Last month was the second time I have spent the end of the year in Japan (The other years I traveled overseas), and my conclusion is that nothing really “exciting” happens in Japan during the end or the beginning of the year. Celebrations are pretty calm and traditional. The common pattern I found with Europe is that Japanese also eat tons of food during the end of the year and the beginning of the year. I guess eating a lot is a common “tradition” all over the world.
During my first year I learned about the Hatsuyume, the 108 times bell hitting tradition and the beginning of the year traditional decorations..
This year I learned more about Otoshidama お年玉. It is basically money that is given by adults to kids, this is also common to many countries. But what I find interesting is the way the money is handed. It is given inside and envelope, and there are many different envelopes and designs made only to be used for Otoshidama. These are some designs I saw:
Giving money inside envelopes is not only an Otoshidama thing, it is a Japanese thing. When giving money in marriages, in special celebrations, when receiving money from various expenses in the company etc the money is always given inside a “noshi” (An special type of envelope designed specially for money, it has just the perfect size to fit 1,000, 5,000 and 10,000 yen bills). There are standard “noshi” envelopes, but there are also special “noshi” envelopes designed each one depending on what it is going to be used for. For example, one of the most common “noshi” envelopes are the ones used for marriages that can be found almost in any stationary shop.
In the old times when samurai received their stipend from their retainers they always received it inside and envelope. The money was considered as something “impure” and “dirty”, money was considered bad for society. And not only samurai, the society in general tried always to interchange money in the most subtle way the could. It seems that it was considered rude to talk about money, or to talk about having more money than others, or simply looking like you want to have more money (Even without reaching the level of greediness). When not having envelopes some people would also interchange money with chopsticks (I have seen this in some movies and Japanese novels).
It is interesting how the tradition of hiding “the dirty staff that corrupt our society” (the money) inside envelopes when giving money for presents or celebrations is still alive. But, on the other side Japan became one of the most savage-capitalist countries in the world, specially Tokyo, a city where one of the most common conversation subjects is money, money, money!