Oshōgatsu is the traditional Japanese name for the New Year celebration. In Japanese one of the kanji characters use to write this term means “correct” because the Japanese believe that the proper beginning of a new year ensures that the year will be both prosperous and happy.

img_2638Kagami mochi, or mirror rice cake, is one of most familiar Oshōgatsu icons. It is made from two round mochi, made from pounded rice, that are placed one on top of the other; some people say they symbolize the past year and the new year. A small Japanese orange is then placed on top, and the kagami mochi is often decorated with seaweed, persimmons, and strips of paper that have been folded to look like lightening bolts. While kagami mochi is primarily a New Year decoration, some households and martial arts studios have a tradition of eating it on the second Saturday or Sunday of January.

In Japan the celebration of the New Year lasts for three (or more) days, not just 24 hours. During the holiday family and friends often visit each other in their homes to eat special holiday foods and engage in traditional pastimes. Historically one of those activities was a game called hanetsuki, which was played with hagoita or battledore paddles and with hane shuttlecocks (center photo below). Hanetsuki was primarily a game for girls, and perhaps because of that the hagoita often featured elaborate decorations. Eventually the hagoita and hane shapes became decorations in themselves. They make pretty good hashioki, too.


Sho chiku bai — pine,  bamboo and plum — are a motif that are associated with winter, and therefore with New Year celebrations. They are sometimes called the Three Friends of Winter because unlike many other plants they do not shrivel up when the weather turns cold. Because of this, the motif is said to represent resilliance and perseverance. Sho chiku bai usually appear in kadomatsu or “gate pine” arrangements that appear at doorways and other prime spots during Oshōgatsu.

While Japan has celebrated the New Year holiday on January 1 since the late 19th. century, many Japanese also celebrate the Lunar or Chinese New Year which begins in late January or early February. One of the best parts of that celebration is the lion dance which is supposed to chase away bad spirits as the new year begins. While these shishi-kashira or lion head hashioki look more Chinese than Japanese, they were actually all purchased in Kyōto, including the large one with the movable hinged jaw.



Santa Claus

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus — even in hashioki.

Christmas is not an important holiday in Japan, where less than one percent of the population is Christian, but that doesn’t mean the Japanese don’t celebrate it. Many commercial buildings and stores decorate with lights and Christmas ornaments, and img_2636shops feature baked goods and other food items festooned with red and green. Christmas Eve is a popular date night in Japan, and December 25 kicks off the last week of Japan’s traditional year-end parties. So it’s not surprising that wreath, tree, jingle bell, and Santa hashioki all exist.

I’m not sure if this Santa is relaxed because he only has to make deliveries to 1% of the children in Japan, or whether he’s exhausted from his global delivery schedule.

By the way, the phrase”Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” comes from a newspaper editorial published in the New York Sun on September 21, 1897 which assured 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon that Santa Claus did exist, despite what her skeptical friends told her.  The editorial is reported to be the most reprinted editorial in the English language, no doubt especially at this time of year.

Cats and coins, and proverbs

img_2586The inscription on this blue hashioki reads “neko ni koban,” which is a Japanese phrase that translates as “gold coins to a cat.” While a cat may may be attracted to a shiny gold coin, it really doesn’t understand what money is or how to use it. Therefore, the proverb is really a comment about someone coveting something they have no use for.


This hashioki is one of two purchased by my daughter Mollie in a store in Seattle in March 2008. The other one features a devil or demon, and will be featured in a future post on oni.  Because both pieces featured a maxim I assume they were part of a larger set of other characters and proverbs. One of the frustrations of collecting hashioki is that because they are small, and because they are items that were actually used, pieces that were once part of a larger set sometimes appear to get separated.

More than six years after Mollie purchased this pair I had a minor victory; I found five matching pieces for sale by a vendor from Tokyo on eBay. One of the pieces in his set was in fact the Oni piece described above. The other pieces were (left to right) Urashima  Tarō,  Kintarō, Kaguyahime and Momotarō, all folk heroes that were described in previous posts.

The gold coin or koban that is featured in the cat hashioki above was a kind of currency that was circulated during the Edo or Tokugawa period. This hashioki reproduces a img_2591particular coin known as a Keichō koban, which was used between 1601 and 1695. I can’t resist including that fascinating tidbit here simply to demonstrate how the Internet has changed research; I was able to discover my koban hashioki was a reproduction of an actual coin less than minute after I typed “koban” into my search engine. I also learned that counterfeit koban were a problem during the Edo period, although probably no one would have been fooled by this ceramic version with a base and the inscription of the manufacturer on the bottom.


CatsCats (neko) are everywhere in Japan.

They patrol the grounds of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. They stretch across signs and t-shirts, and curl up into tableware. They pose with geisha in pretty woodblock prints, or substitute for humans in more satirical ones. They star in anime and manga, either as too-cute kitties or as scary monsters, and serve as the narrator of popular novels, like Natsume Sōseki’s I am a Cat (Wagahai wa neko de aru). There are even cat cafes in Japan where people can order a very expensive cup of coffee in order to have the privilege of petting the felines who live there.

So I was surprised to recently read that only one-quarter of pet-owning families in Japan own cats. I’m sure that cat hashioki were not included in that household survey.

Cats were reportedly introduced to the Japanese imperial court from Korea and China during the tenth century. They were an immediate hit; they were known as O-koma-san (honorable person from Korea) and given a noble rank(1).  Perhaps this is the origin of the not-necessarily-Japanese adage that dogs have owners, while cats have staff.

Cats are of course known for being athletic, but this cat hashioki is particularly agile — he can even hang from the side of a glass.

img_2780Cats are very popular with Japanese artists. This hashioki depicts cats in the style of Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a 19th. century ukiyo-e print master. Kuniyoshi was famous for his bold and colorful samurai, beautiful women, mythical beasts, and cats, especially cats like this who are dressed and acting in human roles. Notice that Kuniyoshi’s cats are as fierce as samurai warriors.






The most popular breed of cat in Japan is known as a nihon neko (Japanese cat) or mi- ke, meaning three hairs. These are short-haired cats with white coats and black and rust colored spots.

I have a particularly fondness for these cats, and the hashioki that portray them, because my pet cat Munakata is a mi-ke, too. However, Munakata — unlike these mi-ke cats, is not allowed to sit on the table.

(Please also see my post on “Maneki neko” from January 2016).

(1) Frédéric, Louis. Japan Encyclopedia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 103.