New Year’s is celebrated pretty much everywhere —at different times, some might say— and Japan is no exception.
In our first issue of the Working in Japan series, we would like to introduce you not to how the Japanese celebrate New Year’s but to what happens in the office around this time of the year.
Kadomatsu welcomes the spirits of good fortune and are usually put out around the 28th of December. The bamboo represents prosperity and the pine wood, longevity.
Certain traditions are deeply engraved in the Japanese business world and are followed with an amazing level of formality. Although we don’t consider ourselves to be a typical Japanese company, we do enjoy following some traditions. We’ve gathered the ones that are the most surprising to foreigners.
Some countries in Asia celebrate New Year’s in February, according to the Lunar calendar; Japan used to do the same until the Meiji era, in 1873, when it adopted the Gregorian calendar.
The official corporate holidays may vary from company to company, but most companies are closed from the 29th of December to the 3rd of January. Festivities such as Christmas do not affect the office calendar and working on the 25th of December is more than normal!
Bounenkai (忘年会) literally means “forget the year gathering” and are what in the West would be a Christmas party or End of the Year party.
- Kamakura era (1185-1333): solemn event where samurais and aristocrats gathered to celebrate their achievements during the year
- Edo era (1603-1868): widespread festive custom to celebrate the end of the year
- Meiji era (1868-1912): companies started giving year-end bonuses, allowing bureaucrats to celebrate with drinks and food
- Showa era (1926-1989): corporate bonenkai as we know them today
Bonenkai are the biggest social event at Japanese companies. At the beginning of December, managers become busy looking for and booking a place to celebrate the office bounenkai.
At izakayas (Japanese style bars/restaurants), employees gather around food and (a heavy amount of) alcohol to forget the struggles of the year together. Train stations at night become even busier than usual with happily loud businessmen and women heading home or falling asleep on the train. December is the peak month for drunken accidents, prevention campaigns on posters and loudspeakers start to show up in December.
As opposed to the West, bounenkai are somewhat of a social obligation, a burden even to some, and romantic partners are usually not invited, only colleagues!
Nengajou (年賀状) are New Year’s postcards sent to all business partners.
- Heian era (794-1185): oldest nengajou found, from Fujiwara, a scholar
- Meiji era (1868-1912): increase in popularity of nengajou thanks to the instauration of the postal service. At first only meant for relatives, nengajou were later sent out to all business partners.
Generally, companies create their own postcard on which employees include a handwritten message and send them out starting in November. It’s common practice for post offices to only deliver them on the first day of the year.
Negative words such as “leave”, “separate” or “lose” shouldn’t be used and, because originally Japanese writing didn’t have punctuation marks, it’s considered good manners to avoid using them.
Another precaution to keep in mind is that households who have lost a relative during the year usually do not send nor receive nengajou. Instead, they send a mochu hagaki (喪中ハガキ) between mid-November and beginning December to let their contacts know they are mourning. These postcards do not include personal messages.
To express gratitude for the past year and as a promise to keep working together the following year, Japanese people give their business partners an oseibo (お歳暮), a gift, around mid-December.
- Chinese San Yuan festival: origin, where gifts were made to divinities at the beginning of each season
- Edo era (1603-1868): custom of offering gifts to the head of the samurai clan
- Meiji era (1868-1912): common practice to offer oseibo to relatives and business partners
It was considered good manners to deliver gifts wrapped in a cloth in person, like in the picture above, but nowadays sending them by post is more common. If you do visit your business partner, make sure to make an appointment first, to not interfere with their work and try not to discuss business.
Thorough Cleaning and New Year’s Decorations
Once a year, Japanese households, offices and schools go through a more thorough cleaning before setting up the New Year’s decorations.
- Edo era (1603-1868): soot cleanings (煤払い) were done on the 13th of December, at shrines and temples to welcome the Toshigami, the god for harvest and happiness.
Before leaving for the New Year holidays, all the members of the office would put their computers aside for a couple of hours, clean the office and take out the kodamatsu.
It’s not as simple as it sounds, there are some formalities here as well. Cleaning and decorations must be done on the 28th or 30th. “29” in Japanese is pronounced nijuku which also means double suffering (二重苦) and the 31st of December is considered too late and would bring bad luck. The decorations have to be taken down on the 7th (some regions the 15th).
It’s also considered a great moment to apologize to the ones who were hurt and pay back debts to start the year clean.
Is there anything special you do before leaving for the New Year’s holidays? Are there other Japanese traditions that have surprised you?
This is the final article for this year. The WOVN.io team wishes you a happy and fulfilling 2018!
Working in Japan is a monthly series delivered by WOVN.io where we discuss surprising workplace customs. For comments or questions, please contact us here.