Photo/IllutrationTemple bells across Japan ring out the old year on New Year’s Eve. (The Asahi Shimbun)

During the Edo Period (1603-1867), New Year’s Eve saw cash-strapped townspeople scurrying and scrabbling for whatever money they could get to see them through into the new year.

Some went around asking for money, while others sold their belongings or worked on construction sites as day laborers.

Their tragicomic endeavors are the subject of “Seken Munezanyo” (This Scheming World), an iconic novel of Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693).

“Being a work of fiction, there are exaggerations,” noted Susumu Hiroshima, 67, a professor of Japanese literature at Kanagawa University. “But it gives you a good idea of how daunting the day was for the public at large, from well-to-do merchants to humble townspeople living from hand to mouth.”

New Year’s Eve was the day of the final settlement of all accounts, meaning that all outstanding debts had to be paid.

In Saikaku’s novel, a debt collector shows up at the front door of a merchant’s residence, brandishing a wooden hammer and threatening him, “If you don’t pay up, I’ll take this pillar (from your house).”

At a market where Buddhist statues and used utensils are being auctioned, bidders heckle and jeer.

A man who sold his wife as collateral for a loan rediscovers his love for her, gets her back, and spends New Year’s Eve in tears.

When the work was published in 1692, the shogunate system was firmly in place. With the houses of Mitsui and Sumitomo expanding business, cities such as Osaka and Kyoto were flourishing.

The novel was highly acclaimed for its unconventional style of letting all the stories unfold on just New Year’s Eve.

Saikaku likened the last day of the year to “a mountain pass that cannot be crossed without money.”

People struggled to cross that pass, and the more they struggled, the greedier they became and ended up lying over and over. The pressure they typically came under on that day brought out their weaknesses, follies and absurdities, all of which were thoroughly human and no different from what we ourselves are subject to today.

I can imagine some people panicking over their unfinished year-end house cleaning, and students feeling terrible for not having studied enough for their imminent entrance exams. And there must be others like me who are still toiling away.

Today, Dec. 31, is indeed the mountain pass that looms between this year and the next. It makes us feel rushed and restless, but it is also a special day that is precious.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 31

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.