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Making a fresh start for the new year, Japanese-style

Posted on Jan 30, 2012

By Peter Passi
Duluth News Tribune

Nearly a month after the fact, the University of Wisconsin-Superior rang in the new year Japanese style on Sunday afternoon at the Yellowjacket Student Union.

Miaki Habuka, an instructor of Japanese language and culture at UWS, said the annual campus event is an opportunity for students and community members to learn about her native country and what most residents there consider to be the biggest cultural holiday of the year.

Many Japanese people make extensive preparations for the new year, called oshogatsu.

"To have a great new year, you have to start fresh," Habuka said. "You need to finish things you meant to accomplish before the year ends, so you can get the new year off to a better start."

As the new year approaches, many Japanese families swing into high gear, cleaning their homes from top to bottom and working to polish off any unfinished chores. Hopes are running especially high this year, Habuka said, noting that 2012 has the auspicious distinction of having been designated a "Year of the Dragon" in the Japanese Zodiac.

"A lot of people are hoping this year will be a better one, especially with the Japanese economy suffering in the wake of the earthquakes and tsunami," she said.

Kaoru "Coco" Midorikawa, a UWS senior majoring in art therapy, said it is customary to send cards - called nengajo - to friends, relatives, co-workers and business associates.

Many people send well over 100 cards, and it's considered poor form if nengajo don't arrive by New Year's Day. "It's kind of like sending Christmas cards," she said.

But Habuka said the Japanese tradition generally is considered more obligatory.

"If you don't receive a card from an acquaintance, it's rude," she explained.

Midorikawa said grown-ups traditionally give children in their family pouch-like envelopes containing cash gifts, a Japanese New Year's custom known as otoshidama.

 Younger children often receive the equivalent of about $30 and teenagers $100 or more for otoshidama, Habuka said. The gifts spur a lot of spending, Midorikawa said, adding that shopping has become an important part of the post-holiday tradition for many Japanese people.

Habuka compared Jan. 2 in Japan to Black Friday here in the United States.

Guests at UWS on Sunday learned how to fold the origami cranes many Japanese people use to decorate their homes for the new year. The paper birds are supposed to bring peace and happiness.

Visitors also were invited to partake in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony and play games associated with the Japanese new year.

A video was shown of the Peace Bell at Enger Park being tolled repeatedly, as is the Japanese custom at midnight on New Year's Eve. Each ring is meant to dismiss one the 108 worldly sins identified in the Buddhist faith, so that people can begin the new year with a clean slate.

Participants at Sunday's event also had an opportunity to learn how to make sushi rolls.

 "It was more difficult than I thought it would be," said Elizabeth Nordell of Duluth. But she was inspired, nevertheless. Nordell said her daughter had even just suggested they pick up supplies to try it at home.

News Contact: Al Miller | 715-394-8260 | amiller{atuws}
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