Sunday 29 January 2023

Pounding Mochi, Hitting Wives, and Tossing Husbands: Violent New Year Traditions in Japan

Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu (明けましておめでとうございます) - Happy New year - to my readers from a very chilly Japan! We're going through a once-in-a-decade cold spell  as I speak, so now may be a good time to take those New Year Decorations - which typically start coming down on January 7th - to the local shrine to be burned before a big bonfire. This is known as dondo-yaki (どんど焼き), a practice that supposedly "releases" the gods which the decorations have been housing over the new year period. Another common new year decoration, the ubiquitous kagami-mochi (two glutinous rice-cakes stacked on top of each other) are traditionally opened and eaten on January 11th in what is known as kagami-biraki (鏡開き). As you can see from the picture, these are typically topped with a tangerine, referred to as a daidai which is actually the colour orange in native Japanese (the repetition of the syllables supposedly points to the continuation of generations over the changing years).

As I explained in an earlier post, the name kagami-mochi comes from its shape: the copper mirrors or kagami used in the Muromachi period were round like a mochi. The kagami-mochi is thus two round lumps of rice cake (mochi) with the smaller one placed on top of the bigger one (representing the past year and the year to come). Kagami-biraki - literally "opening (breaking open) the mirror" - festivals are held all over Japan around January 11th, with the most famous being the annual New Year event held at the Nippon Budokan hall in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. Here kagami-biraki involves donning Samurai armour (yoroi), the ritualistic breaking of large mochi offering (as featured on the poster), and taking to the battlefield. It also includes a ceremonial sake toast (sankon no gi) which is no surprise since kagami-biraki also refers to the traditional breaking of a sake casket at weddings.

While most people buy their New Year mochi decorations ready-made from the supermarket (made of plastic with a small rice-cake inside), some people do still make mochi themselves in a process which requires the glutinous rice to be strenuously kneaded. Traditionally, this is done in a wooden or stone mortar (usu) with a heavy wooden mallet in a process known as mochitsuki which is often carried out as a community or neighbourhood event. Pounding the mochi two hundred or so times gives it a smooth, shiny and whiter appearance. More importantly, it is soft enough to eat, though being rather bland itself it is usually consumed with toppings like natto (fermented soy beans), walnut paste, roasted soy-bean flour (kinako), and/or soy sauce (pictured).  

Koshōgatsu (Little New Year) on January 15th - a nod to the old lunar calendar - bookends the New Year period, and usually marks the last day for disposing of decorations. Although many Japanese are unfamiliar with Koshōgatsu, some rural communities still pray for a good harvest and eat azuki-bean rice porridge (小豆粥) on this day. One of the most disturbing Koshōgatsu traditions was that of hitting newly-wed brides on the backside with a sacred wooden pole or broom to ensure their fertility, a practice known variously as yome(no shiri)tataki (嫁[の尻]たたき) or yome-iwai (嫁祝い), literally "hitting the daughter-in-law's bottom" or "celebrating the daughter-in-law." Thankfully, this pretty awful "tradition" was banned in the post-war period, though a modern, ostensibly pain-free, version involving children gently "stroking" the newly-wed's bottom with small brooms is still going (see here). In contrast, one tradition that remains largely unchanged, at least in Niigata, is muko-nage (婿投げ) or "son-in-law throwing" in which a newly-wed groom is thrown down a snowy slope in the general direction of his new wife (see here). Not sure if that does much for fertility but with the plummeting birthrate, I suppose anything is worth a try. And on that note, let me ask you what your favourite (unorthodox) Japanese traditions or festivals are - answers in the COMMENTS please!


Unknown said...

interesting! And did you know, In "Womansword: what japanese words say about women" by Kittredge Cherry January 15 was called "onna shogatsu" and "ko shogastu". On this day of the year, women were given a break from the cooking and cleaning, tasks that reached a crescendo during the big new year's festivities around 1 January. ... Not much seems to have happened on women's new year except for the eating of simple foods and the greeting of friends and the burning of the new year's decoration.

Coincidentally I just used her text about this topic (pp50-51) in a class last week.

Chris Burgess said...

Thanks for the comment! Since the burden of preparing for New Year typically falls on the wife, she definitely deserves a break, though one day in the year doesn't seem nearly enough. I do remember that book though - pubished back in 1987, with a new 30th aniversary edition out in 2016! Will put it up as this month's recommended read.