New Year’s Terms and Greetings in Japanese

Although it’s still a couple weeks away, New Year’s is just around the corner, and it is a big occasion in Japanese culture.  You see, Japan, like many other east Asian countries, relied on the Chinese lunar calendar for centuries, but then moved to the Western solar calendar during the 19th century Meiji Period.  New Year’s retained its cultural value, but moved to a fixed date of January 1st as a result.

When people ask me what Japanese New Year, or oshōgatsu (お正月), is like, I tell them it’s  Thankgiving and Christmas rolled into a single 3-4 day holiday.  While Christmas (and Halloween) might be trendy in Japan, they don’t have nearly the same deep cultural roots.

For example: New Year’s Greetings.

An example of a Japanese greeting card of nengajō (年賀状), courtesy of Wikipedia.

When you first encounter someone (or send a card) after the New Year, there’s certain customary greetings used.  Some are more formal and used only for one’s elders, while others are more friendly.

The default greeting used is akemashite omedetō (明けましておめでとう), which basically means “Congrats on the beginning of a new year”.  The verb akeru (明ける) refers endings and beginnings.  For example, sunrises (end of night, beginning of day) and years.

However, when speaking to one’s elders it’s more appropriate to akemashite omedetō gozaimasu (明けましておめでとうございます).  The extra gozaimasu is a honorific frequently used in Japanese, though much too formal for use with friends, colleagues, etc.

If you want to go the extra mile, an even more honorific term might be:

(tsutsushinde shinnen no oyorokobi wo mōshiagemasu)

While it’s kind of hard to translate into English, it basically means “we wish to humbly express our pleasure at the coming of a new year”.¹  This is a great example of Japanese keigo speech, which is not easy to learn but can really spice up your communications if used correctly.

But New Year’s greetings are not limited to these.

For example, you might see the term geishun (迎春) posted on advertisements, greeting cards, etc.  This literally means “welcoming spring”, however this is a relic of the old lunar calendar, since Spring often marked the new year.  Now it just means “[Happy] New Year”.  The term above isn’t appropriate more respectful or polite correspondences though, so there are other, similar terms you can use:

  • kinga-shinnen (謹賀新年) – this means something like “Humbly wishing you a happy new year”.
  • kyōga-shinnen (恭賀新年) – this means something like “Reverently/respectfully wishing you a happy new year”.

There’s a much nicer explanation on this website (Japanese language only).

In any case, Japanese New Year is full of traditions and this includes special phrases and terms of address.  If you can remember akemashite omedetō [gozaimasu] as a way to greet people after the New Year, you’re on very solid footing.  If you learn some of the additional phrases though, you not only impress others, but you also get a window into Japanese New Year culturally.  😀

¹ Based on personal experience, one of the biggest differences between Japanese and English is levels of politeness.  Japanese can have many levels of respect (or disrespect), while English sounds relatively “flat”.  That’s not to say English doesn’t have levels respect or disrespect, but it’s interesting that even when addressing royalty (or  head of state), English sounds relatively unchanged when compared to talking with a sibling or friend.  Japanese on the other hand has more dramatic differences in terms of pronouns, verbs, stock-phrases, etc.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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