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Osechi ryori is a celebratory meal in Japan, enjoyed during the New Year holiday and shared with family. The foods that comprise osechi ryori each have its own meaning and symbolism, many representing health, wealth, and happiness for the new year.

Osechi ryori is a traditional Japanese food for New Year’s Day celebration. Osechi ryori comprises a variety of different healthy dishes.  As with many celebratory meals in Japan, each food item has its own meaning and symbolism to welcome the new year. Food items are neatly packed in several tier lacquer box called “Jyubako,” which somewhat resembles bento boxes.

History of Osechi Ryori

The New Year’s holiday in Japan is more about paying reverence to the gods than partying. Osechi ryori has always been part of this holiday tradition, with the foods being utilized as an offering to the gods, as well as consumed by high members of society. People believed that the offering and then the consumption of osechi ryori with family meant that those who participated would also gain the power of the gods.

The tradition spread to all members of Japanese society, and a few days off from any kind of work, usually 3 or 7 days, also became part of the tradition. The reasons for this was for everyone to not disturb the gods by the sounds of work or cooking, and the women of the household could also receive a break from their daily household responsibilities.

The Meaning of the Jyubako

The multi-tiered lacquer box also has a special meaning. Each tier is meant to represent an additional level of luck and happiness—as the food from each tier is consumed, your potential for happiness increases. The most traditional Jyubako typically has five tiers, though only four of them contain foods. The bottom tier remains empty to symbolize the hope for more future luck and happiness to fill the household.

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Understanding the Meaning of the Different Foods in Osechi Ryori

The types of foods and where you pack them within the Jyubako have meaning as well. Here are the most typical New Year’s Day foods you often find in the osechi ryori box.

First Tier

The three foods in this tier are referred to as Iwaizakana, and are considered to be lucky foods.

Kuromame

These black beans symbolize good health and the ability to work hard and be productive in the coming year.

Tazukuri

Tazukuri is sardines that have been boiled in soy sauce. The food symbolizes the hope for a good harvest in the coming year.

Kazunoko

Herring roe. Both the many eggs and the word itself have meaning; kazu means number and ko means children. Subsequently, consuming this food means a wish for many children.

Second Tier

Foods in the second tier are called Kuchitori. Kuchitori comprises of pickles and a side dish.

Kohaku Kamaboko

Fish cakes displayed in reddish-pink and white colors. The red symbolizes the warding off of bad spirits, and the white symbolizes holiness, purity, and a cleansing of negative energy. The fish cakes are also usually in the shape of a dome, meant to symbolize the rising sun that appears on the Japanese flag.

Datemaki

A rolled omelet meant to resemble a scroll. It symbolizes academic achievement, knowledge, and cultural development.

Kuri Kinton

Also known as gold dumplings, these mashed sweet potatoes and chestnuts look the part, and symbolize wealth and prosperity.

Kohaku Namasu

Pickled daikon radish and carrot, also appearing in reddish and white colors with much the same meaning as Kohaku Kamaboko.

Kombu Maki

A maki roll consisting of either salmon or herring and wrapped in kombu, then slow-cooked in a mixture of soy sauce, dashi, and mirin. It represents joy.

Third Tier

Third tier packs a variety of seafoods.

Buri

Mature yellowtail, this fish symbolizes growth in one’s profession in the coming year.

Tai

A fish known as red sea bream, meant to symbolize a wish for happiness and joy in the new year, good health and wealth, and also a continuance of dignity and class as one matures.

Ebi

These delicious jumbo prawns are simmered in a mixture of soy sauce and sake, and symbolize longevity and happiness.

Ise Ebi

The spiny lobster. Because the lobster lives a very long life, it also represents longevity. Depending on the type of osechi ryori, ise ebi might be in the first tier as a centerpiece.

Fourth Tier

This tier contains a variety of vegetables.

Renkon

The lotus root, when sliced, contains a pattern of holes in its shape, which symbolize good luck in the future with no obstacles.

Satoimo

As taro root grows, many smaller tubers branch off of the main tuber. The presence of saitomo in this tier represents a blessing of many children.

Kuwai

A vegetables that grows underwater, it appears as somewhat like a turnip, yet with a long protuberance extending from the sphere. This represents a long and prosperous career.

Gobo

Known as burdock root, it symbolizes strength.

Fifth Tier

Traditionally, people keeps the fifth tier empty. It is also becoming more common to find only three-tiered Jyubako, and sometimes even two tiers. The number of the tiers isn’t as important as the food that goes into them, as well as the tradition of sharing those foods with family during the three-day New Year’s celebration.

Learn the symbolism of osechi ryori here.