Japan’s Unique New Year

At JANM's 2015 Oshogatsu Family Festival, Kodama Taiko perform a mochitsuki (rice cake pounding) ceremony to ring in the new year. Photo: Russell Kitagawa.
At JANM’s 2015 Oshogatsu Family Festival, Kodama Taiko perform a mochitsuki
(rice cake pounding) ceremony to ring in the new year. Photo: Russell Kitagawa.

 

February 19 marks the official beginning of the Year of the Sheep, according to the most common interpretation of the ancient lunar calendar that has been used throughout Asia for centuries. On that day, many Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese communities will hold their traditional New Year celebrations. For the Japanese, however, it will more or less be a day like any other.

Japan is unique among Asian countries in that it is the only one that celebrates New Year on January 1, like the Western world. This custom can be traced back to 1872, when the Meiji government decided to abolish the lunar calendar and adopt the Gregorian calendar, believing the latter to be scientifically superior.

The Meiji Era, which lasted from 1868 through 1912, was a period of rapid progress and sweeping Western influence in Japan, as the country began its transition from an isolated feudal society to a modern one of “enlightened rule.” For the Japanese citizens of the time, the lunar calendar was a symbol of the old ways; in fact, the modern Japanese word for Lunar or Chinese New Year is kyushogatsu, meaning “old or outdated new year.” Adopting the Gregorian calendar, which was in use throughout the trading nations of Europe and America, meant keeping in step with the times.

JANM visitors join in on the fun at Oshogatsu 2015. Photo: Richard Watanabe.
JANM visitors join in on the fun at Oshogatsu 2015. Photo: Richard Watanabe.

 

In spite of this outlook however, the Japanese have retained many of their cherished New Year traditions; they simply practice them during the days immediately before and after January 1. JANM’s Oshogatsu Festival, for example, takes place on the first Sunday after January 1. The festival adapts several popular New Year traditions for a large and diverse crowd, including pounding mochi, eating buckwheat noodles, and sampling special New Year dishes like kamaboko (fish cakes) and kuri kinton (puréed sweet potatoes).

JANM wishes everyone a Happy Lunar New Year. We look forward to welcoming you to our museum many times during the Year of the Sheep.

Lucky Foods for Japanese New Year Celebrations

Kids enjoy traditional new year foods at JANM's 2013 Oshogatsu Family Festival. Photo: Caroline Jung.
Kids enjoy traditional new year foods at JANM’s
2013 Oshogatsu Family Festival. Photo: Caroline Jung.


One of the most important holidays celebrated in Japan is Oshogatsu, meaning “new year” in Japanese. A number of festive customs characterize Oshogatsu celebrations, including the preparation and eating of traditional new year foods called osechi-ryori.

Osechi-ryori are typically presented in ornate boxes called jubako. Each osechi dish has a special celebratory meaning. For example, kamaboko, or fish cakes, are placed in alternating rows of white and red, resembling the rising sun. Ebi are prawns cooked in sake and soy sauce; with their long beards and bent waists, prawns symbolize a wish for a long life. Kuri kinton, or puréed sweet potatoes kneaded with sugar, is an auspicious dish believed to bring wealth because the sweet potatoes look gold in color.

JANM volunteers work hard to prepare the osechi-ryori tasting every year.
JANM volunteers work hard to prepare the osechi-ryori tasting every year.

Another food-oriented new year custom is the making of rice cakes, or mochi. Although mochi is now commonly sold and eaten year-round, it is traditionally a Japanese new year food, made in a ceremony called mochitsuki. Boiled sticky rice is put into a wooden, bucket-like container and patted with water by one person while another person hits it with a large wooden mallet. Pounding the rice eventually forms it into a rice cake.

The mochi is then made into a decorative item called kagami mochi (sometimes called okasane), formed from two round mochi cakes with a Japanese orange (daidai) placed on top. The name daidai is auspicious because it also sounds like the Japanese phrase meaning “generation to generation,” evoking long life and the continuity of the generations. The mochi itself symbolizes the past year and the year to come; thus, kagami mochi signifies the continuity of the family over the years.

Lucky new year foods await JANM members at Oshogatsu!
Lucky new year foods await JANM
members at Oshogatsu!

Similarly, soba (buckwheat) noodles, with their strands that seem to go on forever, are also eaten for good luck and longevity. One must finish one’s bowl before midnight however, or face a year of bad luck!

JANM’s Oshogatsu Family Festival, happening on Sunday, January 4, 2015, adapts many of the customs associated with Japanese new year festivals. Featured activities include a special osechi-ryori tasting for members only, a soba noodle sampling, and a mochitsuki ceremony by Kodama Taiko that’s open to all. Bring the whole family and ring in the Year of the Sheep, JANM style!

This little girl is going to have good luck in the coming year.
This little girl is going to have good luck in the coming year.

Set Your New Year’s Resolutions with the Help of Daruma Dolls

Want a Daruma doll to help you set some 2015 goals? Join us for Oshogatsu on January 4th, where you can make one!
Want a Daruma doll to help you set some 2015 goals? Join us for Oshogatsu on January 4th, where you can make one!

 

The new year is almost upon us! What better time to set some goals and start hoping for a 2015 that is filled with good fortune and wishes come true?

In Japan, the Daruma doll is a traditional figure that helps people with their new year hopes. When a Daruma doll is new, it just has two white circles for eyes. The doll’s owner must make a wish or set a goal while drawing in one of the pupils. When the wish comes true or the goal is accomplished, the owner can fill in the second pupil, giving the doll a complete set of eyes.

Plenty of Darumas to be had in the Museum Store.
There are plenty of Darumas to choose from at the JANM Store.

 

This Daruma, situated in the JANM lobby, helps attract money to support the museum's programs.
This Daruma, placed in the JANM lobby, helps attract money to support the museum’s programs.

The Daruma doll was inspired by the Indian priest Bodhidharma, who founded Zen Buddhism in the 6th century BC. According to one version of the story, Bodhidharma sat in silent meditation for nine years without moving or blinking his eyes. This lack of movement caused him to lose the use of his arms and legs, which is why Daruma dolls don’t have limbs. Despite this fact, the dedicated priest continued to travel through China to spread his teachings; thus, the Daruma is seen as a symbol of determination and perseverance. If you try to push a Daruma over, he will spring right back up!

Perhaps you’ve seen Daruma dolls before. If not, all you have to do is take a look around Little Tokyo and chances are good that you will spot a Daruma or two… or more! The JANM Store is stocked full of Darumas just waiting for their new owners’ wishes and goals. You can even make your own by joining us for the Oshogatsu Family Festival on January 4, where I will be leading a Daruma doll-making craft table.

As you look around the exhibition Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty, be sure to keep an eye out for this little Hello Kitty Daruma!
When you visit the exhibition Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty, be sure to keep an eye out for this little Hello Kitty Daruma!

 

Even socks can be found in the Museum store.
These clever Daruma socks put good luck on your feet.

 

Can you spot Hello Kitty bobblehead's little Daruma friend?
Our Hello Kitty x JANM bobblehead even has a little Daruma friend to keep her company.

 

The World of Shibori

Dyed silks from Shibori Girl Studios
Dyed silks from Shibori Girl Studios.

Among the more popular craft activities offered at JANM are the shibori (resist cloth dyeing) workshops led by Glennis Dolce, better known as Shibori Girl. In September, Dolce led a two-day mandala design class, and this weekend, she is leading a sold-out Hello Kitty–themed workshop that takes its inspiration from Sanrio’s origins as a silk manufacturer.

The art of manipulating, binding, shaping, and dyeing cloth to create a raggedy, patterned look has a long history that goes back centuries. Evidence of its practice has been found in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. The Japanese are credited with perfecting the technique, hence the common use of the term shibori, which comes from the Japanese verb shiboru, meaning “to wring, squeeze, press.” A simplified Western variant of the practice has come to be known as “tie-dye.”

A classic indigo shibori pattern. Photo by naukhel via Flickr.
A classic indigo “spider web” shibori pattern. Photo by naukhel via Flickr.

Shibori most likely came to Japan from China at least 1,300 year ago. It began as a humble craft used by the poor to decorate and rehabilitate inexpensive fabrics. As various forms of shibori evolved, it became both a popular folk art and a means of producing elite silk kimonos for the aristocracy. In the 17th century, the village of Arimatsu emerged as a leading shibori specialist, and it continues to be a center for the art form today.

Over the centuries, industrialization and shifting global trends have threatened shibori with extinction. However, in the early 1980s, interest in the craft was revived by contemporary practitioners, who applied modern materials and techniques to expand and continue the art form. Today, shibori workshops are popular events, and a variety of creative shibori products can be seen in shops and boutiques everywhere. There is even a World Shibori Network.

Glennis Dolce leading a shibori class at JANM
Glennis Dolce leading a shibori class at JANM.

Upcoming Shibori Girl events at JANM include a two-day Shibori Fusion workshop in January and a reprise of the Hello Kitty workshop in March. Stay tuned to janm.org for more details, and be sure to get your tickets early, as these events tend to fill up quickly!

Help Paint JANM’s New Mural This Saturday

Katie Yamasaki's Moon Beholders
Katie Yamasaki’s Moon Beholders

 

JANM has commissioned a new mural to be painted on the north wall of the museum’s National Center for the Preservation of Democracy. Titled Moon Beholders, the mural is designed by artist, author, and illustrator Katie Yamasaki. Based in Brooklyn, Yamasaki has painted more than 60 murals around the world. JANM visitors may know her as the author and illustrator of Fish for Jimmy, a children’s book that she read from at a Target Free Family Saturday event this past June.

Moon Beholders is intended to evoke various contemporary and historic concepts within Japanese American culture while connecting with the community around the museum. Against a bright gold background, a smiling young girl lies clothed in a variety of furoshiki—traditional cloths long used to preserve, protect, and transport items. The pattern and color on each furoshiki represents a unique moment in Japanese American history, such as a pale blue sky covered in yellow barbed wire symbolizing the WWII incarceration camps.

Surrounding the girl are floating lanterns, signifying transcendence and the concept of akari—light as illumination. Near the top of the mural, a 17th-century haiku by the Japanese poet Basho reads, “From time to time / The clouds give rest / To the moon beholders.” With the spectrum of interpretations possible in this mural, Yamasaki’s hope is that “the viewer will have the space in this image to become their own moon beholder.”

As part of the next Target Free Family Saturday on November 8, the public is invited to help the artist complete the Moon Beholders mural. Between the hours of 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., adults and children alike can sign up to paint for 30-minute intervals; up to 12 individuals can paint per interval. Participants should wear closed-toe shoes and other attire appropriate for an exterior painting project. The artist will be on hand to provide guidance.

Come to JANM this Saturday and become your own moon beholder! In addition to mural painting, the museum will be offering a variety of fun, hands-on activities to engage the whole family. For a complete schedule, visit janm.org/target.

Summertime is Festival Time!

The unofficial Tanabata tree in the Japanese Village Plaza, Little Tokyo. Photo: Carol Cheh.
The unofficial Tanabata tree in the Japanese Village Plaza,
Little Tokyo. Photo: Carol Cheh.

The word matsuri means “festival” in Japanese, and during the summer (natsu), many different festivals are held all over Japan. Individual festivals are often tied to local prefectures, and can go on for days at a time. Family and friends convene to enjoy parades, games, music, food, and dancing.

Two of the biggest and most popular Japanese festivals are Obon, discussed here last week by Mitchell Lee, and Tanabata, a “star festival” that has its origins in an old folk tale about star-crossed lovers. As the legend goes, a prince and a princess once fell so deeply in love that they spent all their time together and neglected their duties. Their angry king separated them by putting them on opposite ends of the Milky Way. They were only allowed to meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month.

The word tanabata literally means “the evening of the seventh,” and Tanabata usually begins on July 7, although dates can vary from place to place. In many ways, it is similar to Obon, since the two have fallen so close together historically. One distinguishing feature of Tanabata is the writing of wishes on tanzaku (small pieces of paper) and hanging them on bamboo in hopes they will come true. In Little Tokyo, there is a tree in the Japanese Village Plaza that becomes covered around this time of year with colorful pieces of paper bearing people’s wishes, representing a local adaptation of a favorite custom.

A family poses in traditional garb at JANM's 2013 Natsumatsuri photo booth. Photo: Daryl Kobayashi.
A family poses in traditional garb at JANM’s 2013 Natsumatsuri photo booth. Photo: Daryl Kobayashi.

Every summer, JANM celebrates the season with its own Natsumatsuri Family Festival, which borrows well-known elements from Japan’s various summer festivals, including Obon and Tanabata. One of the museum’s biggest and most anticipated events all year, Natsumatsuri blends contemporary festivities with Japanese and Japanese American traditions.

This year’s edition, happening on Saturday, August 9, 2014 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., will include taiko performances and lessons, a lecture on obon, a participatory bon odori dance, omikuji fortune telling, a karaoke competition, Hello Kitty photo opportunities, live painting by Perseverance artists, a variety of craft activities for the kids, and much more. It’s free to all visitors, so be sure to bring your family and friends for a great day out!

Obon: Dances for the Dead

Obon Festival, Tokyo, 2011. Photo by bhollar via Flickr.
Obon Festival, Tokyo, 2011. Photo by bhollar via Flickr.

Obon is a Japanese holiday to honor deceased ancestors, much like the European Halloween or the Latin American Día de los Muertos. Rooted in Buddhist traditions, Obon ensures that we express gratitude for the hard work of the generations before us.

The Ullambana Sutra, a Buddhist text, tells the story of a monk named Mokuren who was initially unable to help his suffering mother’s spirit pass on. In response, the Buddha created a ritual and offering for the living to assist their ancestors’ souls and bless relatives who are still living. These practices became the basis for the modern-day Obon festival.

Obon festivals are held in July and August, in Japan and Japanese immigrant communities throughout the world. The original sutra appointed the fifteenth day of the seventh month as the holiday, but there are variations in date because of differences between the Gregorian and lunar calendars. The festivals feature food, music, and most importantly, dancing!

Bon Odori, San Jose Obon Festival, 2012. Photo by --Mark-- via Flickr Creative Commons.
Bon Odori, San Jose Obon Festival, 2012.
Photo by –Mark– via Flickr.

 

When Mokuren’s mother’s soul found peace, it is said that he reacted by dancing. Obon dancing, or bon odori, is an important part of Obon festivals throughout Japan, with certain regions even having their own unique dances. Dances have been also developed abroad by Japanese emigrants living in countries such as America or Brazil. Live music, including taiko drumming, typically accompanies the dancing.

In Japan, some families return to their parents’ homes to celebrate Obon. These celebrations often include cleaning up family gravesites and offering food to ancestors. Another custom involves floating lanterns down a river in hopes that the lights will help guide souls that remain on this earthly plane.

Even though Obon is based on Buddhist beliefs, no one is excluded from celebrating. Obon festivals are important community events, and celebrating the departed doesn’t require any special religious belief. The Obon dances and food here in America may be different from those in Japan, but all the festivals maintain the same reverence for family and community.

Visitors get in the Obon spirit with a communal bon odori dance at JANM's 2013 Natsumatsuri Family Festival. Photo by Russell Kitagawa.
Visitors get in the Obon spirit with a communal bon odori dance at JANM’s 2013 Natsumatsuri Family Festival. Photo by Russell Kitagawa.

 

JANM’s Natsumatsuri Family Festival on August 9, 2014 will feature a lecture on Obon traditions by Rimban Bill Briones of Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple and a participatory bon odori dance. Come learn more about Obon and celebrate your ancestors!

This post was written by Mitchell Lee, one of JANM’s 2014 summer program interns. Mitchell is a student at UCLA, where he is majoring in Japanese and Asian American Studies.

Omikuji: Telling Fortunes the Japanese Way

Flickr-Jesslee Cuizon-eelssej
Women tie their omikuji to the wire rack at a Japanese shrine.
Photo: Jesslee Cuizon (jessleecuizon.com) via Flickr.

Omikuji are Japanese paper fortunes found at shrines across Japan. Traditionally, you shake a cylinder until a numbered bamboo stick falls out. The number on the stick corresponds with a paper fortune, which is then given to you by the priest or shrine maiden. Today, many shrines have boxes that allow you to randomly select a fortune yourself.

The paper you receive will predict your upcoming luck with one of several ratings, ranging from dai-kichi (great blessing) to dai-kyou (great curse). Oftentimes your luck will be further broken down into forecasts for specific categories like “romance” or “travel.”

If your fortune is good, the custom is to keep the paper slip close to you, like in a purse or wallet. If it’s bad, many fold up the strip and tie it to a pine tree or rack of metal wires that is provided at shrines. Traditionally, a pine branch is used because the Japanese word for “pine” (matsu) is phonetically the same as the verb for “to wait,” although written in different characters (kanji). The hope is that the bad luck will wait by the tree instead of coming back home with you.

CR Omikuji 1 Shoji
JANM volunteers hand out omikuji at the 2013 Natsumatsuri Family Festival. Photo: Tokumasa Shoji.

 

You can get an omikuji any time, although many people specifically include it in Hatsumode (the first Shinto shrine visit of the Japanese new year) or seek it out before major life events like exams. Omikuji are not commonly found in the United States outside of Japanese enclaves. However, you’ve probably seen what some say is its modern-day incarnation—the fortune cookie!

Whether you have an important decision coming up, or are just looking for a little guidance, an omikuji opportunity is coming soon. Visit the omikuji table at JANM’s free Natsumatsuri Family Festival on Saturday, August 9, 2014 and see what’s in store for you!

The Thrill of Taiko

Los Angeles Matsuri Taiko perform at JANM's 2013 Natsumatsuri Family Festival. Photo: Russell Kitagawa.
Los Angeles Matsuri Taiko perform at JANM’s 2013 Natsumatsuri Family Festival. Photo: Russell Kitagawa.

Taiko drumming is energetic, rhythmic, and exciting—the thundering of a taiko drum will catch someone’s attention regardless of how near or far they are.

The word “taiko” literally means “fat drum” in Japanese. Historically, taiko drums have been used in Japan for religious ceremonies and local festivals. In feudal times, a one-drum act was typical, but in the 1950s, kumi-daiko—an ensemble made up of different types of taiko drums—was introduced. This is the style that remains popular today.

In a taiko ensemble, the biggest drum is called an o-daiko, the mid-sized drum is a chu-daiko, and the smallest is called a shime-daikoKumi-daiko can accommodate a variety of musical styles, including jazz and pop.

Los Angeles Matsuri Taiko perform at JANM's 2013 Natsumatsuri Family Festival. Photo: Tsuneo Takasugi.
Los Angeles Matsuri Taiko perform at JANM’s 2013 Natsumatsuri Family Festival. Photo: Tsuneo Takasugi.

 

When Japanese immigrants introduced taiko to the United States in the early 20th century, its practice was a way to secure their cultural identity and also to have a collective voice as an ethnic group. Today, taiko drumming can be seen in many different contexts, whether they are traditional Japanese festivals like obon (honoring the dead) or musical revues. Just this past weekend, JANM was proud to host and co-present the 2014 World Taiko Gathering, which united players from around the world for workshops, concerts, and jam sessions.

In just a few weeks, taiko will return to JANM when East LA Taiko presents a free performance during our all-day Natsumatsuri Festival on August 9, 2014. A Los Angeles–based group founded in 1991 by Maceo Hernandez, East LA Taiko is a great example of kumi-daiko’s adaptability. The group incorporates Latin and Afro-Cuban rhythms and ska-punk flavors alongside traditional Japanese beats, fusing them into a uniquely LA sound. Hernandez, who has trained in Japan, is a veteran taiko drummer who has performed worldwide. In recent years the group has partnered with singer-songwriter Lysa Flores, who brings her own Latin flare to their performances.

Taiko drums are versatile and thrilling instruments. To experience taiko is to experience more than just drumbeats—it’s to hear the hearts, minds and souls of the players.

This post was written by Dina Furumoto, one of JANM’s interns through the 2014 Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Internship program. Dina is a student at Cal Poly Pomona, where she is majoring in Sociology.

Celebrate Summer at JANM’s Natsumatsuri Family Festival

2014 Natsumatsuri Family Festival

Here at JANM, we are gearing up for one of our biggest events of the year—the Natsumatsuri Family Festival, on August 9, 2014.

Free to all visitors all day (11 a.m. to 5 p.m.), this exciting festival will include a taiko performance, beginners’ taiko lessons, a traditional bon odori dance, a karaoke competition, Japanese-style fortune telling, and so much more.

“Natsumatsuri” literally means “summer festival” in Japanese. It is a much loved annual tradition in Japan, where a variety of gatherings all over the country celebrate the season with games, ceremonies, displays, dancing, and food.

To help you get in the JANM Natsumatsuri spirit, First & Central will be spotlighting different aspects of the big day and its various activities. Follow our staff members and interns as they explore taiko, omikuji, the UGLARworks art collective, obon, and the meaning of the festival itself.

Check out the complete schedule of events: janm.org/natsumatsuri2014