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symbol of the old ways; in fact, the modern Japanese word for Lunar or Chinese New Year is kyushogatsu, meaning “old or outdated new year.”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.
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.