I've lived in Okinawa 9 years and have just now learned more about some of the Japanese traditions for the new year from my Japanese friend and teacher, Nana Sensei. There are straw wreath thingamabobs everywhere--storefronts, house fronts, car fronts. Nana tells me they represent the intertwining of the physical, earthly life and the heavenly, spiritual life. It is a sort of good luck symbol or invitation to the gods to be intertwined with the lives of the Japanese people inside the store/home/car. I took the picture of the one below hanging over a used car lot sign.
A second symbol seen in front of most businesses and homes is a bamboo and pine tree arrangement. This is an invitation to the year god (the god of years) to bless the inhabitants.
This, too, was taken in front of the used car lot. Nana has taught us that these two traditions are much like the many others--a combination of Shinto beliefs, Buddhist beliefs, superstition, and an attempt to please one's ancestors. Other traditions include visiting the family tomb, going to the temple (Buddhist), cleaning one's home really well, and giving money to children. My kids were each given Y1,000 (about $13) by some of our neighbors!
Lastly, the Japanese Lucky Kitty can be seen in most stores and restaurants year-round, but I've noticed her prevalence picks up at the new year. She waves her paw back and forth, beckoning good luck--mostly money. She sits in front of the Lottery window here, as well as in front of pachinko parlors (gambling places full of slot machines).
Like Americans, Japanese participate in and proliferate myriad holiday superstitions because "it's what they've always done" not necessarily because it means anything to them personally.
It makes me wonder how strange some of our habits much seem to outsiders. For example, in 2010 when it was Rebekah's first Easter with us, Mark and I giggled when we taught her about the Easter egg hunt. It went something like this: "Well you see, Jesus died and rose from the grave. Therefore, we paint chicken eggs, hide them, and then go searching for them. We even hide fake eggs with candy inside them. All for the purpose of celebrating our Risen Savior!" I'm sure that made perfect sense to her. At least we didn't insist that a big, fat bunny pooped them all over the yard during the night.