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Why do Japanese burn their New Year decorations?

“Where are you taking those?” I asked my neighbour, Mrs K, as I saw her loading New Year’s decorations into her car. 

We were good friends with the K family. We had adjoining apartments in our large block and could sometimes overhear each other’s conversations through the wall. Their children were also about the same age as ours and they often played together. 

Unlike some young Japanese families, the K family were very conscientious about following various traditions throughout the year. Towards the end of December they had carried out an ōsoji (literally “big clean”) in their house, before hanging up the New Year decorations.

They had put up decorations called shime kazari at the entrance to their apartment. New Year’s decorations are sometimes made from sacred ropes (shime nawa). You can see large ones at Shinto shrines. At New Year it is common to decorate a sacred rope with various lucky objects, making it a shime kazari (kazari is the Japanese word for decoration). It is thought that placing these decorations in the entrance to your house will ward off evil spirits.

It was already the end of the first week in January when I met Mrs K at her car and all the decorations were being taken down. “I’m taking them to the Shinto shrine to be burned,” she replied. We were still quite new to Japan so I asked her why she needed to take them to the shrine to dispose of them. She paused, looking uncertain for a moment, “I suppose because there is a god in them?” 

Later that day I drove past the large shrine on the main road of our town. Sure enough there was a queue of people going in to the shrine with their decorations and smoke from a large fire billowed into the sky.

For many Japanese people, religion plays a functional role in their lives. Religion is less about what you believe and more about what you do at various times in the year, or at important events in your life. This means it is possible to follow different religions at the same time. In Japan someone might attend a Christmas service at a church, then go to the Buddhist temple on the 31st of December, and a Shinto shrine on the 1st of January—three religions in one week.

Mrs K struggled to answer my question about why she was taking her decorations to the shrine to be burned. Perhaps she had never really thought about it before. 

In a society where religion is functional rather than a question of belief or truth, it is a huge challenge to proclaim Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. 

By Lorna, an OMF missionary

Will you pray for Japan?

  • Pray that Christians in Japan will be able to proclaim Jesus to their friends and family in ways that they can understand.
  • Pray for missionaries trying to understand Japanese culture and how to best proclaim Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
  • Pray that in His mercy and for His glory, God might save many Japanese from idols to worship the true and living God.

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