Good luck rituals of Japan

Japan reveals a culture steeped in superstition as it ushers in the Year of the Rabbit.

MY niece got married recently. When we gathered at her mother’s house on Jan 3 during the Japanese New Year holidays, she presented me and my brother-in-law with an otoshidama (money in New Year envelope).

Unlike the otoshidama my son received, it was a bit bulky. So I guessed it contained candies.

“There is a go en (¥5) inside,” Rie said impishly.

Puzzled, I asked: “Is this the custom for a newlywed?”

“No. Just a small gesture,” she replied smilingly.

In Japan, all otoshidama envelopes are store-bought. They have animated characters or pictures featuring New Year items printed on them.

When we came home, my son gleefully laid out the money and the envelopes on the table. I opened my envelope. The ¥5 coin was strapped to a cord that was taped to a packet of candies. As Japan has ushered in the Year of the Rabbit, the candies had pictures of a rabbit and its kanji character on them.

Japanese culture is steeped in superstitions which evolved from objects which carry a connotation or an association with bad omen through a fortuitous play on words.

Although ¥5 is of little monetary value, it is considered a lucky charm as its homophone expresses good karma to those possessing it. Go is the honorific prefix for the homophone en (destiny). It is the only coin with a hole in the centre and has been used as a charm since ancient times. I suppose Rie hopes that the family ties will last forever.

Since Rie’s paternal grandmother passed away last March, her family did not put up oshougatsu kazari (New Year decorations) or exchange New Year cards this year. We said hello to them instead of greeting: “Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu” (Happy New Year).

To welcome the deities bringing in good fortune, oshougatsu kazari are usually put up on Dec 28 or Dec 30 after the year-end cleaning. This is because the 29th (nijuu ku nichi) contains the homophone ku for “suffering”, whereas 31st, the last-minute rush, is unfavourable. The decorations are kept until Jan 7, after which they are disposed of.

According to The Asahi Shimbun, one late December, a pair of kadomatsu (gate pine) was stolen from Komu Komu (a public facility for children) in Fukushima city. Mind you, large, magnificent ones cost a bomb!

On the upside, two sets of replacements came on time from two generous donors: the landscape gardener who made the original kadomatsu, and a farmer who was angered by the theft.

But I digress.

Interestingly, something happened around the same time in Kobe. To win over local residents, Japan’s largest crime syndicate doled out envelopes with money to some of the children attending their year-end mochi (glutinous rice cakes) pounding festival. The envelopes containing ¥10,000 to ¥30,000 (RM370 to RM1,110) were given in the name of the gang boss who was serving prison sentence on weapon charges, and his deputy.

Now back to shougatsu kazari. The ornamental items are mainly plants as they symbolise life and rebirth. The three bamboo trunks of a kadomatsu are said to represent heaven, man and earth. They act as poles for the gods to descend, and signify strength and growth.

Pine or other evergreen plants typify longevity. Stalks of artificial ume (Japanese apricot) flowers represent the year’s earliest revered blooms. Daidai, a bitter orange, is a favourite adornment because its homophone is linked to “many generations”. Konbu (kelp) suggests happiness because it sounds like yorokobu (glad). A plastic lobster, crane or two sea breams (tai) are included in some shimekazari (wreath-like ornaments). A kanji character for lobster denotes old age. Crane implies peace while tai, the king of fish, epitomises wealth and prosperity.

A small folding fan conveys the spread of progeny. Shide, the zigzag strips of folded white and red paper, repel evil.

Several homes, commercial buildings and public gardens adorn both sides of their entryways with elaborate, impressive kadomatsu. Some people hang shimekazari above or on their front door, or tie the kadomatsu, which are pine branches with minimal or no decorations, to each side of the entrances. Others put up both decorations.

In Rie’s neighbourhood, I found pieces of paper with a picture of kadomatsu pasted on doors and walls. She explained that the newspaper delivery companies gave them to their subscribers.

Shimenawa (twisted sacred ropes) are hung horizontally above a Shinto altar. They are normally used at Shinto shrines to demarcate sacred spaces and ward off malevolent spirits.

The New Year ambience is enhanced in homes with tokonoma (an alcove in the tatami room) by decorating it with calligraphic or pictorial scrolls, floral arrangements, kagami-mochi (mirror mochi ) and other auspicious items.

Nowadays, imitation ones are sold at ¥100 stores. However, I see many people doing away with these decorations.

Sarah Mori, a Malaysian married to a Japanese, has been living in Japan since 1992.

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