[Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu]

The Sun, the Moon, and Happy New Year in Japan

Steve Renshaw and Saori Ihara

Revised January, 2015

[Based on an article which appeared in Appulse; Bulletin for the Philippine Astronomical Society, Vol. 9, #12, December, 1996.]

2015 is the year of the Sheep.

Chiba Shrine Sheep
Image of Sheep from Chiba Shrine

Visually understanding the 12 year cycle of the Chinese lunar calendar may be aided by the following diagram:

[Cardinal Directions and Signs]

This system was used not only for naming months but also the hours of the day and other aspects of "time". Note that "everything" is mirrored relative to the manner in which directions are viewed in the "West". Starting at the bottom of the diagram, 2008 was the year of the "mouse" or "rat" and began a new cycle. 1996 was also the year of the rat. Proceeding in a "clockwise" fashion, 2009 was the year of the cow, 2010 the year of the tiger, etc. You may also note that the 24 hours of the day also correspond to these "animals".
The New Year is always an important holiday in Japan and other East Asian nations. Christmas is celebrated in Japan in much the same way it is in the West, but "New Years" is by far the more significant holiday. Before the Meiji Restoration, the New Year was celebrated according to the Chinese lunar calendar (February 19 for the year 2015). These days, though the calendar still has great influence on festivals and celebrations, the Gregorian calendar change is celebrated by most people as the "official" New Year.

In Japan, people busily prepare for the New Year by cleaning house and buying/cooking food (osechi) to welcome the "god of new life". At this time, the Post Office is flooded by New Years' cards which each person sends to friends, relatives, and associates. Rail and air terminals are jammed with people trying to get back to their home towns to spend the New Year's "night" and "daybreak" with their relatives.

Japanese express wishes for the New Year by saying "Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu!" (pronounced ah-keh-mah-shteh oh-meh-deh-toe go-zah-ee-mahss). Only one Kanji (Chinese character) is found in this phrase (within the first word). This Kanji is a combination of the characters for sun and moon, and among other ancient meanings, it has to do with the sun and the moon getting together and becoming "bright". It entails "changing" and "opening"... "dawning"...

[Ake Kanji] "sun" + "moon" = "bright"... "change"... "dawn"

Interestingly, this Kanji is also sometimes used in a name for the planet Venus [usually called "Kinsei" (gold star), but in this case (similar to Western naming) "Myou Jyou" (bright dawning star)]. In ancient lore (under the lunar calendar), the New Year was seen in relation to change in both the sun and moon as well as the symbolism of their luminance. The meaning(s) of the phrase "Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu" may be somewhat complicated, but (roughly translated) may include the following: "The year is changing... darkness gives way to light... new life begins... Congratulations!" Following tradition, many Japanese on New Year's morning brave the cold to find places with unobstructed views of the Eastern Horizon and eagerly await the rising sun... the break of day... the symbol of new life... the first day of the New Year. The sun is making its journey back to the North, and in these latitudes, the Vernal Equinox is eagerly awaited.

The New Year of 2008 was special in that it began another 12 year cycle of the Chinese calendar [based on positions of Jupiter with its 12 year orbit (and consequent position about the ecliptic); also associated with 12 clockwise geocentric directions (beginning with North) and named after animals as seen above]. While the lunar calendar is no longer "officially" used in Japan, the tradition of using animal names for the 12 directions and associated years is popularly maintained in the "New Style". In 2008, things turned around once more to the direction of "ne" (mouse), the North... to the direction of the star sometimes called "Ne no Boshi" (mouse star) but also called "Shin Boshi", the "Heart" star, the "soul of the Heavens" (Polaris) [See Cornering the Bear for more lore about the "North"]. 2008 began the clockwise cycle again [moving from N to NNE (2009, "ushi"=cow) to ENE (2010, "tora"=tiger) to E (2011, "usagi"=rabbit) etc.]. New Years Cards for 2015 have, of course, various renderings of sheep.

Like Christmas in the West, celebration of the New Year in China and Japan is somewhat complex, and this is seen in the mix of astronomical phenomena and the pragmatic need for an "efficient" calendar with tradition, religion, and lore. May darkness continue to give way to light for you in the New Year...


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Steven L. Renshaw

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