Culture Bite: Japanese New Year's Traditions

Culture Bite, a taste of culture! Today, we’re exploring Japanese New Year, the highlight of the year. Picture the enticing aroma of osechi-ryori, mochi making, and the promise of a fresh start in the new year.

My family celebrates this tradition here in America. It makes me ponder the pressures to conform and assimilate, often leaving one’s cultural roots behind. Why don’t I know more about my Japanese culture? Let’s reflect on history. During World War II, some White Americans held hunting licenses to “Kill Japs,” a grim reminder of a time when fear and prejudice unfairly targeted Americans of Asian descent.

Fast forward to today. We’re giving you a quick show and tell, shedding light on the surviving fragments of our traditional culture.

While it may not be riveting, I believe it’s through these small shared experiences that we truly learn about each other

SHOW NOTES

Culture Bite: Japanese New Year’s Traditions

Aren’t Asians All Alike? I hope you find the answer to be “No!” My name is Jolene Jang, Asian-American Ambassador. This episode is a window into remnants of traditional Japanese culture that have not yet been washed away and drowned out by white culture. It may not be riveting, but I think this is how we learn about each other. By sharing these small experiences, I’ve got a culture bite for you.

It is New Year’s Eve, and I’m wearing sequins from head to toe and magnetic eyelashes that are 2 feet long. What’s important is to share with you the culture bite about Japanese and Japanese Americans. They celebrate New Year’s Day, and tomorrow is when all the mochi making happens.

 

Mochi Making Tradition

Mochi is a rice dessert snack. I remember going to my aunt Patsy’s house, and she has, I think, nine siblings . It was tradition that we would go over there every year, maybe in the afternoon for four or five hours. I was able to dig up some footage from 2014 at a Mochi-making party with my aunt and her nieces and nephews. Basically, it’s rice that’s beaten up into a mushy, chewy Japanese dessert.

This device here was new to me; I guess we got it last year. It’s specifically just to churn and portion out the Mochi, with a cutter to prevent the rice from sticking on the edges. I’ll pour that in, squish it out like a tube of toothpaste, and then there’s a cutter. I can’t believe we did that manually last year; that would be hard to portion. When making this, they have maybe a minute or 45 seconds to make their Mochi because then they’ll get another one. You can’t get behind, or else you kind of screw up the whole assembly line.

They throw in the cooked rice, 50 cups, 100 cups, I don’t know, it’s just huge and commercial. Then it spits out Mochi, and you put flour on your hands and roll it like you would a cookie in your hand, but they’re bigger, the size of a golf ball. Then you flatten it out on the table, and for some, you’d get red beans, Azuki beans, Japanese beans that are soft and mushy. Many Asians have desserts with these beans, and there’s sugar in them. You may put that little red bean paste, beat up and ground with sugar, in the center of the Mochi for the special ones.

Mochi-making isn’t just production; it’s a family thing. You can hear us talking about our failures in Mochi-making skills, a pitch, a twist, a rotate of the ball, and then a shaker motion. That’s one of the traditions I remember from my childhood. My folks are coming over tomorrow. We usually have a big Japanese New Year, but people are aging, so that’s not happening as much. There’ll be six of us, and each dish represents something, like long life in Chinese culture. The different foods on New Year’s Day represent different things, and my mom and aunts look forward to it every year.

New Years is celebrated through the year depending your culture

As you think about all the cultures represented, New Year’s for Asian-Americans is diverse. There’s Lunar New Year, solar New Year, and various celebrations in February. Lunar New Year is not just Chinese; it’s also Vietnamese and celebrated by 10 other countries. When you want to do something at work, be aware of Lunar New Year, not just Chinese New Year. Be accurate and respectful.

A couple of traditions that come to mind without studying are cleaning your house before New Year’s Day. You don’t want to be sweeping away good fortune on New Year’s Day. You may notice that I don’t have a lot of details, and I don’t exactly know why we do things as Japanese-Americans because I’m fourth generation, shaped by World War II. There are reasons why I don’t know a lot, but I study now as an Asian-American Ambassador and Advocate. Otherwise, I’m very American.

I hope this illustrates the idea of being American and Asian. On my website, JoleneJang.com, you can find the podcast page with notes and pictures of New Year’s from my family over the past years. We would have the extended family and the Japanese side, who have accents and know how to make Japanese food authentically. You can see some of the good stuff from my past.

 

This is your first Culture Bite, and there will be many more. Hopefully, you’ll get curious about learning about other cultures. Go ahead and subscribe to my podcast. You can see the visual version on YouTube and Spotify. On JoleneJang.com, there is a transcription and pictures, for example, of the New Year’s food. Until the next podcast, aren’t Asians all alike? No, no, no.

Asians are not alike.

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Picture of an Asian woman wearing a white suit on a red background pointing to the words "Aren't Asians All Alike? PocastAren’t Asians All Alike Podcast

Find the answer here. Jolene tackles Asian challenges in this unfiltered podcast, sharing personal stories and offering bold, vulnerable, no-codeswitching talk. The goal is to make you think, reflect, and make better choices by understanding the impact of today’s actions.

 

Tune in for stories from Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander voices. Meet courageous Asian Allies. The impact of these stories aims to make you pause and inspire action. It’s a bold space for authentic conversations, unheard stories, and empowerment.