Its standardization in both appearance and content makes the theory about its origins going back to the Kyoto Imperial Court of the Heian Period sound plausible but as often happens with customs, there is a practical aspect in osechi ryori (お節料理), the traditional New Year period’s dish: after the busy end-of-the-year period with the general cleanup, the gifts to friends and relatives and the decorations, housewives wanted some time to rest and spend the first days of the New Year (aka “sanga-nichi”/三が日) relaxed with their families; occasionally one comes across references to some related taboo that mandates the prohibition of fire for cooking but I tend to believe that this also has its roots in the same practical need. At any rate, osechi had (and still has) to have been prepared until December 31, have been put in the special decorated triple-tiered jubako (重箱) boxes and be consumed in these first and festive three days.
I haven’t read any related research but I’d wager that in contemporary Japan there are very few housewives who cook osechi like their grandmothers did –every December, restaurants, supermarkets and konbini are so filled with advertising posters and fliers containing their offers for this special dish that it’d be very hard to resist the temptation to buy them. And if we were to add the variety of the ingredients (lobester, black beans, herring roe, amberjack, red sea bream, lotus root, shrimp, fish cakes, kombu kelp, sardines eggs and many more) and their very special placement in the jubako, it is hardly surprising that most members of the younger generation consider osechi too bothersome and decide to buy it pre-cooked. In contrast to other Japanese traditions where people participate fully osechi is something that gradually becomes something belonging to the domain of the service industry.
Not that this diminishes it’s importance, though. The puns accompanying its ingredients where “tai”, the name of the amberjack brings to mind “medetai” i.e. “auspicious”, the kelp’s “kombu” evokes “yorokobu” i.e. “happiness” and the hunchback shape of the shrimp parallels old age and, thus, longevity are common ground to all Japanese; the same goes for the presentation with the boxes and the many colors. Even if it is something that is not created in the kitchen, the hub of family activities (in Japan and pretty much everywhere else), the very mention of it gives the tone for the New Year days: everything on and in and around osechi shouts “celebration” and there is no bigger holiday than the beginning of a new year. Or a bigger joy than spending the holiday with your loved ones, in a warm home in front of a festive table, welcoming the “toshigami” (年神) the New Year deity –whether you are Japanese or not.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.