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So busy! What Do Japanese People Do at the Year-End?

Events to welcome the New Year and their origins

December, the last month of the year, is also called “Shiwasu(師走、師=Master, 走=Run)” in Japanese. It has the meaning of "even the usually calm Shi (Master) is so busy that he starts running at the end of the year." For Japanese people, the New Year is the most important event of the year, and there are many routines to be done at the yearend, but there are also many events to pray for a healthy New Year and be thankful for a successful year.

(Photo:Mochi-tsuki, rice cake pounding)

In this article, we would like to introduce some of the traditional year-end events of the Japanese people and some of the trends related to year-end events in recent years. The last day of the year, “Omisoka” in Japanese, will be covered in detail in a separate article.

Table of Contents

1. So Busy! Recent Trends in Year-End Events in Japan

2. Preparation for Year-End Gifts and New Year's Cards

3. End of Work Day and Year-End Party

4. Cleaning and Kamado Deity (Fire God)

5. Decorating for the New Year

6. Summary

1. So Busy! Recent Trends in Year-End Events in Japan

The Japanese greeting on New Year's Day is "Akemashite Omedeto- gozaimasu" (Happy New Year), a word of thanks to" Toshi-gami,” the deity of harvests, for bringing good fortune to home. In December, Japanese people become very busy preparing to welcome the New Year God on New Year's Day.

Amid all this busyness, many people in Japan today celebrate Christmas as a joyous event, although it is less religious and more influenced by commercial purposes. People decorate Christmas trees at home, buy so-called Christmas cakes, and have parties with friends and family.

In addition, one of the most popular year-end scenes that have taken root in recent years is the gorgeous illuminations around extensive commercial facilities and major train stations. Even after Christmas, the lights remain on until the end of the year, attracting many people.

2. Preparation for Year-End Gifts and New Year's Cards

Some of you may know that Japan has a meticulous "gift-giving culture." At the end of the year, there is a custom of giving gifts called “Oseibo” to each other. Although it depends on the region and the relationship with the recipient, it is recommended that the gifts reach the recipient from the early part of December to the 20th if possible, or by the 31st at the latest.

Nowadays, more and more people start preparing their year-end gifts in November and send them out at the end of the month, avoiding the busy month of December. Every year, department stores introduce elaborate gift packages and prepare gift books for year-end gifts to liven up the year-end shopping season.

The average budget for a year-end gift is between 3,000 yen and 5,000 yen, but it is crucial to check the recipient's tastes, hobbies, and family structure before choosing a gift that will please them. We can say that Japanese gift-giving culture shows how much thought you put into the recipient. However, more and more companies have started to avoid such a fussy custom in recent years, and fewer people are sending year-end gifts than before.

It is also customary in Japan to send New Year's cards(Nenga-Jo) to express gratitude. In addition to words of congratulations for the new year, the zodiac sign of the year, and motifs that bring good luck, some people also include family photos to let others know what they are up to. This preparation is one of the annual events at the end of the year.

It is also customary to send New Year's cards with congratulatory messages to those who lost family members in the previous year, so before the beginning of December, when the preparation of New Year's cards begins, those who lost family members in the year are asked to send a "postcard in mourning" to inform them that they will not be receiving New Year's cards.

Initially, we wrote new Year's cards for distant acquaintances who could not make it to the New Year's greeting. Still, with the establishment of the postal system in the Meiji era, the custom of sending New Year's cards to distant people and those who were close to them took root. However, with the rapid spread of e-mail and social networking services, the number of Japanese who do not write New Year's cards is rapidly increasing. Just like year-end gifts, customs change with the times.

3. End of Work Day and Year-End Party

As the busyness accelerates towards the end of the year, we celebrate the end of the work year(Shigoto-osame) around December 28th every year. According to law, in Japan, government offices are closed from December 29th to January 3rd. Many companies also close their offices on December 28th (or the Friday before if the 28th falls on a Saturday or Sunday).

However, banks close on December 30th due to the nature of their business, and stock exchanges also close on December 30th, the last business day of the year, and call it the "Dainokai." On the last day of the year, the stock exchanges also hold a ceremony to ring the bell to mark the end of the session. In most foreign countries, the only day off is New Year's Day, and work begins on the 2nd. In China, where they celebrate the Spring Festival, the lunar New Year in Japan, they do not celebrate New Year's Day, which is January 1st in the Western (solar) calendar.

In Japan, there is a custom to hold a year-end party in December. The Japanese word “Bōnen-kai" (meaning "forgetting the year party") refers to a party held to forget the hardships of the past year and welcome the new year with a smile. The origins of this event can be traced back to the Muromachi period (1336-1573) when the common people imitated the feast of the aristocracy, where they read renga poems and drank sake together. During the Meiji era (1868-1912), bureaucrats were given bonuses, and people with warm pockets began to have parties with their colleagues.

 From the 1960s onward, many companies began to host year-end parties, not only for food and drinks but also for trips to hot springs, and the budgets and scale of these parties grew. However, after the year 2000, more and more people began not to participate in year-end company parties, which overlapped in timing and significance with Christmas parties. More and more people began to cherish their private time with family, friends, and casual associates. Nowadays, influenced by the COVID19, some people have "online year-end parties."

4. Year-End Cleaning and Kamado Deity (Fire God)

 The origin of year-end cleaning dates back to the Heian period (794-1185). The origin of the Year-end cleaning is the "soot cleaning(Susu-harai)," which is the preparation for welcoming ancestors and the Deity of the year into the house by cleaning the soot off the altar and the Shinto altar. Even today, temples and shrines hold "soot cleaning" at the end of the year. New Year's Day is the most important day for Japanese people, and it was necessary to clean every corner of the house and purify oneself to welcome the day without a hitch. This feeling is still strong in Japanese people today, and they devote themselves to cleaning at the end of the year.

In ancient times, when there was no gas or electricity, kitchens in Japan were equipped with a Kamado cooking stove, where they burned firewood to heat the food. The fire in the Kamado was invaluable for its warmth, but it was also feared as a cause of fires. For this reason, people have revered fire as a god, respecting and cherishing it as a Fire god.At the end of the year, many Shinto shrines distribute talismans of the Deity of the Kamado. After carefully cleaning the kitchen, people enshrine the talisman, praying that there will be no trouble with food and that there will be no fire disasters. (Photo: Painted in 1879, “Soot Cleaning” from the catalog of the Ragusa-Kiyohara Tama exhibition, Tokyo Shimbun, 1986)

5. Decorating for the New Year

Once the cleaning is done, it's time to decorate for the New Year. In Japan, we put up various decorations to welcome the New Year. One of them is the "Kadomatsu" (photo), which is placed at the front door as a landmark for the New Year's deities to come without hesitation. Nowadays, more and more apartment complexes are being built, and many households are decorating their front doors with simple wreath-style New Year's decorations.

Shimenawa ornamental ropes are hung in sacred places like the front door, Shinto altar, and alcove to welcome the New Year's gods. Like the Kadomatsu, the Shimenawa is displayed from the end of the Year until the end of the Year (generally January 7). Kagami-mochi (mirror-shaped rice cakes) are also placed in the Tokonoma (alcove) and Kamidana (Shinto altar) because the Japanese believe that the New Year Deity dwells in Kagami-mochi.

 The best time to display New Year's decorations is on December 28, while decorating on December 29 is called "Kudate" (29 means "double 9=ku=pain"), and decorating on December 31 (New Year's Eve) is called "Ichi-ya Kazari" (overnight decorations). We will introduce new Year's decorations with various legends in detail separately.

6. Summary

As we mentioned earlier about decorating Kagami-mochi as New Year's decorations, there is a custom of having a Mochi-tsuki (rice cake pounding) party in mid-December with relatives and neighbors. The custom is now not popular as before, but rice cakes are still an indispensable food for the New Year. At the end of the year, people are busy shopping for ingredients for "Toshikoshi Soba" (New Year's Eve soba) and "Osechi" (unique New Year's dishes), as well as for rice cakes and sake to serve to guests during the New Year period.

In Tokyo, the Tsukiji Outer Market and America Yokocho in Ueno-Okachimachi get crowded with shoppers looking for food. We see news reporting many people carrying large bags as they go about their shopping. Once the shopping is done, they start preparing Osechi and other dishes for the New Year.

In this way, the end of the year for Japanese people passes in a state of busyness. Each event and routine at the end of the year is based on the ancient belief in the gods and prayers for the happiness and health of family and friends. While the forms of these prayers change with the times, deep in the heart of the Japanese people is a sense of gratitude for being alive. (The photo shows the Tsukiji Outer Market at the end of the year, crowded with shoppers.)

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