By Claire Williamson
As December rolls along, people inevitably start thinking about the New Year. Plans to celebrate are made, tickets booked, champagne is bought, and in Japan people buy and send over three billion nengajo (年賀状) – New Year’s cards – for oshogatsu (お正月), arguably the most important holiday of the year.
What are nengajo?
Like the Christmas or holiday cards sent in many Western countries, nengajo are postcards sent to friends, family and even businesses to welcome in the New Year and ask for everyone’s continued support for the next 365 days.
Cards go on sale in mid-October and are available until the first week or so of January, which gives people plenty of time to compile a list of everyone they’ll be sending a card to that year (or who they won’t!).
Although the popularity of ‘digital nengajo’ has risen among the younger generations, families still look forward to the morning of January 1 when that year’s nengajo arrive, neatly bundled, in the mailbox.
Whether you just happen to be passing through Japan or are a long-time resident, sending a nengajo or two is an easy and fun way to participate in a piece of Japanese New Year’s culture and express your gratitude to the important people in your life.
Where to buy or make nengajo
There are plenty of places to buy pre-made nengajo. Convenience stores, printing shops including FedEx and Kinko’s, stationery stores and Japan Post itself all sell pre-printed cards that you can simply address and pop in the mail.
These stock cards will usually have traditional motifs such as kadomatsu, a decoration made of pine branches, or the zodiac animal for the upcoming year (the dog for 2018). This is a quick and easy way to send nengajo, particularly if you’re only in Japan for a short while.
Sample of a 2018 nengajo, decorated with the zodiac animal for the new year
If you have time, however, it’s fun to make personalised nengajo. There are a few ways you can do this. Convenience and stationery stores sell blank cards that you can decorate yourself – stamping them with the upcoming year’s zodiac animal, stickers and calligraphy are popular options.
Or you can create a card using a computer programme of your choice and print the design directly onto the blank nengajo – you can even buy nengajo made of special paper that works for ink-jet printers.
Blank nengajo are fairly inexpensive, usually around ¥50 each, so if you aren’t planning to send many this is an affordable option.
You can also design and order nengajo online in bulk. There are lots of places to do this, but we like the Japan Post Office’s nengajo design site – a convenient option that even non-Japanese speakers can navigate without much hassle. There are lots of cute designs to choose from, and you can upload your own pictures to quickly make a personalised nengajo.
This is a good option for people who want to send quite a few cards, since you get a bulk discount (the more you order, the cheaper each card). If you input the addresses of the people you want to send cards to, the post office will mail them directly or, if you haven’t decided on your list yet, you can have the cards mailed to your house for you to address later.
You can pay for your nengajo online or, for a nominal additional fee, at a convenience store or your local post office; fifty cards will cost about ¥7,500.
What to write on your nengajo
There are quite a few handy stock phrases you can write on your nengajo.
One classic option is
Akemashite omedetogozaimasu (literally ‘Happiness to you on the dawn of a New Year’, though the functional meaning is simply ‘Happy New Year’)
You could also use one of the following:
Kotoshimo yoroshiku onegaishimasu (‘I hope for your favour this coming year’)
Kinga shinnen (‘Happy New Year’)
A few quick notes
You aren’t supposed to send nengajo to families that have had a death during the past year. Send a mourning card instead.
While it’s polite to send nengajo to everyone who sent you one the previous year, if you happen to receive a nengajo on January 1 from someone you didn’t send one to, don’t panic. You have until January 7 to send them a card – after that it’s no longer considered a nengajo and becomes a ‘winter greeting card’ instead.
How to send your nengajo
If you’re sending your nengajo to a domestic Japanese address, you can simply put your cards in the designated nengajo mail boxes that begin to pop up in mid-December. As long as you mail your cards by December 25, the post office guarantees they will be delivered exactly on January 1.
In fact, so many nengajo are sent in Japan each year that the post office hires seasonal part-time workers, usually high school students on winter vacation, to help sort through the massive influx of mail.
If you’re planning on sending cards abroad, you can go to a post office to buy the required additional ¥18 stamps, though these cards will arrive whenever the postal system in the recipient’s country delivers them.
Have fun making your own nengajo, and Happy New Year!