INTRODUCING...

Japanese New Year traditions: kites and kumade

凧 - 熊手

Japanese New Year festivities include kite flying and kumade decorations as seen at Japan House London

New Year (oshōgatsu) is an important holiday in the Japanese calendar. New Year cards (nengajō) are sent to family, friends and colleagues, and during the first three days of the year, families often come together to enjoy New Year traditions such as special food (osechi ryōri), visiting their local shrine (hatsumode), playing games and flying kites or tako.

For some of the Edo period (1603–1868 CE), kite-flying was banned in Japan except for during the New Year celebrations. Because of this, tako came to be closely associated with this time of year. They are usually decorated with bright designs, featuring heroes from Japanese legends, symbols and words or phrases that signify good fortune, or the zodiac animal of the year ahead. The designs are printed and painted on Japanese paper (washi) which is then fixed to a bamboo frame.

Tako come in a variety of shapes, and each region of Japan typically has its own distinctive structural design. Some of the most popular shapes include the samurai attendant (yakko) and cranes to symbolise good fortune and longevity.

Kumade

Another object often seen in Japan during the New Year festivities is kumade: decorative bamboo rakes that ‘rake in’ good fortune for the coming year. These are adorned with a multitude of symbolic ornaments, including the ever-smiling mask of Otafuku (the Goddess of Mirth); a Daruma (Dharma) doll for good fortune; shōchikubai, the combination of pine, bamboo and plum that signifies longevity, prosperity and resilience; the auspicious sea bream; cranes and turtles, which are symbols for longevity; the Seven Lucky Gods (Shichi Fukujin), as well as bails of rice and gold coins.

People all over Japan visit Tori-no-Ichi festival markets ('Rooster Markets') in November on the days of the rooster to buy kumade. You can find out more about these decorative rakes, the significance of each of their typical ornaments, and the Tori-no-Ichi festival in our story about kumade.

In January 2019, Japan House London welcomed in the new year with a display of tako and kumade to signify good fortune for the year of the boar.