Oshōgatsu – Japanese New Year

The most important holiday in Japan is New Year, or Oshōgatsu. Since 1873, it has been celebrated on January 31, but originally it was observed according to the lunar calendar. Either way, many of the special traditions associated with the New Year are ancient.

One of the most important activities is visiting family, friends, colleagues, and customers to thank them for their help in the past year and request their continued support. If you cannot meet with everyone, you can always send New Year’s greetings, or nengajō. These cards often feature the zodiac animal associated with the coming year. The big event is getting dressed up and visiting a local Shintō shrine or Buddhist temple on New Year’s Eve.

Yamato Colony members gather at the beach for New Year celebrations

January 1, 1907


3.75”h x 5.5”w

Museum Purchase


The Yamato Colony was established in 1903. The first settlers were young, unmarried men. Here they are dressed up and gathered together to observe the start of the New Year at the beach. Later, wives and children joined the colony and celebrations became more elaborate.

Feudal Lords’ First Visit to the Castle on Lunar New Year’s Day from the series The Flower of the East

By Chikanobu Yōshū (1838-1912)

Meiji period, 1888

Woodblock print; ink and color on paper

15”h x 30”w

Gift of Thomas Winant


This triptych (three panel) illustrates a custom of the Edo period whereby feudal lords, or daimyo, come to pay their respects to the shogun at Edo castle. This was before the shift to the solar calendar, so it would occur in late January or early February. The central figure on horseback peers directly at the viewer with a smile.

Neighborhood of Yasaka

By Kotozuka Eiichi (1906-1982)

Shōwa period, ca. 1950s

Woodblock pint; ink and color on paper

17.5”h x 11.5”w

Gift of Mrs. Ruth B. and Dr. Julius N. Obin


This print depicts a neighborhood in Kyoto near the Yasaka Shrine – established in 656 C.E. The scene clearly takes place at the New Year as indicated by the kites flying in the distance and special decorations of pine, bamboo, and plum called, kadomatsu, outside the doorway on the right side of the street.


By Inagaki Tomo (1902-1980)

Shōwa period, 1973

Woodblock pint; ink and color on paper

5.75”h x 4”w

Gift of Mr. & Mrs. William Stein


This New Year’s greeting card, or nengajō, has the characters “ga-shō,” which mean Happy New Year, in the upper right corner along with the year 1973. The three mikan (Mandarin oranges) are an appropriate motif as they are placed on top of the ceremonial rice cake arrangement called, kagami mochi.

The Zodiac

By Clifton Karhu (1927-2007)

Shōwa period, 1976

Book of woodblock prints; ink and color on paper with fabric cover

9.25”h x 11.5”w

Museum Collection


Minnesota born Clifton Karhu moved to Japan in 1952. After studying Japanese art and aesthetics, he became a renowned woodblock print artist.  This particular print features all 12 animals of the zodiac cycle. Each year is represented by a particular animal and people born in that year are said to have similar traits. For example, 2020 was the Year of the Rat and people born during that year are said to be clever and make good leaders.


Early Shōwa period, ca. 1930-1950

Yūzen-dyed silk crepe

64.5”h x 50”w

Gift of David and Susan Nevius


Furisode are long vertical sleeves worn by young women for formal occasions. This robe features designs of pine, bamboo, and plum known as shōchikubai, sometimes called the ‘three friends of winter.’ While most New Year kimono are very bright in color, this one is appropriate for making New Year visits or for ‘Coming of Age Day,’ another holiday held on the second Monday of January. Observed by anyone turning 20 years old in the year ahead, it is the day when adolescents officially enter adulthood.


Taishō or early Shōwa period, ca. 1912-1930

Tsutsugaki-deyed cotton

Museum Purchase


Fishermen traditionally wear elaborately decorated coats called, maiwai, for New Year’s festivals. The word, maiwai, is made up of the characters for ‘10,000’ and ‘celebrations’ (or ‘celebratory gifts’). The other symbols of crane and turtle emphasize fidelity and longevity.

The most important step in having a successful New Year is to remove as many obstacles as possible. You can begin by cleaning your house and settling any debts. Another way is to enjoy a lion dance, or shishimai. Many of the common holiday decorations also help to achieve this goal and purify the immediate environment.


Late Edo or early Meiji period, ca. 1840-1880

Pigments on wood with cords

8.5”h x 18.25”w

Museum Purchase


Lions are not native to Japan. Lion dances started in India, the idea traveled along the silk trade routes all the way to Japan. It is believed that the lion is brave enough to scare off any spirits with bad intentions. In the early 1500s, villagers in Ise performed the lion dance to ward off famines and plagues that they were experiencing.

Lion dancer

Mid to late 1990s

Digital photograph

Museum Archives


If you have ever been to one of our Oshōgatsu festivals, you have probably seen the Lion Dance, or shishimai. Generally, one dancer holds a large lion’s head mask and others make up the body of the lion, or sometimes an individual wears the entire costume.

Shishimai figurine

Edo period (1603-1868)

Lacquer and pigments on wood

7”h x 8”l

Gift of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation


This figure represents a two-person lion dance. You can see the feet of the dancers underneath patterned fabric. The lead dancer lifts his left foot giving the figurine a sense of movement and vigor. This piece is a gift from Mary Griggs Burke Collection, a world-renowned collector of Japanese art.

Netsuke in the shape of shishimai dancer

Edo period, ca. 1810-1830

Ebony wood with horn and ivory inlay

2.25”h x .75”w

Gift of Max Lonner

This netsuke (a toggle for holding small carrying cases in one’s obi) is carved into the shape of a single lion dancer. He plays a drum as he moves through the imagined crowd of onlookers. Drums also play an important role in driving away evil spirits.

Making kadomatsu

Shōwa period, ca. 1930-1942

Sepia tone photograph

5”h x 7”w

Gift of Josephine Aiko Low


This historic photograph shows two men making kadomatsu, literally ‘gate-pine,’ decorations. The overall design and materials vary widely from region to region, but usually pine, bamboo, and plum blossoms are arranged, then placed in pairs at gates or doorways. They are believed to draw in the divine spirit who helps to guide and protect the occupants of the home or business in the New Year.

Morikami kadomatsu

January 2019

Digital photograph

Museum Archives

The Morikami Museum continues the tradition of placing kadomatsu at our main entrance to celebrate the New Year. Pine represents longevity. Bamboo is symbolic because it grows strong and straight towards the heavens, yet is flexible enough to bend with the wind. Plum or apricot blossoms are the first, and therefore the hardiest, flowers of early spring and remind us to endure.

Calendar page with shimenawa

By Serizawa Keisuke (1895-1984)

Shōwa period, 1968

Katazome print; ink and dyes on paper

15.25”h x 11.75”w

Gift of Mitzie Verne


This calendar page depicts a shimenawa – rope-cord decorations that signify a sacred space and act as talismans against evil spirits. Unlike everyday ropes twisted to the right, these special markers are braided by twisting to the left, giving them mystical power to purify a given space. While you will see them throughout the year in Shintō spaces, they have been associated with year-end decorations for over 1,000 years.


Heisei period, 1996

Washi paper

13”h x 9.5”w

Gift of Ryotsu Chamber of Commerce

1990.011.006, .011, and .014

These simple decorations of paper cut into good luck symbols are displayed at the New Year in homes and stores. Popular characters such as Ebisu–one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune, kagami mochi, and ema (learn more about these elements below), are all familiar subjects that help to encourage protection now and good fortune in the future.


Shōwa period, ca. 1965

Pigments on wood

7.75”h x 8.75”w

Gift of Shibui Japanese Antiques

In ancient times wealthy patrons gave live horses to Shintō shrines, but later the custom shifted to giving paintings of horses on small wooden plaques called, ema, literally ‘picture-horse.’ These votive plaques are used to petition the gods for requests, such as good grades, a pay raise, or luck in love. Although originally featuring images of the horse, one of the 12 zodiac animals, these days the zodiac animal of the coming year is a common illustration on ema.

Once you dispel any negative energy, you need to invite good things into your life and make wishes for the future. A very popular way is to get a Daruma (patriarch of Zen) figure. Many other everyday folk figures and deities are included in New Year celebrations, such as Okame, Daitoku, Ebisu, and maneki-neko. All of these gods and good luck symbols help to bring good fortune, prosperity, health, and happiness into one’s life.


Late Meiji or Taishō period, ca. 1875-1920

Pigments on bisque-fired clay

9.25”h x 7.5”w

Museum Purchase

Daruma figures have been in existence in Japan for over 400 years. They represent the Zen patriarch Bodhidharma who lived over 1,500 years ago. The figures have blank eyes when you purchase them. Once you take them home and make a wish, you color in one iris. After the wish comes true, you fill-in the other iris to complete the face. Daruma represent perseverance and patience in achieving one’s goals.


Late Shōwa period, ca. 1980-1984

Papier-mâché with color

11”h x 9”w

Gift of the Japan Pavilion, 1984 Louisiana World Exposition

While these figures have evolved considerably over the centuries, the main characteristics remain the same: wide eyes, a bushy beard, a body with no arms or legs, and painted in bright colors. This traditional version has the characters ‘blessings in’ painted in gold on the front.

Otafuku holding a Daruma

By Igarashi Kenji (b. 1943)

Late Shōwa period, ca. 1980s

Papier-mâché with color

7.25”h x 3”w

Museum Purchase


Otafuku, also known as Okame, is a beloved folk deity who epitomizes a good wife full of mirth.

If you go to a shrine or temple at the New Year you will likely see booths selling masks of folk and anime characters; Okame is ubiquitous at festivals stalls throughout the year. Here she is paired with Daruma to maximize the good luck you will receive.


Late Shōwa period, ca. 1980s

Pigments on bisque-fired clay

13”h x 8.5”w

Museum Purchase with funds from Friends of Morikami


Maneki-neko, or ‘beckoning cat,’ has become quite a popular sight around the world. There are several origin stories for this figure, but they all date back to the Edo period (1603-1868). The original versions were calico cats with one paw raised. Nowadays, much like the Daruma figures, there are numerous varieties of colors and combinations to choose.

Maneki-neko with Daruma doll

By Igarashi Kenji (b. 1943)

Late Shōwa period, ca. 1980s

Papier-mâché with color

8”h x 7.75”w

Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Hiroshi Tada

Once again, we find that two figures – maneki-neko and Daruma – join together to double your luck. The cat is not one of the 12 zodiac signs, as legend has it that the cat was napping when the other animals met with Buddha to become part of the zodiac.


Late Edo period, ca. 1800-1868

Lacquered wood with glass and gold inlay

19”h x 12”w

Gift of Virginia Outcalt


Daikoku is one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune. He is a deity of abundance, so he is an appropriate symbol for Oshōgatsu. He stands on two bales of rice and holds a mallet ready to break them open. This piece is made of wood and uses a special joinery technique so that no glue or nails are required.

Netsuke of kyōgen actor holding a sea bream

Early Meiji period, ca. 1880-1890

Lacquer and pigments on wood with ivory

1.625”h x .875”w

Gift of Max Lonner


This small figurine is a netsuke (toggle) illustrating a masked comedian holding a sea bream, or tai in Japanese. This I likely Ebisu, another of the Seven Gods of Fortune, who is the deity of fishermen. Tai is a homonym for “intention” so it is believed that Ebisu can help to bring the intentions of fishermen and merchants to fruition.

New Year is a three-day celebration, so there is plenty of time for outdoor fun and indoor games for everyone. The shell-matching game, or kaiawase, dates backs to the Heian period (794-1185). Kite flying has been a special part of the celebrations since the late Edo period (1603-1886). Traditional pastimes reflect many different symbols linked to longevity, prosperity, and rejuvenation.

Dog and kite

By Takeuchi Shuho (dates unknown)

Late Meiji or early Shōwa period, ca. 1970-2006

Ink and pigments on shikishi card mounted as hanging scroll

Image 15.5”h x 17.75”w

Gift of Velko Dujin


Kites are a festive site at Oshōgatsu. This painting features a kite with the rising sun over wave design. The dog is one of the 12 animals in the zodiac cycle. People born in the year of the dog are respected for their strong sense of loyalty.


By Toki Mikio (b. 1950)

Reiwa period, December 2019

Ink and color on nylon with bamboo and cotton string

60”h x 30”w

Museum Commission


During the Edo period (1603-1868) commoners were only allowed to fly kites at the New Year. This Edo-style kite has a crane and rising sun over waves design. There are many firsts of the New Year: first formal tea, first calligraphy, first dream, first shrine or temple visit, and even first sunrise. The rising sun is considered serene and therefore rejuvenating. The Morikami Museum specially commissioned this piece for Oshōgatsu festivities.

Calendar with kites

By Serizawa Keisuke (1895-1984)

Shōwa period, 1957

Katazome print; ink and dyes on paper

15.25” h x 11.75”w

Gift of Mitzie Verne


This calendar page illustrates several different kite designs flown as part of New Year’s celebrations. You can see the crane and rising sun, as well as a carp swimming upstream to represent tenacity, and several auspicious kanji characters, too. Some of the first full-color prints were calendars commissioned by poetry groups, so the genre has a long and important history within Japanese printing.

Hagoita with Wisteria Maiden

Heisei period, ca. 1990s

Silk, metal, paper, cotton, plastic, and color on wood

29.5”h x 12.5”w

Gift of John Bellizzi


Another outdoor pastime dating back to the Edo period (1603-1868) is hanetsuki, a kind of badminton game without a net. This was a popular pastime amongst girls, so the motifs tend be more feminine than kites, such as the Wisteria Maiden depicted here. Today, paddles such as this one, are more elaborate and intended only for display. The glass case (not pictured) for this piece holds a music box that plays a New Year song.

Kaiawase game pieces

Edo period, 1800s

Color, gofun (gesso), and gold leaf on clamshells

Each shell 1.35”h x 3”w

Museum Purchase


The shell-matching game, or kaiawase, is an indoor game that dates back to the Heian period (794-1185). The shells are painted with images from romantic stories, like the famous Tale of Genji. A full set of the game contains 360 pairs of shells to be matched. Highly decorative versions of these games were often included as part of a noblewoman’s marriage trousseau in the medieval era.

Edo-goma in the shape of Daruma

By Michiaki Hiroi (b. 1933)

Heisei period, ca. 1970-1990

Color on wood

3.75”h x 2.5”w

Gift of Janell J. Landis


Edo-goma are spinning tops made popular in the Edo period (1603-1868). This top in the shape of a Daruma features the main characteristics of wide eyes, bushy beard, and round red shape. Michiaki Hiroi made most of the tops in the Morikami Museum Collection. He is a fourth generation artist and only one of a few continuing to make this type of top by hand.

Group of Edo-goma

By Michiaki Hiroi (b. 1933)

Heisei period, ca. 1970-1990

Color on wood

Gift of Janell J. Landis


This is a grouping of Edo-goma featuring various shapes and subjects. Some of the figures depicted include a monkey, one of the 12 zodiac animals; an ogre dressed as a lay priest holding a drum; and Kintarō – a boy famous for his strength – fighting ogres. Simple tops may only spin for 10-20 seconds at a turn, but these handmade toys provide a lifetime of pleasure.

What would any holiday be without special food and drink? Many people like to eat buckwheat noodles for longevity. Rice cakes, or mochi, are also a holiday favorite, and some families still gather to make it by hand. You can wash it all down with a special blend of sake and herbs called otoso, typically served in ceremonial vessels.

Haura depicting mochi pounding

Taishō to Shōwa periods, ca. 1912-1970

Dyes on silk

11”h x 22”w

Museum Purchase through the Barbara Harrison bequest


Rice cakes are a multi-faceted element of Oshōgatsu because they are a delicious food, a family activity, and an altar decoration. It takes many hours of pounding the glutinous rice to form the sticky cakes. As you can see in the lining, it takes great exertion to make them. The kine (mallet) and usu (mortar) are necessary tools. Various ingredients can be added, such as herbs or whole strawberries, to create different flavors and colors.


Shōwa period (1926-1989)


36”h x 2.5”w

Museum Purchase

Kine is a wooden mallet used with a wooden (or stone) mortar to pound steamed rice into rice cakes. This is labor-intensive work and is best achieved with two people to alternate swing mallets and another to flip the mochi in between strikes. This takes communication and coordination, in order to avoid hitting anyone with the kine.

Toy kagami mochi

Manufactured by Sato Shokuchin Co.

Heisei period, 2004

Plastic, wire, paper, and cardboard

8.25”h x 5.25”w

Gift of Larry Rosensweig


Kagami mochi, means ‘mirror-rice cake.’ Heian period (794-1185) court nobles would eat kagami mochi because the firm texture requires strong teeth indicating good health. The white color signifies purity. Later, samurai households took up the tradition and today it is wide spread. The special rice cakes are never cut but rather smashed open, to suggest ‘breaking a mirror,’ this imagery is linked to new beginnings and fresh starts in life and especially at the New Year.

Sake bottle in the shape of kagami mochi

Manufactured by Ozeki Shuzo Co.

Heisei period, ca. 1990

Ceramic, wood, plastic, and paper

5.25”h x 8.5”w

Gift of the Ozeki Shuzo Brewery, Ltd.


The ‘breaking mirror’ symbolism carries over to ceremonial sake barrels. This smaller serving vessel blends a favorite New Year decoration and food, kagami mochi, with the most celebratory beverage, sake. Sake is a rice beverage that is both brewed and fermented. The effect is something akin to pouring mulled wine out of Christmas tree-shaped container.

New Year Sake Set

Lacquer on wood and cast tin

Shōwa period, 1911

11.5”h x 8.5”w

Gift in memory of Sadako Sakata Hirano


Sake is an important component of celebrating Oshōgatsu. One cherished tradition is the drinking of otoso, a special sake steeped in herbs. Beginning with the youngest, family member, each takes three sips of otoso from three special cups of increasing size. This tradition wards off illness, brings new energy, and hope in the coming year.

Currently on view in the galleries as part of the Collecting Stories exhibition.

Learn more

Soup bowls

Possibly Edo period (1603-1868)

Lacquer and gold on wood

Each bowl 2”h x 5.25”di.

Museum Purchase


Lidded bowls made of lacquer like this would be used to drink ozoni – vegetable broth with at least one mochi – for New Year’s breakfast. The bowls have red lacquer, an auspicious color, on the base with pine tree design. Pine is used in many New Year decorations like the kadomatsu or the rope-cord shimenawa. Each lid has its own auspicious symbols including the battle fan and bow.


Heisei period, ca. 1980s

Papier-mâché and color

8”h x 12”l

This small figure of an ox has a bobbing head. Let us all toast to a healthy and happy 2021 – Year of the Ox! We request your continued support from all our donors, members, and visitors throughout the year ahead. 今年もよろしくお願いしま!

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