FANTASTIC VOYAGE: New Year’s cards (Nengajo)

In Japan, sending New Year’s greetings cards (nengajo) is a big deal. It’s much like the American tradition of sending Christmas cards, except in Japan there is $820 million dollars in postage sent on the one day.

History of New Year’s cards
Giving New Year’s greetings cards has been a tradition in Japan since ancient times. Taking into account when writing, the calendar system, and a delivery system were in place, it has been hypothesized that the first New Year’s greeting card was written in the late 700s. However, the first recorded instance appears in a textbook on how to write correspondences called the unshuushousoku, which is dated in the 10th century. The growth of the postal service in the Edo period (1603-1868) as well as advancements in education, helped New Year’s greetings gain in popularity. In 2018, the post office handled 1.5 billion pieces of New Year’s mail (or roughly 12 pieces of mail per person living in Japan). But even as amazing as that number may seem, it’s lower than the previous five years.

Dos and Don’ts
There are some dos and don’ts to follow when making your New Year’s card. First of all, since New Year’s is an auspicious event, you shouldn’t use words that have negative connotations like: fail, unfortunately, bad, etc. Even saying: “Last year wasn’t bad” isn’t good. Another point to be careful about is that you shouldn’t send a card to someone who has had a death in the family that year because they are still in mourning, and saying “Happy New Year’s” doesn’t seem right. In fact, if you have had a death in the family, you are supposed to send out a postcard in November saying that you won’t be sending out New Year’s cards because you are in mourning, and everyone is supposed to update their do-not-send list. Another do is to make sure you send out the cards in time. Before, people calculated when they needed to submit a postcard to get the January first postmark. This caused a huge influx of mail on one day and resulted in massive delays for regular mail. After a while, the post office caught on and set a period of time you could submit the cards so that they will be sent with the January first postmark, and be more or less guaranteed to be delivered. This year, the period is from Dec. 15 to Dec. 25, with a possibility (no guarantees) of mail as late as the 28th being sent on time if the destination is within close proximity of the sender.

What makes a good New Year’s card
Aside from the dos and don’ts there are other things to also consider when sending a New Year’s card. There are many different kinds of postcards available. You can buy them pre-printed at the store, ranging from traditional Japanese styles, to Disney character-themed. But with the advent of the home printer, it has become common for people to simply buy software and print out their own.

courtesy of Jeff Asai

Whichever method you choose, the purpose of the card is the same; giving thanks for the last year, and wishing good fortune and happiness on the upcoming year. Lately, however there seems to also be another purpose of greeting cards. It is a good place to make major announcements or give yearly updates such as getting married, having children, or moving into a new house. Many people opt to choose to include pictures on the postcards, particularly if they have children or went to an exotic location for vacation.

In effect, it’s like bragging on Facebook except to people who aren’t on Facebook. So, in good Facebook fashion, I’ve attached a picture of my adorable children (ahem, I mean I want to present an example of a typical New Year’s card). But as is also typical of people sending their New Year’s cards, I haven’t finished mine yet and am waiting for the 25th for last minute inspiration. I hope that whichever way you decide to celebrate your New Year’s you also include a time to give thanks to all the people that have helped you become who you are. Happy New Year’s everyone! Hope you have a great 2019!

Jeff Asai, a Yonsei originally from Northern California’s South Bay Area who grew up attending the San Jose Betsuin Buddhist Church, writes from the town of Asuka, Nara Prefecture, where he serves as an assistant minister at a Jodo-shu temple, Jokokuji, teaches English and lives with his wife Yae Hosokawa with their children Madoka and Yui. He can be reached via e-mail at

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