Usagidoshi: Year of the Rabbit

Happy New Years everyone! 2023 is now upon us, giving us the opportunity to start off fresh and put new ideas to the test. But first, I will stick with my normal pattern and open the year with an article covering this year’s zodiac sign, which is the rabbit! To be more specific, it’s water rabbit. Let’s go over the specifics of this year’s sign, traits that those born under the rabbit zodiac possess, and well known rabbit-inspired Japanese phrases that advise us on real life topics.

USAGI, THE RABBIT SIGN

The word for rabbit in Japanese is “usagi” (兎), and represents the 4th Zodiac sign of the 40th 12 Animal Zodiac cycle (十二支, Jūnishi). However, as mentioned in other posts with like topic, this was done for phonetic purposes, as well as to make digesting the complexity of the Zodiac cycle easier for the masses. Before this, the rabbit (as well as the other animals) had no connection to it. Even the Chinese character for this Zodiac sign is different from the standard one used for this animal. Below are the details.

  • Chinese character: 卯
  • Pronunciation: u / usagi¹
  • Meaning: To force through, to challenge

Thus, this Zodiac year is pronounced either “udoshi” or “usagidoshi” using the Chinese characters “卯年”². Also, the meaning mentioned above is in relations to the stages a plant seed goes through. Imagine a sprout pushing through the outer coating of the seed, as it struggles to grow into a big plant. This is the real meaning behind this Zodiac sign.

TRAITS OF THE RABBIT

How does both the original meaning of the plant and the image of the rabbit relate to human characteristics? This Zodiac sign represents the period where we grow through proper nutrition, by taking chances, and achieving success by not giving up. This is critical for little kids, as they learn many things that can vastly help with development, such as studying math to learning how to ride a bike. Adults can also be inspired by this as well. Also, if we add the imagery of a rabbit, where we can grow physically & succeed at our goals in leaps and bounds, as long as as we don’t shy away from trying.

Rabbit takes center stage in 2023

Other traits thought to be possessed by people born under this sign are inspired by the rabbit imagery, which includes being gentle yet warm, quiet yet graceful, and delicate yet fine. By nature, people of these traits are thought to uphold a prosperous environment. There is a phrase in Japanese used to describe this, which is “kanai anzen” (家内安全), which means “peace & prosperity in one’s household”. By nature, positive lifestyles of these individuals include caring & get along with others, while not being overtly hostile or aggressive even in competitive situations. However, possible negative lifestyles that should be avoided are being self-centered and inconsiderate to others’ needs, self-preservation that causes flight & the abandonment of others when danger arises, and being overtly sensitive to the point where one is offended at the slightest sign of disrespect. Of course, all these are prospective views on these traits, and not necessary accurate for everyone born under the rabbit Zodiac sign.

ZODIAC + HEAVENLY STEMS

Here are some other facts regarding the rabbit Zodiac sign and its practical use in Japan’s society in the past.

  • Number: 4th sign
  • Direction: East
  • Time: Around 6 am / within the 2 hour period 5 am ~ 7 am
  • Month: 2nd (based on the old calendar)
  • Ying/Yang: ying (dark)
  • Element: wood

There is also the 10 Heavenly Stems (十干, Jikkan), which work in conjunction with the Zodiac cycle. For this year, the sign “mizu no to” accompanies the rabbit Zodiac sign. Here’s some important details about this.

  • Number: 10th sign
  • Chinese character: 癸
  • Reading: mizu no to / ki
  • Element: water (dark)
  • Image: small water / light rain / mist
  • Meaning: to moisten the warm earth / ending and beginning

Since both the Zodiac and Heavenly Stems go hand-in-hand, the full reading of this year’s sign is “mizu no to-udoshi” (癸卯年), or “year of the water rabbit”.

COOL RABBIT PHRASES

There are some interesting old (and new) Japanese phrases that use the rabbit to teach lessons or give advice. There are many out there, but for this article we will go over a few. Along with the Japanese phrases and their meaning in English, I have also included the direct translation of each phrase as a bonus for those interested in how they read in their native language.

・Nito wo oumono wo itto wo mo ezu (二兎を追うものは一兎をも得ず, one won’t be able to catch a single rabbit if you chase two at the same time)
MEANING: Trying to accomplish 2 goals at the same time is fruitless, as you won’t succeed in either one.

・Datto no gotoku (脱兎の如く, like a fleeing rabbit)
MEANING: Run swiftly to the point where you can’t be caught.

・Usagi shi sureba kitsune no wo kanashimu (兎死すれば狐之を悲しむ, the fox will be sad when the rabbit dies)
MEANING: People of the same kind, whether it be class, field of work, and so on, generally suffer the same misfortunes. If one person fails, then the next person will lament as they too are bound to suffer the same fate.

・Enmoku toji (鳶目兎耳, black kite eyes, rabbit ears)
MEANING: A black kite is known for having long-range vision, while a rabbit has very sharp hearing. A person complimented as having both traits is said to be skilled at information gathering, like a spy.

・Usagi no wana ni kitsune ga kakaru (兎の罠に狐がかかる, the fox gets caught in the rabbit’s trap)
MEANING: Just when things look bad, a turn of events grant a person great luck.

・Usagi no hirune (兎の昼寝, a rabbit’s nap)
MEANING: This relates to the famous story where the rabbit lost a race to a turtle because it took a long nap, underestimating its shelled adversary. There are two ways to interpret this, the 1st being to keep one’s guard up and not underestimate the opposition, while the 2nd being a person who naps too much.

CONCLUSION

This is a quick, yet compact overview of this year’s Zodiac sign. There are points that we can take and use to be successful this year. Stay tuned, for there will be a couple more articles coming out that will cover the rabbit theme.


1) This kanji is not pronounced as “usagi” originally. However, to match with the times and the rabbit image, it is now ok to use this pronunciation.

2) Nowadays, it is not uncommon to write “usagi” in usagidoshi in kana, for ease of reading. Kana is another written form used in Japan, which consists of 2 styles, the first being hiragana (平仮名), and the second being katakana (片仮名). Either writing below is fine:

  • うさぎ年 (hiragana)
  • ウサギ年 (katakana)

Yoshitsune & Benkei’s 1st Encounter: Tracking down Facts out of Lore

Today’s article is sort of a pick up from the last one, where I spoke about Musashibō Benkei’s ōnaginata being a cultural asset. To reiterate, cultural assets are things that have value in a country’s culture, but may not necessarily match up in the form one would expect. Let’s look at this from another angle, taking a popular story of how the heroic Minamoto no Yoshitsune met the barbaric Musashibō Benkei. Though their first encounter was violent, they became loyal partners with Benkei becoming a retainer to Yoshitsune. Through this, a bridge claimed as where the encounter took place has become famous, and quite an important landmark that many individuals (both local and international visitors) travel to see.

Artwork depicting Yoshitsune (right) dueling with Benkei (left) on a bridge, entitled “Yoshitsune Ichidaiki no uchi Kyukai Gojō no hashi ni” (義経一代記之内 九回 五条の橋に). By Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川広重).

For stories of the past that seem bigger than life, do they always add up as being accurate? For today’s article, we will look at the specifics of this legendary story & how they play out in the geographical setting of Kyoto, then delve into this particular bridge in question and see how much it actually ties in to the fame it gets.

THE LORE

The backdrop of this popular lore is set in 12th century Japan during the late Heian period, and begins in the rich Capital city known today as Kyoto. For about a year, the warrior monk Benkei would approach anyone bearing a sword as they attempted to cross a particular bridge, and take it by force by challenging them to a fight. He was always successful, since he stood at a monstrous height and was equally as strong bearing a large naginata, for many individuals were powerless against him. However, this would come to an end when he met a small boy named Ushiwakamaru, who would later be renown under the name “Minamoto no Yoshitsune”¹.

Here’s a popular children’s folklore song based on the encounter, called ”Ushiwaka”, which sums up how the popular lore of the encounter plays out. To the left is the original Japanese text, while to the right is my English transliteration.



This folklore sets the acclaimed image of two warriors battling out on a bridge, which in turn contributed to a setting like this being a popular one for duels in many stories even today. While this lore is simple & easy to understand, it’s also surprising to know that this is not how their encounter took place! For the full story, we have to review the original text, which is called “Gikeiki” (義経記), or “The Records of Yoshitsune” in English. The Gikeiki is stated to be a very old war chronicle by an unknown author(s), which was compiled into 8 volumes during the Muromachi period in the 14th century, shortly after the real-life feud between the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan in the 12th century. Through this, not only do we learn that the fight took place in not one, but two locations, it’s also revealed that either one was not mentioned to be a bridge directly².

GOJŌ TENJIN SHRINE

In the Gikeiki, the encounter between Yoshitsune and Benkei can be found in the 3rd volume, recited in a chapter entitled, “Benkei rakuchū nite hito no tachi wo ubaitoru koto” (弁慶洛中にて人の太刀を奪ひ取る事, While on a bridge, Benkei takes other people’s swords). Here, they first meet each other not too far away from the Gojō Tenjin Shrine. The specifics of this is Benkei departed from this shrine and headed southward towards a pathway with earthen walls on either side within a residential area, and waited at the end of a waterway for his 1000th victim to walk along this route. He then caught a glimpse of Yoshitsune walking along this route as he crossed a waterway³, playing a flute. This route is significant as it was used by those who traveled to pay their respects at the Gojō Tenjin shrine, which is a real place located in the lower city area of Kyoto.

Pic of Gojō Tenjin shrine. From Wikipedia.

Is the Gojō Tenjin shrine where the famed battle takes place? Not really, as it is only half of it. According to the Gikeiki, after a brief scuffle, Yoshitsune demonstrated unexpected skills which would put his opponent on the back foot. Not prepared for the smaller Yoshitsune to be so overbearing, Benkei runs away.

KIYOMIZU-DERA

The final confrontation between Yoshitsune and Benkei concludes the following day. However, it did not take place on the Gojō bridge. Instead, the two warriors would meet and settle their dispute in front of a large gate of the temple called “Kiyomizu-dera”. This temple, too, has a claimed long history and still exists today in the Higashiyama District of the city area in Kyoto. Take note that as both Gojō Tenjin shirne and Kiyomizu-dera are in the city area, they aren’t too far away from each other. Distance-wise, they are about 30 mins apart by foot, separated by the Kamo river (more on this later).

Pic of the westward gate of Kiyomizu-dera. This is possibly the same area where Benkei and Yoshitsune met a 2nd time before resuming their fight. From Wikipedia.

The two would battle around the vicinity of the Kiyomizu-dera, where Yoshitsune, realizing his opponent’s potential, would lightly wound Benkei on the hand to prevent him from continuing the fight. Defeated, Yoshitsune offered him to pledge his allegiance and serve him. Weighing in on the pros and cons, Benkei agrees.

POTENTIAL HISTORICAL INACCURACIES

Going based on the Gikeiki, there’s no mention of Yoshitsune encountering Benkei on the Gojō bridge, or any bridge for that matter. So where did this idea come from? Does it even exist today? Just to be clear, there is mention of a bridge in the said chapter of the Gikeiki, for the chapter title indicates that Benkei does his dirty deed on a bridge. By default, he is synonymous with a bridge due to the trouble he stirs in Kyoto as he performs his task of acquiring 1000 swords. Yet, why does he not occupy this bridge for the 1000th victim, who would turn out to be Yoshitsune? Instead, after departing for Gojō Tenjin shrine, Benkei chooses to wait near a waterway…possibly leading to the Gojō bridge? Or, is it possible that their fight spilled all the way onto the Gojō bridge? What about during their 2nd encounter at Kiyomizu-dera? Distance is way too far, so logically they wouldn’t have concluded their battle on the bridge, right? This could just be a case of poor narration on the part of this unknown author, and failing to describe properly the fight being on the aforementioned bridge. Of course, there are other sources of this famed event that mention the Gojō bridge as the location where the two warriors met, but take note that they date much later than the Gikeiki.

Regarding this bridge in question, how do we track it down? In popular lore and other (later) adaptions of the lore (including in the form of song and theatrical performance), it is referred to as “Gojō no hashi”, but is officially called “Gojō Ōbashi” today. If we go by the latter, then yes there is a Gojō Ōbashi, which is a large bridge that sits over the Kamo river. It is geographically in the middle of Gojō Tenjin shrine and Kiyomizu-dera, albeit at an angle, and is an option of a path for those who would need to travel between both locations. However, this particular “bridge” cannot be the same one hinted in any of the sources, simply for the fact that it was not originally there at the time of the two warriors’ battle!…at least, not in the form we see it now.

Here’s a quick explanation to clear this up. Originally, this Gojō bridge was a short distance north from where it is now. In 1590, the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi had that bridge moved more southward in order to make processions to the temple Hōkōji (southwest of Kiyomizu-dera), which houses the largest statue of Buddha in Kyoto, more accessible. This is where the new Gojō bridge sits today. So, where was the old location? Researchers have estimated it to be where the current Matsubara bridge (松原橋, Matsubara hashi) is located, which is on the Matsubara tōri (松原通り), or “Matsubara street”. Guess it’s safe to say that while the location of the bridge is correct, apparently the specifics of the general area are a little off. Since it would’ve been the preferred route at the time, it aligns with the idea that Benkei was using this previous Gojō bridge (Matsubara bridge), and that he would’ve confronted Yoshitsune there (see illustration below as a reference).

In regards to potential inaccuracies concerning the 14th century text Gikeiki, this is to be expected for a couple of reasons. For starters, it is not unusual for locations that were mentioned in ancient text to not match up due to the development of cities and towns. In Japan’s case, this is even more of an issue, as certain key areas faced many changed due to whoever was in power at the time, usually a warlord, or by order of the shogun. It is not unusual for a bridge to be moved and renamed, but there are cases of villages, towns, and prefectures gaining new names or resized geographically. This poses as a challenge when trying to pinpoint places found in old documents that no longer exist. Another issue is in regards to the author of the text. While there is no author’s name specified, it is believed that the writing was heavily influenced by Buddhist monks. This isn’t unusual, for they were but few of specific groups that were literate, plus much of the contents for certain characters involved Buddhist practices that would take someone in the field to understand⁵. That being said, the original text, while slated to be a war chronicle based on true events, has its fair share of oddities that hint at agenda-driven ideas. In essence, these peculiar points could lead to such inaccuracies like not indicating properly whether a battle between two warriors indeed takes place on a bridge for the sake of highlighting places of worship.

This is an outline of the general area is Kyoto where the event takes place, as well as key locations mentioned in the story. The most important point to take from this is the location of the modern Gojō Ōbashi (Gojō Grand bridge) versus the previous Gojō bridge, now known as Matsubara hashi (Matsubara bridge).

On a related note, it is worth mentioning the naming convention “Gojō” is connected to the Gojō tōri, or “5th street” for simpler reading. As one would expect, the Gojō tōri is part of a numerical sequence of large streets that run through Kyoto, so there is an Ichijō tōri, (1st Street), Nijō tōri, (2nd Street), and so on. In turn, these same streets have their own matching bridges over the Kamo river. The Matsubara bridge, the former location of Gojō bridge, is geographically where Gojō tōri is said to have have been (present-day Matsubara tōri), which is one of the reasons for the name of the shrine Gojō Tenjin to have “Gojō” in it, as it sits near the edge of that former street (now called Matsubara tōri). Today, Gojō tōri runs along the same line as Gojō bridge…which seems to also be where Rokujō tōri is supposed to be.

CONCLUSION

In ending, certain aspects of history can make tangible things much more special, becoming intangible cultural icons. In the case of Yoshitsune and Benkei’s fated encounter, it’s been passed down as a lore that embraces the Gojō bridge as the stage for this. Being an old story, sometimes details don’t match up quite as well as they should, which can bring up questions, such as the accuracy the actual location. At the end of the day, it is best to see the modern day Gojō bridge as a tribute to the original location in my personal opinion. While there are perks to understanding the specifics, it shouldn’t deter a person from visiting this massive bridge and enjoy its visuals.


1) Historically famous under the title “Minamoto no Yoshitsune” as an adult. When he was younger, including the time of meeting Benkei, he went by the nickname “Ushiwakamaru”. To avoid confusion, we will primarily stick with his adult name for this article, where it applies.

2) There are a few other adaptations that cover this fated encounter as well, this including those interestingly entitled “Benkei Monogatari” (弁慶物語), “Hashi Benkei” (橋弁慶), and “Jisori Benkei” (じぞり弁慶). While all have their similarities, a few of them contain more info about Benkei, as well as some slight variations to how Yoshitsune and Benkei’s encounter unfolded, such as directly centering the Gojō bridge as the sole location where they would meet & conclude their battle.

3) This waterway points to the Kamo river, and may be the hint to Yoshitsune crossing over it by the Gojō bridge. Problem is, this is not actually stated in the Gikeiki, leading readers to assume this is the case. Note that this is an issue with the Gikeiki, and not necessarily a problem found in other sources covering Yoshitsune & Benkei’s fight.

4) In the Gikeiki, this is narrated as if this happened by chance. Benkei guesses that he would meet Yoshitsune at Kiyomizu-dera at night, and sure enough he appears. There is no indication that this is an arranged meeting, which is strange…or possibly the readers are to assumed that there was a clue hinting to the two agreeing to meet there…?

5) This is similar to the “Heike Monogatari” (平家物語), another historical text that covers the same events found in the Gikeiki, except more from the perspective of the Taira clan. While the author of the Heike Monogatari is unknown, it was told by monks in the form of verses for many generations.

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.

2022: Be Inspired to do Big in the Year of the Tiger

It’s 2022! Let’s kick off in our usual fashion with an article on what the current Lunar Zodiac year is and what sign represents it. As many are aware, 2022 is the year of the tiger. Many have been sending out new year wishes accompanied with colorful images of tigers to help spread the word and support the Chinese Zodiac cycle. If we follow the actual chronological order of this ancient calendar, the correct date for this zodiac year is February 1st. Still, doesn’t mean we can’t get into the proper mindset and start 2022 right.

For this article, we’ll cover the specifics of the tiger sign, and what to expect the auspicious predictions for this year to be. Along with this, we’ll look at the societal and cultural influences the image of the tiger, as a whole, has had within the history of Japan.

UNDERSTANDING TORADOSHI

Under the Zodiac calendar, 2022’s zodiac animal is the tiger. So, we can call this the year of the tiger, or toradoshi (寅年) in Japanese. In many people’s minds, the imagery of a tiger symbolizes power, courage, as well as strong-willed. Of course, these characteristics were added much later once animals were incorporated as relatable representatives of humanistic qualities for each of the 12 zodiac signs.

A painting of a tiger reclining. Artwork of Ohara Kosen.

Let’s break down technical traits of this year’s zodiac sign. The tiger sign is identified by the character “寅”, which is pronounced as “tora”. Normally, the kanji for the actual animal is “虎”, which also uses the same pronunciation. Although possessing the same animal name, the “寅” character’s root meaning points to “sprouting of seeds”. This is significant as it’s the precursor to the seasonal transition from Winter to Spring.

Along with the 12 Zodiacs, there is the “10 Heavenly Stems” (十干/Jikkan in Japanese), which traditionally associates with each year’s reading. The character that represents this category is “壬”, with the pronunciation being “mizunoe”, and means “light-water”. This is because the 10 Heavenly Stems is a product of Inyō Gogyōsetsu (陰陽五行説), which is the combination of philosophical beliefs pertaining to ying-yang (light and dark) and the 5 Movements/Elements (earth, water, fire, wood, metal).

There are essentially 5 different tiger years within the 60-year Zodiac cycle, with each one representing a different element. For this year, we get both tiger and mizunoe together as “壬寅”, which is pronounced either as “jin-in” or “mizunoe tora”. Thus, the complete way of reading 2022 would be as “year of the water-tiger”.

EVERYDAY USAGE

The Zodiac signs have continued to have an impactful influence in Japan’s society of old. Becoming a staple within the culture, people were educated to rely on these signs for telling time, determining direction, and so on. Below are the different roles of the tiger sign in everyday application, along with its traits for this year.

  • Time = 3 am – 5 am
  • Direction = East-Northeast (abit past 30 degrees)
  • Month = 1st (old calendar); 2nd (modern calendar)
  • Energy = Light / positive (yang)
  • 5 Elements = water

Although archaic for today’s standards, it is still possible to utilize the tiger sign, as well as the other zodiac signs, for calculating time, directions, and so forth. There is a systematic process, which is covered in one of my translation projects entitled, “Many Ways of Utilizing the Zodiac Signs“. This can be found in the Translations section of this site, in the menu above.

2022 PREDICTIONS

As mentioned earlier, the character used to represent the tiger sign possesses the meaning of a seed sprouting. This imagery represents growth & vitality, as well as new beginnings. In essence, 2022 is read as a year for everyone to not only become revitalized, but to start a new endeavor. Realistically, this tends to be a general goal for every year, especially in the West. What the tiger sign emphasizes is an increased success rate on an auspicious level, especially for life-changing, ground-breaking pursuits.

Those born particularly in the water-tiger year are said to have particular traits that makes it easier for them to succeed. This includes having a strong intention to succeed, passionate and able to take on any challenges, and an eagerness to learn. While designated as the personality of those born under this sign, keep in mind this can benefit all individuals universally, as those of different signs can mimic this in order to reap the rewards this year can offer.

Interestingly, as much as an advantage those born under this tiger sign has, there are also significant disadvantages they have to especially be cautious about regarding overdoing things. Then there are those other fortune factors to be concerned about, such as wearable color clothing, lucky numbers, favorable directions, and so on…at least, for those individuals who actually follow this type of auspicious practice.

CULTURAL IMAGE

Outside of the Chinese Zodiac calendar, the image of the tiger has cemented itself into Japan’s culture, despite being a country that originally was not a habitat for such animals. Gaining knowledge about this large, wild cat from sources such as artworks, literature, and folklore from China & Korea centuries ago, Japanese society has incorporated the concept of them representing strength, bravery, as well as something having high value. Thus, it’s not unusual for the tiger image to be used as a form of expression for one’s worth, or to distinguish objects with this animal association to instill an everlasting impression.

Artwork entitled, “Satō Masakiyo toragari no zu” (Satō Masakiyo on a Tiger Hunt). Artist is Utagawa Kuniteru. One of many artwork pieces that follow a popular theme regarding warriors defeating a tiger, usually as a feat to display their prowess.

Let’s look into the historical use of the word tora (tiger) as a label. Since as far back as medieval Japan, it wasn’t unusual for individuals to include this word in their name or given title, especially for warriors or those in the entertainment field.

  • Takeda Shingen (武田信玄) = the renown warlord of Kai province was nicknamed “Tiger of Kai” (甲斐の虎, Kai no Tora), for he was a cunning & formidable competitor in the race to dominate Japan during the 1500s.
  • Akiyama Torashige (秋山虎繁) = a strong warrior & trusted retainer of the Takeda clan that controlled Kai province.
  • Hara Toramasa (原虎胤) = another warrior of the Takeda clan that was an ashigaru taishō (足軽大将, infantry commander).
  • Ii Naotora (井伊直虎) = a female territorial lord during the mid 1500s, as noted in the chronicles of the Ii family.
  • Utagawa Yoshitora (歌川義虎) = an accomplished ukiyo-e artist during the late Edo period to early Meiji period.
  • Nakamura Toranosuke (中村 虎之介) = a young kabuki performer/actor who hails down a family line that specialized in kabuki theater.

In a sense, the inclusion of tora (tiger) in each of these individual’s names or as a label can be taken as an indication of their capacity for success.

Next, is how value is placed on tangible things. For example, within the different areas of artistic practices and performances of old such as bujutsu (武術, martial arts) and chadō (茶道, way of the tea ceremony), documents that contain secret & high-level knowledge exclusive to those worthy were often called “tora no maki” (虎の巻), which literally can be translated as “tiger scroll”. This is still done today, as this label is placed on workbooks & study guides that contain important tips and strategies to help students pass exams, or excel in various fields of interest, such as medical or tech. There is also the term “tora no ko” (虎の子), which usually indicates things of extreme value, such as money. With the term meaning “tiger’s cub”, one can get the idea of how protective a mother tiger is when it comes down to ensuring safety for her own cubs. This is the type of feeling that must be projected for things that are of the status to be labeled “tora no ko”.

Painting entitled, “Fūryū Jūnishi Tora (Appreciation of the 12 Zodiac Animals: Tiger). Artist is Isoda Koryusai. While no official description could be found, this artwork displays an adult tiger with a tiger cub on its back, possibly rescuing it from the strong water turrent.

There are also some interesting old sayings that use the tiger image in an expressive fashion. Below are some examples, from dangerous situations to challenging the road to success:

  • Kogō (虎口) = the tiger’s den
    MEANING = a dangerous place to either avoid or escape from.
  • Koketsu ni irazunba koji wo ezu (虎穴に入らずんば虎子を得ず) = you can’t steal the cub if you don’t enter the tiger’s den
    MEANING = have to take risks if you want to succeed big.
  • Tora no o wo fumu (虎の尾を踏む) = stepping on the tiger’s tail
    MEANING = beware of stirring trouble, or getting caught in a bad predicament.
  • Tora ni tsubasa (虎に翼) = a tiger with wings
    MEANING = giving someone who is already powerful a level up boost.
  • Neko wa tora no kokoro wo shirazu (猫は虎の心を知らず) = Although similar, a cat doesn’t possess the mind of a tiger
    MEANING = an average Joe cannot understand the mind of a successful person.

CONCLUSION

While our world has faced an amount of setbacks caused by the pandemic, we are gearing to move forward with our lives in hopes to overcome. Let’s hope that this year everyone can make strides towards this, and be successful in our goals, whether it be in helping our communities, starting a new business, or just getting back on our feet. Don’t forget to use the image of the tiger to be inspired to do big!

Wintertime Visuals of Edo

Every year I look forward to snow when Winter’s upon us. Since my childhood, NYC received a great amount of snow that blanketed the entire city. I have a lot of good memories, from having a white Christmas, shoveling snow with my father in front of our home, to trekking for hours around my neighborhood while bundled up with a heavy coat, gloves, and snow boots. Snow days are essential for kobudō training, as it offers another environment to challenge & evolve our skills. Lately, due to modernization through the advancement of technology, as well as climate change affecting all over the world, snow is becoming a rarity where I live, or the snow fall is so small that in a few hours it all melts away!

Recently I’ve been spending some time doing research on past lifestyle of people in Japan during wintertime. While there are all sorts of records pertaining to specific time periods, the most appealing are the visual ones, namely ukiyoe (浮世絵) and hanga (版画). For this article, I’m sharing some of the artworks I’ve come across that present iconic wintertime visuals, which should be appealing to those reminiscing about snow-filled days that was once common in NYC. It’s a mix between artworks showing different activities to famous locations during Japan’s snow-filled winter season.


#1

TITLE: Yukikorogashi (雪転がし)

MEANING: Playing a game of yukikorogashi

ARTIST: Suzuki Harunobu

Suzuki Harunobu was active as an artist during the mid 1700s. In this artwork, he illustrates several boys playing yukikorogashi. Meaning “rolling the snow into a ball”, It’s a simple game where you take a handful of snow, place it ontop of snow on the ground, and proceed to roll it across. If done correctly, the snowball will gradually grow as it accumulates, soon becoming massive in size. A game played during Edo period, it has also survived into modern times.


#2

TITLE: Yukikorogashi (雪ころがし)

MEANING: Playing a game of yukikorogashi

AUTHOR: Utagawa Sadashige

Another interpretation of kids playing yukikorogashi, by the renown artist Utagawa Sadashige. With a greater number of kids this time around, a larger yukidama (雪玉, snowball) is being created in the bottom left. In the upper right, some kids are making a yuki usagi (雪うさぎ, snow bunny) out of the snow. To the upper left, one kid is raining snow balls on unsuspecting targets. This artwork is a fine example of how kids spend their time enjoying the snow-related games during winter.


#3

TITLE: Sensō Kinryūzan (浅草金龍山)

ARTIST: Utagawa Hiroshige

SERIES: Meisho Edo Hyakkei (名所江戸百景)

Here, we are presented a visual of the temple Kinryūzan Sensōji in Asakusa, Tokyo. Possibly being one of the more popular tourist spots around Tokyo, Asakusa is generally crowded as it has many attractions, including this location. Sensōji (the label “Kinryūzan” is its Buddhist tag) is treasured as being the oldest temple in Tokyo, as it dates back to 645. Along with visiting this temple, many come to take pictures at the front gate Kaminarimon (雷門), and shop at Nakamise Dōri (仲見世通り), which is a long path lined up with different types of shops along both sides.

Utagawa Hiroshige painted this artwork in the late 1850s as part of the collection of famous sights around Edo, now known as present-day Tokyo. The viewpoint is from under the gate Hōzōmon (宝蔵門), which is located in the more north-eastern part of the area. From this gate we can see the grounds, Kaminarimon & other structures, trees, and the people walking along the grounds covered in snow. There are some people making their way towards Kaminarimon to the left, while others appear to be heading towards Gojū no Tō (五重塔), or “Five-Storied Pagoda” to the right.

On a side note, I’ve personally visited Sensōji in the winter during my earlier trips to Japan, but it wasn’t covered in snow like in this artwork. Wish it was tho, as it would’ve been a cool experience in my book.


#4

TITLE: Shiba Zōjōji (芝増上寺)

MEANING: Zōjōji of the Green Lawn

ARTIST: Kawase Hasui

Here we see another temple blanketed in snow. Not just any temple, Zōjōji has a deep history with the Tokugawa clan, as they had it relocated from further east to what is now known as present-day Tokyo city.  Recognized for being within a large area having beautiful green lawns, through this artwork one can imagine there would be little traces of them considering how much snow is covering the ground.

Kawase Hasui captures a view of Zōjōji’s main gate Sangedatsumon (三解脱門) on a day of a snow storm in this piece made in 1925. He does a great job in showing contrast on the areas around the temple that would naturally be snowed on, as well as showing weight on the branches of the tree to the left as they accumulate snow. We also get an idea of how fierce the storm is by the angle in which the snow is falling, as well how the woman walking the grounds narrows her umbrella to protect herself from the frosty winds.


#5

TITLE: Yuki no Miyajima (雪の宮島)

MEANING: Miyajima on a snowy day

ARTIST: Tsuchiya Koitsu

Japan is famous for the many torii (鳥居, Shintō shrine archways) around Japan. Many feature unique designs, while some are in the most unexpected locations. In this artwork we get a visual of the popular Ōtori (大鳥居), or Grand shrine archway of the national treasure shrine called Itsukushima Jinja (嚴島神社), located in Hiroshima prefecture. This archway sits out in the waters of the ocean, while most of the shrine itself is constructed along the edge of the ocean as well.

In this1936 artwork, Tsuchiya Koitsu conveys the natural phenomenon of the Ōtorii and other objects around it being covered in snowfall. There is light snowfall, but apparently it’s been snowing for awhile, considering the amount of snow that sits on the branches of a tree to the upper right.


#6

TITLE: Biku ni hashi secchū (びくにはし雪中)

MEANING: Bridge unexpectedly covered in snow

ARTIST: Utagawa Hiroshige

SERIES: the Meisho Edo Hyakkei (名所江戸百景)

Another artwork from around 1858 by Utagawa Hiroshige, the theme of this centers around the bridge known as Kyōbashi (京橋). It’s built over Kyōbashikawa (京橋川), a river that runs through Hiroshima city in Hiroshima prefecture. The scenery covered in heavy snowfall, the artist uses the viewpoint from the snow-covered bridge, as we see a townsfolk with an umbrella about to make it across, followed by a messenger. We get a clear understanding of how deep the snow is by the messenger, who’s feet are completely submerged under the snow.

Take note of the 2 shops on either side of the artwork, which appear to still be open despite being blanketed in snow. The shop on the left with the sign “Yamakujira” (山くじら) sells boar meat, while the one to the right with the sign “〇Yaki Jūsan-ri” (〇やき十三里) sells roasted sweet potatoes with chestnuts. The aroma must be good, as it’s attracted a few dogs despite the weather condition.


#7

TITLE: Chūshingura Youchi Ni – Rannyū (忠臣蔵 夜討ニ 乱入)

MEANING: Chūshingura’s “The Night Attack Scene 2” – Storming the Mansion

ARTIST: Utagawa Hiroshige

SERIES: Chūshingura Kazari-e Collection (忠臣蔵飾絵コレクション)

Lastly is an early-mid 1800s artwork of warriors dressed for battle on a wintry day. Utagawa Hiroshige has done all types of artworks on different themes, both realistic and fictional. This one is based on the fictionally-interpreted tale entitled Chūshingura (忠臣蔵), or “Treasury of Loyal Retainers”, which is set around the early 1700s according the factual accounts its based off of. In the West this is primarily known as “47 Rōnin”. This tale is popular all over the world, with many artistic adaptations over different generations.

This artwork captures the scene where these masterless warriors prepare to storm into their destination, being the home of a Kira Yoshihisa, who was responsible for their former master’s death. From a combative perspective, it is interesting to see the attire they wear as they travel along the snowy grounds. Dressed in what was standard for 1700s, one can imagine that the material was durable for the cold, and that they were dressed with a certain number of layers. Yet, they do not looked weighed down by bulky & heavy clothing, meaning they were still nimble enough to handle any opposition they would encounter along the way as they were set to extract revenge on Kira Yoshihisa himself.


This concludes our viewing of wintertime-themed artworks made by different artists during Japan’s Edo period. Looking at renown works as these are a great way to see, as well as compare, certain locations present-day to their past appearances. Shame that these won’t satisfy my hunger for a snow-filled winter. Well, here’s looking towards some real snowfall in the later part of winter in the New Year!

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.