Nengajou: Japanese New Year’s Cards
by Suzannah Nevas
Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu. This seasonal greeting is one of several ways to say Happy New Year in Japanese. It is also commonly written on nengajou, Japanese New Year’s cards!
Nengajou, like most things Japanese, are a cultural tradition imbued with aesthetic beauty and social etiquette. Billions of these New Year’s postcards get delivered every year on January 1st, filling recipients with renewed connection and gratitude for the many important people in their lives.
The exchanging of New Year’s greeting cards originated with nenshi-mawari, the custom of spending the first few days of the New Year paying visits to friends, family and neighbors, expressing appreciation for kindness and help received the previous year, and setting the groundwork for another year of harmonious relationship.
As the distance to travel for such visits became too great, missives were sent instead. During the Meiji Restoration period, the nengajou notes were replaced with more economical postcards.
Nengajou were originally exchanged in Japan during the Lunar New Year. However, in 1873, they changed the tradition to align with the Gregorian calendar and now cards are promptly delivered every January 1st. Some traces of the original tradition remain though, for example, many images on the nengajou of today feature the zodiac animal corresponding to the lunar calendar.
Other common motifs include kadomatsu (pine and bamboo arrangements), plum blossoms and the maneki neko (lucky cat). Lately, there is a similar trend that we see in the West to use family portraits for the image. Japanese calligraphy is also prominent. [Click here for JITTI USA's 2021 article on calligraphy]. There are often many nengajou design contests for kids and adults alike.
Starting in December, you will see stands of different nengajou designs in places like stationary stores and post offices across Japan. You can purchase premade cards or create your own, and even if you buy their blank ones, the domestic postage is already included in the cost! If you are designing or embellishing your own, keep in mind that nengajou are postcards and aren’t sent in the protection of an envelope. Make sure they are flat and have durable, non-smearing ink.
The text for your cards can be fairly formulaic:
Open with one of the set phrases of New Year’s greetings,
Make a note of appreciation for their kindness in the last year,
Conclude with a courteous request for their continued support in the year ahead.
The exact language of these components can vary with the formality or closeness of the person to whom you are writing. For cards sent to non-professional acquaintances, many take the opportunity to include life updates on different family members with their message.
So who gets a nengajou? Broadly speaking, anyone who has shown you kindness or cooperation in the last year, such as friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues. Practically speaking- you should send one to anyone who sent you one! For this reason, it’s always a good idea to have a few extra on hand in case you missed somebody.
But be advised that social etiquette dictates that nengajou should not be sent to anyone who lost a loved one in the previous year, out of respect for their mourning.
The Japanese Post Office plays a crucial role in the smooth operations of the nengajou custom. Starting in the middle of December, post office drop boxes will have a special slot marked for nengajou. Part of the magic of nengajou is that the post office will deliver all your cards together on January 1st. That’s right- they collect and hold all incoming nengajou for each household and then bundle them together and deliver them all at once on the first. For this reason, it’s important to mark the cards with “nenga” so the post office knows to set it aside. It’s also prudent to mail the cards before December 25th to make sure they arrive on time.
The Japan Post even made a lottery out of the custom. Starting in 1949, otoshidama-tsuki yuubin hagaki (New Year’s Lottery Postcards) have come with a six digit lottery number in the bottom right-hand corner. Around the 15th of January, the hundreds of winning numbers are announced, with prizes like vacation getaways, large electronics, and even cash.
If you receive a nengajou from someone you didn’t send one to, you have until the results of the Otoshidama kuji (New Year's lottery) are announced to reciprocate.
Next year, why not try out this tradition for yourself?