Why Japanese greet the pillar of pine and usher in the “Year God”, the Toshigami

Kadomatsu in the style of the Edo period

Kadomatsu in the style of the Edo period

According to the traditional Japanese New Year rules, preparations for the oshogatsu New Year begins on Dec. 13, which is called shougatsu-kotohajime. Dec. 13, also known as matsumukae which means “greeting the pine”. On Dec. 13th, or after the 13th, the matsu pine bough for  Kado-Matsu (門松) (literally Gate Pine” is picked from the mountain or woods. It means that you can decorate the Kadomatsu after Dec. 13, but no Kadomatsu are supposed to be in stores before Dec. 13th (although this rule is increasingly forgotten and flouted by stores) because selling the Kadomatsu before the 13th disrespects Toshigami-sama whom does not like impurities. Bringers of good luck must come from good places and good people, and shimekazari (sacred Shinto rope with festoons) are hung to help show the Toshigami that the area has been cleansed.

However, it is considered as taboo to decorate on December 29th and on the 31st. December 29th is considered a bad luck day in the Japanese culture because of the number 9. According to the Japanese numerology belief system, 9 means suffering, so 29 means double suffering. If you decorate on Dec. 31, it shows a lack of respect to the god since you decorate for only one day.

The Kadomatsu pine decorations are regarded as a temporary repository (yorishiro) for the New Year deity (as are the Kagami-mochi mirror-cakes) but others explain that when New Year’s gods are said to descend from the heavens and visit the earthly realm, the Kadomatsu act as signposts to guide the gods toward us, as a result many households, businesses and sacred sites put up the pines on either side of entrance ways. The decorations, with multi-tiered bamboo shoots representing heaven, earth and humanity, are believed to attract the gods, keep them from getting lost and draw the lucky spirits toward them. The Toshigami gods dwell in the pine until the decorations are taken to a shrine to be burnt, releasing the spirits back to their realm.

The more compact and popular form of kadomatsu that is ubiquitous in front of stores Japan today

The more compact and popular form of kadomatsu that is ubiquitous in front of stores Japan today

The oshogatsu ceremonies are predominantly ancestral and agricultural rites,  their fundamental function being to honor and receive the toshigami(deity), who will then bring a bountiful harvest for farmers and bestow the ancestors’ blessing on everyone.

Among the interesting traditions, is the one that the toshi otoko, the male head of the household must participate in the harai housecleaning and purification activities, and/ the offering of the Kagami-mochi must be done by the male head of the household, for these to be acceptable or unoffensive to the female Toshigami or Kagami-mochi deity, as the case may be. in fact, the traditional rules dictate that the toshi-otoko presides the event by directing all particulars such as the year-end cleaning, the New Year decorations, water drawing on the New Year’s day, offerings for “toshigami” (the god of the incoming year), and “osechi” food (special food for the New Year).

After January 15 (or in many instances the 19th) the kadomatsu is burned to appease the kami or toshigami and release them. In some regions, the kadomatsu may be kept only until Jan. 7. The practices vary according to region.

The pine decorations to be found throughout Japan also vary according to the region, in some instances, some straight branches of pine are simply hung on or tied to the gates of residences. The different names given the deities and their differing gender, suggest that the custom of pine veneration likely assimilated several ancient deities of different clan lineages. Kunio YANAGITA considered the Yashiki-gami three gods, god protecting the year, deity of rice fields and harvests protecting agriculture, and sorei protecting the household, to be collectively worshipped as one simple folk god now known as Toshigami. Also, it was only around the middle ages that ‘Toshigami(年神 or 歳神)’ began being referred to as ‘Toshitoku-jin (年徳神 or 歳徳神). According to some quarters, the toshigami is thought to have been a real “visiting deity” who went visiting home to home like Santa.

Further descriptions on the mode of decorations and rites performed, the deities being welcomed, and the yin-yang background of the Toshigami rites, are found in an entry in the Encyclopedia of Shinto entitled “Toshigami, Toshitokujin”:

“Derived from the cult of Onmyōdō, the names toshitokudana and ehōdana indicate that each year’s auspicious direction (ehō) is under the influence of the Toshitokujin. In some areas, a pillar called ogamimatsu (“supplication pine”), or pine branches may be erected beside the hearth as a vehicle or medium (yorishiro) for the kami‘s presence. Both the conventional toshigami and the toshitokujin of Onmyōdō are alike in appearing during the New Year’s season, but based on correspondences with the “spirit altar” (shōryōdana) of the summer Obon rites, and other similarities between ceremonies of New Year’s and Obon, it is believed that the the toshigami represents a relatively earlier form of cult than that of the toshitokujin. See also ehō.

kami that visits during the New Year’s season, heralding the advent of the New Year, also called Shōgatsu-sama (lit., “Honorable New Year”). The name Toshitokujin has origins in Chinese Yin-Yang divination (Jp. Onmyōdō), and refers to a goddess with dominion over auspicious directions (ehō) for the current year. The Toshitokujin cult thus involves a core of ancient beliefs in the appearance of a kami at the first of the year and who assures an abundant harvest, to which has been added additional elements of Chinese divination cults.

Observances to the kami of the new year are ordinarily held by individual families, who prepare a special altar apart from their ordinary kamidana, called variously toshigamidanatoshitokudana, or ehōdana; such altars may be decorated with shimenawa and mirror-shaped rice cakes (kagami mochi), rice, dedicatory sake (mike) and salt.”

The New Year decorations collectively called O-Shogatsu Kazari (お正月飾り)  traditionally include the following:

Kado-Matsu (門松)

  • Shimenawa (注連縄) which are sacred ropes for the Shinto altar
  • Shimekazari (注連飾り), which are decorations for the front door
  • Toko no ma kazari (床の間飾り) for the alcove
  • Kagami mochi (鏡餅), specially decorated rice cakes used as offerings to the Toshigami-Sama.

The Kadomatsu decoration is prepared to welcome the agriculture-related gods, however the custom derives from the Shinto belief that the god spirits reside in trees. Furthermore, the display of pine, which stays green even in winter, and bamboo, which grows quickly and is ramrod-straight, expresses the desire to obtain virtue and strength to overcome adversity.

One may also observe that all the New Year decorations are “made almost exclusively of plants or plant matter, such as rice plants or rice cakes, bamboo, pine, plum, etc. Since the New Year begins after the winter solstice, a time of rebirth before spring (especially according to the old calendar), plants were used as symbols of life and rebirth. The Japanese expression for congratulations, omedeto, originally comes from the expression ome (お芽) de (出) to (度う), which means sprouts appear, or to sprout or to sprout forth. These decorations are a celebration of LIFE, RENEWAL and the BOUNTY of NATURE. Traditionally, they should be put up by December 28th, as the 29th (niju ku nichi) has the sound KU in it which is a homophone for the word suffering, and decorating on the 31st is considered to be too hasty and very unlucky. The 30th is thus the last day on which the Shogatsu Kazari should be set.

The Kado Matsu, which usually consists of 3 bamboo stems (representing heaven, earth, and man), pine branches, and plum bound together are placed at each side of the main gate to a house, shop, or building and are believed to act as YORISHIRO, poles or antennae on which the GODS can descend. Pines, which are evergreen, represent long life, and plum is the earliest blooming flowering tree of the year, resistant to cold. Bamboo grows vigorously, straight and tall, making these plants highly auspicious. Placing Kado Matsu at the doorway ensures that the Toshigami can find your house without confusion. This custom as it exists today seems to have originated in the Edo Period (1600-1868), though the aristocrats of the Heian court would go to gather pine branches on New Year’s Day”. –s Getting deeper into the o-shogatsu (Japanese New Year) preparations (TsukuBlog).

Japan used to celebrate its New Years according to the lunar calendar the way the Chinese, Vietnamese and Koreans still do, but switched to the Gregorian calendar since 1873. However, the original celebration of the Japanese New Year is still marked, in Okinawa for instance, on the same day as the contemporary ChineseKorean, and Vietnamese New Years. The close associations of the lunar calendar ceremonies and rituals with agriculture are still evident — for the main O-shogatsu festival is followed by the associated festival of Little New Year (小正月 koshōgatsu), that traditionally celebrated the first full moon of the new year, on the 15th day of the first lunar month (approximately mid-February) — is is now sometimes still celebrated on January 15th, in various agricultural aspects. The main events of Koshōgatsu are rites and practices praying for a bountiful harvest, and rice gruel with azuki beans (小豆粥 azukigayu) is traditionally eaten in the morning.

Sources and readings:

The Encyclopedia of Shinto

All about Kadomatsu by Aiko Takayama (Hawaii Herald, Dec 11, 20)

Getting deeper into the o-shogatsu (Japanese New Year) preparations (TsukuBlog)

The meaning of the Japanese New Year (Japan Today, Jan 2, 2014)

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