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Japanese New Year's Cuisine Sold Briskly for Y2K

January 14, 2000

This 300,000-yen set in lacquered containers includes an assortment of New Year's treats and spiced sake, as well as three sake cups. (Takashimaya Co., Ltd.)

As the end of the year draws closer, Japanese department stores and other retailers begin taking customer orders for traditional New Year's food. In 1999 orders for the variety of special dishes, collectively known as osechi ryori, reached an all-time high: Many stores received between 50% and 80% more orders than in the previous year. Why? Because of Y2K. Hoping to avoid millennial chaos, many people opted to hole up at home with their families instead of traveling during this period. And they wanted to have plenty of osechi ryori, consisting mostly of highly preservable fare, on hand for the occasion.

Home for the Holidays
Japanese people consider New Year's one of the most enjoyable times of the year. During this holiday season, particularly during the first three days of January, most families try to gather all their members under one roof. And no New Year's celebration would be complete without osechi ryori on the table. In today's hectic world, more and more people buy commercially prepared osechi ryori rather than making them at home from scratch. For most people, it just isn't New Year's without the good old taste of home--even if that taste comes ready-made from a store.

At the end of 1999, out of caution over potential Y2K-induced confusion, even relatively affluent people who would usually travel abroad for New Year's mostly decided to stay home, fueling increased demand for osechi ryori. Some companies even ordered New Year's assortments for the employees that they kept overnight on standby for Y2K emergencies. No doubt this reflects parental thought on the part of the companies, who wish to give these employees a taste of New Year's even though they cannot actually spend the holiday at home with their families.

Ancient Origins
Originally, the term osechi ryori referred to the meal served at sechie, banquets held by the imperial court during the Heian period (794-1185) to celebrate the transition from one season to the next. As one theory has it, the custom of preparing osechi ryori for New Year's began when these foods were offered to the toshigami (literally "year god"), the deity believed to pay an annual visit to people's homes on New Year's Day and bring blessings to each family, such as a good harvest. The dishes were to be prepared before the New Year, when the toshigami descended to the mortal world. Since then, the custom of making osechi ryori in advance evolved as a way to give women a break from cooking during the holidays. Though its interpretation has thus changed over the ages, osechi ryori is a longstanding tradition of some 1,000 years.

Typically, the food is presented in a three-tiered set of lacquered boxes containing 20 to 30 items. The menu varies from region to region, but common traditional favorites include boiled black soybeans, pickled herring roe, dried sardines roasted in soy sauce, boiled kelp, and mashed sweet potatoes with chestnuts. Dishes like namasu--julienne carrot and white radish marinated in sweetened vinegar--lend vivid color to the assortment. According to a tradition handed down from the Edo period (1600-1868), the soybeans embody a prayer for the ability to work hard, while the herring roe represents a wish for many progeny.

The most popular commercially prepared osechi ryori assortments retail for 30,000 to 40,000 yen (290 to 380 U.S. dollars at 105 yen to the dollar) and are designed for three people. But some New Year's revelers go whole hog and buy deluxe assortments that come in specially hand-painted lacquered boxes and cost up to 1 million yen (9,520 dollars).

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.