The Origins of Osechi

By Hanna Yamato

Osechi, more commonly known as traditional Japanese New Years Food, is rarely ever eaten in Japanese restaurants and culture except for the first few days of January. Visually appealing, Osechi is always neatly packed and stacked in special jubako boxes, which are basically black and red bento boxes. These series of dishes specifically date back to the Heian period. It was believed that these ritualistic offerings were not only crucial to present to the gods, but also to ensure a smooth transition into the new year.

There are a wide variety of elements that make up Japanese Osechi. While this collection of food has changed over the years, these are the most commonly eaten dishes that have come to resemble more elaborate meanings. 

  1. Ebi (Shrimp):

The kanji word for shrimp resembles the meaning “old man of the ocean.” This is meant to bring longevity to people of all ages.

  1. Kohaku Kamaboko (Fish cake):

Specifically colored red and white, these colors represent the Japanese flag. The red color is believed to ward off evil spirits, while the white color symbolizes purity. Overall, this fish cake is believed to bring good luck to all.

  1. Kuromame (Black beans):

This has been my personal favorite since my early childhood. Black beans are meant to bring good health and work ethic.

  1. Kurikinton (Sweet chestnut dumplings):

Due to their yellow or “golden” color, this dish represents the wish for financial prosperity and wealth during the upcoming year.

  1. Datemaki (Sweet omelette):

This is a sweeter, or “dessert” version of tamagoyaki (classic Japanese omelette) that is rolled up, resembling a scroll. Correspondingly, this represents academic success and the development of learning.

  1. Toshikoshi Soba (Buckwheat noodles):

These noodles are very meaningful when eaten on New Years Eve and day; this is believed to ensure a long and adequate life.

  1. Kazunoko (Herring roe):

In Japanese, “kazu” means number, while “ko” means child. Thus, representing fertility and being blessed with children for newlyweds.

  1. Kobu (Seaweed):

Since the word “kobu” is derived from the longer word “yorokobu,” this connects to the idea of bringing joy and happiness in the upcoming year. 

  1. Ozoni (Soup):

This is a miso or dashi soup served with mochi (ricecake) pieces. Since this is a soup, it is served separately from the jubako box dishes, but was first eaten in special banquets for samurais. Ozoni is mainly believed to bring good luck. Moreover, due to how mochi can be “stretched” into long pieces, this symbolizes longevity as well.

  1. Tazukuri (Boiled sardines):

Often served with soy sauce, this dish connects to the historical significance of sardines as they were utilized to fertilize rice and grain fields. Since rice is a common everyday food in every Japanese household, tazukuri is eaten in the hopes that the upcoming year’s harvest is fruitful and filling.

Although the list goes on, the dishes listed above are the most common foods eaten on New Years Day with the most historical significance and emblem. Depending on the region of Japan, the elements of Osechi may be altered. However, the ones listed above often remain synonymous no matter where you are in Japan.