tasty with kuromitsu (黒蜜, brown sugar syrup). Yaki mochi is another that I’d generally eat on Kagami Biraki no Hi, as it is simple to prepare. Wrapped in nori (のり, roasted seaweed), it has a good crunch, while dipping it into soy sauce enhances the flavor.

AUSPICIOUS PRACTICE

As one would imagine, Kagami Biraki has a connection with religious establishments. As an example, priests of either Shinto or Buddhism perform rituals that are meant to ward off any serious natural disasters and plagues, which is still in practice today. Also, kagami mochi and other forms of charms are sold at the stalls that are set up on the grounds around shrines and temples, readily available for purchase by visitors. Another example is the symbolic use of taruzake (樽酒), or rice wine sealed in special barrels, as part of the ritual at a shrine. This rice wine is considered to be goshinshu (御神酒, divine wine of the gods), and is viewed to bring luck in the same manner as kagami mochi. In fact, the round lids are split open with a small wooden hammer. It is thought that the practice with the taruzake predated the kagami mochi, thus inspiring this common practice that anyone can do even at home.

A pic of taruzake. From AC-Illust.

Note that both kagami mochi and taruzake have a lot in common regarding how they are used during the ceremony Kagami Biraki. The round shape of the mochi and the lid of the barrel represent a “mirror”, and when “split open”, good fortune is spread out for each individual. Note that a small wooden hammer is the preferred method for bringing forth good luck. A few things to consider are their differences, such as that the term kagami biraki is used to indicate to splitting of the kagami mochi, but not for the splitting of the lid on the taruzake, despite it being used in the same event. Instead, the proper term for the action done on the taruzake is “sakedaru wo akeru” (酒樽を開ける), or even “shito wo akeru” (四斗樽を開ける).

An interesting point worth mentioning is the evolution of the name Kagami Biraki. While it did bear different titles from conception to the change of the designated day, there are 2 that are important in relations to the tone of this ceremony. It is thought that at one time in the past the name used for celebrating with kagami mochi was “Kagami Wari” (鏡割り), for a knife was used to slice open the mochi. For taruzake, “Kagami Biki” (鏡引き) was used to indicate how the lid was pulled off of the wine barrel. Due to unfavorable implications presented by both names, a more acceptable concept to highlight what the ceremony was meant to achieve helped to have both replaced by the title “Kagami Biraki”. If we look at Kagami Wari, the idea of using a knife to cut open something was reminiscent to seppuku (切腹, suicidal cutting of one’s belly), which contradicted with the idea of a ritual that was to bring luck. As for Kagami Biki, using a pulling force also did not fit well when it comes down to wishing for luck. It boils down to the idea that both kagami mochi and taruzake inhabited by new year lucky deity spirits³. Using a sharp instrument, or a physical pulling action, resemble an aggressive attack on these deity spirits with which people seek good fortune from. Thus, using a hammer to merely split the top layer was viewed as the proper method for releasing good fortune from within.

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From its history down to the different manners in how it’s celebrated, we get a feel of how deeply entwined Kagami Biraki is with the Japanese culture. While instilling the ritualistic idea of wishing for longevity and good fortune, it is approached in a fun manner with the inclusion of sweet treats. This covers the overall observation of Kagami Biraki. Looking forward to public gatherings for this in the future once the world can get back to normal.


1) Note that is is according to the inreki (陰暦), or old calendar system once used predominantly in Japan. This means that, in comparison with the modern Gregorian calendar, the inreki is late by one month. So, the 1st month of the new year would’ve actually been February.

2) The standard time in modern times is from January 1st to January 7th, although it may start as early as December, or end as late as January 15th, in certain areas of Japan based on their tradition. This period is called Matsu no Uchi (松の内), which stands for inviting the toshigami inside one’s kadomatsu.

3) Other than the toshigami, deities of rice such as inadama (稲魂) and kokurei (穀霊) were thought to inhabit the kagami mochi and taruzake. Thus the quality of these items, as well as the proper means of showing respect when opening these items, is important.

Kagami Biraki: Open Up to Good Fortune ~ Part 1

There are many martial arts groups that open the new year in Japan with a ceremony called “Kagami Biraki” (鏡開き). Along with how it’s utilized for the sake of auspicious readings and praying for year-long fortune by shrines and temples, this ceremony is conducted for the sake of good luck during year-long martial training sessions. Its purpose is symbolically significant that my Chikushin group has also adopted this to promote a safe & healthy training year. For this article, we’ll first explore how this ceremony is conducted, by looking at a few events that really illustrate the theme for the new year.

PROCESSION OF THE KAGAMI BIRAKI CEREMONY

Today, Kagami Biraki is used as an opening ceremony for many martial arts groups and organizations. It can be either a small gathering among those who are associated with said group, to a large gathering in a form of a collaboration between different organizations. Well established groups such as Maniwa Nen ryū and Kōdōkan Judō Institute hold this ceremony among their own members, as an example. These smaller events may commence with a speech or formal new year blessing, then followed by technique demonstrations. At the end, there may be  traditional sweets and treats associated with the ceremony that are made available to participants, such as mikan (みかん, mandarin orange). Depending on their tradition, visitors may be allowed to view these groups’ ceremony.

One of the largest, most publicized of these events is “Kagami Biraki-shiki & Budō Hajime” (鏡開式・武道始), which is conducted at the Nihon Budōkan in Tokyo City, Japan. This is an event that has two parts, first being the Kagami Biraki ceremony, then followed by the martial arts segment. Dozens of different martial arts schools, both traditional and modern, participate to present their unique systems.

Let’s look at how Kagami Biraki takes place at the Nihon Budōkan. For the ceremony portion there are 3 parts¹. It starts off with “Yoroi Kizome” (鎧着始め), where individuals dressed in Japanese armor give tribute to the roots of combat to those warriors that fought during warring times. Next is “Sankon no Gi” (三献の儀), where the sōdaishō (総大将, commander-in-chief) does a ritualistic consumption of kachiguri (勝ち栗, dried walnuts), uchi awabi (打ち鮑, dried abalone), and konbu (昆布, kelp) alongside with sake (酒, rice wine) for the sake of gaining luck before going into battle. Finally, “Kagami Biraki” portion takes place, where the sōdaishō uses a small mallet to break the top layer of a kagami mochi (鏡餅, 2-tier decorated rice cake), while his second-in-command officers split the lid on a taruzake (樽酒, barrel filled with special rice wine).  All of this is symbolic, and is considered important to promote the true spirit when engaging in Japanese martial arts.

Next is the training portion, which usually is conducted in the form of demonstrations by each participating group. It is a mix of groups that specialize in modern, sports-oriented styles, and traditional styles. So you may see one group that’ll demonstrate kyūdō (弓道, way of archery), and another demonstrate a version of karate.  There are usually groups that are involved in iaidō (居合道, way of drawing the sword), sōjutsu (槍術, spear techniques), or naginatajutsu (薙刀術, glaive techniques). Over the years, this event had demonstrations of hōjutsu (砲術, gunnery techniques), jukendō (銃剣道, way of the bayonet), and even sumō wrestling. Every year, the participating groups may differ, so there may be variations in what types of styles are presented. After all the demonstrations are over, the floor is open for everyone to take part in hatsu geiko (初稽古, first practice session). A good variety of practitioners, both young and old, can be seen training together. Finally, this ends with an oshiruko kai (おしるこ会, sweet red bean soup event), where everyone can sit together and replenish their energy with this tasty treat.

Screen shot of the hatsu geiko segment. From the video here.

Take note that each Kagami Biraki event has its own date in which it takes place. For the one that is held at the Nihon Budōkan, it’s held on the 11th of January. Unfortunately, this event was canceled due to the precaution against the current pandemic inflicting the world. For those interested, there are vids on Youtube that showcase these Kagami Biraki events. To see the one held at the Nihon Budōkan, I recommend the following video found on Budo Japan Channel, as it covers the explanation in this article very closely.

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The connection that Kagami Biraki has with Japanese martial arts is considered a deep one. Every year many groups and organizations go to great lengths in organizing events where practitioners can feel they can begin their training in the new year on the right foot. Unfortunately, since a great number of participants are pulled in every year for this, many Kagami Biraki events have been canceled due to the current restrictions. As a substitute, it’s possible that these groups may have performed a smaller ceremony just for direct members.

Be on the lookout of the 2nd art on the topic of Kagami Biraki. In the next one, we will look into the actual history behind this ceremony, look deeper into some of the components that were briefly mentioned, and get an understanding of how it’s celebrated by the general public and through religious establishments.


1) This is carried out by “Nihon Kacchū Bugu Kenkyū Hozonkai” (日本甲冑武具研究保存会). This organization’s name in English is “The Association for the Research and Preservation of Japanese Helmets and Armor”