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鏡餅 (Kagami Mochi) — Japanese Foodways

鏡餅, literally translated from the Japanese, means “mirror rice cake.” This name, though thought to have originated from the mochi’s resemblance to a old-fashioned kind of round copper mirror, has no relevance at all to its folkloric aspects. 鏡餅 is a traditional Japanese New Years decoration, consisting of two round mochi (rice cakes), the smaller placed atop the larger, and a Japanese orange with a leaf placed on top.

鏡餅 -- Traditional Japanese New Years decoration

My informant is a student in Nagoya, Japan, and has had 鏡餅 decorations every year for New Years, for as long as she can remember. Recently, however, she said that her family has settled on buying the cheaper, mass-produced 鏡餅, which are often pre-moulded into the shapes of stacked discs and sold in plastic packages at the supermarket. A plastic imitation bitter orange is substituted for the original. In some cases, there are actual rice makes within the plastic casing; however, even if there is, she said she has not heard of many families who actually enjoy eating the mochi. “Because it’s been there for so long,” She said. “It gets all stale and gross and no one wants to touch it.” The plastic casing, however, is preferred by most contemporary people because it keeps the mochi inside free of rot and germs. They break open and eat the mochi usually on January 11th, in a ritual known as 鏡開き (which literally means, “breaking the mirror”), in order to celebrate the breaking of the old year, for the arrival of the new. By this point, the mochi has become so stale that it usually has cracks on the surface; however, because cutting it with a knife has negative connotations (cutting off ties), they usually crack it open with their hands or some other heavy object.

The two mochi discs are said to symbolize the coming and going years, as well as the balance of yin and yang, although most people, including my informant, do not know exactly how those two concepts apply to the structure of the 鏡餅, or why it has to be mochi at all–it is simply something a ritual they have performed in the past, and so they repeat it, to end their year on the “right note,” and to enjoy a sense of camaraderie with the rest of Japanese society.

That most contemporary 鏡餅 is mass-produced in plastic casings is significant because it indicates the widespread performance of a folk ritual that seems to have no inherent personal meaning in the lives of most households. If there was inherent meaning, they would perhaps be more keen on performing it the traditional way–making the rice cakes themselves or even just buying them and stacking them together, placing the bitter orange on top. As it is, however, it has become for my informant “something my mom just picks up from the supermarket when she realizes it’s almost New Year’s.”

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