Nengajo (New Year's card) (年賀状)
The nengajo is a postcard or a greeting card sent as a New Year's greeting. A word of celebration for the new year is written as a greeting, often followed by an appreciation for cordial friendship in the past year and a request for continued kindness in the new year. Recent events are also added to the nengajo sent to close friends.
Many nengajo are exchanged in Japan, and there are similar customs in the Republic of Korea, the People's Republic of China and Taiwan, which are close to Japan. In Europe and the United States, there isn't a culture of nengajo because the New Year's greetings are included in Christmas cards.
The nengajo is usually posted at the end of the year and delivered on New Year's Day. Due to the workload of post offices, there is an announcement to post the nengajo by December 20 or so. However, due to changes in the social environment, such as the diffusion of personal computers and printers, the peak of posting nengajo has become later each year. It was reported that the peak of posting nengajo for 2005 was December 25 of the previous year, and that the peak posting for 2006 was as late as December 30 of the previous year.
New Year's postcards with lottery numbers, which are different from normal postal cards, are released every November for use as nengajo, and therefore the New Year's lottery postcards are mainly used. Frequently used patterns include the zodiac animals (junishi) of the new year, lucky charms such as a treasure ship and the Seven Deities of Good Luck, symbols of early spring such as Japanese butterbur and plum blossoms.
In view of postal service, nengajo is treated as "nenga tokubetsu yubinbutsu" (special New Year's mail), which is a kind of special mail. The period of handling the special mail is from December 15 to December 28 (in the case of 2006). Mail marked 'Nenga' in red during the period is separately forwarded to each post office in charge of the mailing address, and is stored there until January 1. Nengajo are accepted after the period for the sake of convenience. However, because such mail doesn't satisfy the requirement for the nenga tokubetsu yubinbutsu, i.e., posting within the handling period, it isn't guaranteed but is simply a goodwill gesture by the postal service to deliver it on January 1. The insufficiency of publication of this point may be a cause for the late delivery that has occurred in recent years.
When a piece of stationery such as a New Year postcard or a postcard printed with 'Nenga' in red below a postage stamp is posted into a dedicated mail slot provided in a mailbox, the postmark is omitted. Such a mail slot is provided during the period of (in the case of 2006) December 15 to January 7 of the following year. Nengajo with a postal stamp and those especially requested by the senders are, if posted during the period of handling the nenga tokubetsu yubinbutsu, canceled with a postmark dated January 1 of the following year. In a case where the nengajo is posted after the period, it's canceled with a postmark of the day even if the other requirements have been satisfied.
In Japan, there has been an event of New Year's greeting called 'nenshi mawari' since the Nara period, though that origin isn't definite. In the Heian period, such a custom spread among nobles and court nobles, and notes were exchanged with those living too far away to visit, instead of nenshi mawari. As time passed, the New Year's greeting spread among common people, and in the Edo period express messengers (hikyaku) delivered the notes.
In 1871, after the Meiji Restoration, though the mail system was already well established, nengajo were sent as notes in most cases, but still there weren't so many. When the postcard was issued in 1873, the custom of sending postcards as nengajo spread rapidly because New Year's greetings could be sent simply and inexpensively. However, in or around 1887 the sending of nengajo rooted among citizens as a year-end event, resulting in a concentration of nengajo from many people in post offices, thereby increasing the amount of mail several tens of times. Because the number of people engaged in the postal business was limited, the huge amount of nengajo delayed the processing of all mail, which influenced mail other than nengajo and often caused delays in delivery. Furthermore, the end of the year was also the closing of the business fiscal year, and therefore the delay in the mail could pose an economic obstacle. As a countermeasure, the frequency of pickup and delivery at the beginning of the year was decreased in 1890. This countermeasure failed to catch up with the ever-increasing nengajo. At the time, mail was postmarked two times: once each at the pickup post office and the delivery post office. To have a postmark dated "January 1" at either the pickup post office or the delivery post office, many people would post nengajo around December 26 to 28 and on January 1.
To cope with such a situation, the special handling of nengajo at specified post offices started in 1899. In the special handling system, as long as nengajo is brought to a specified post office during a specific period at the end of the year (specifically from December 20 to December 30), it will be delivered no sooner than New Year's Day postmarked with the date "January 1." In 1900 (as needed) the system was carried out in post offices throughout the nation, the use of private mailing cards was permitted, and finally, in 1905, the system was brought into full practice at post offices throughout the nation. Nengajo were originally written and mailed on New Year's Day, but the special handling was triggered to mail them at the end of the year for delivery on New Year's Day. It was a general rule at the time to bundle a certain amount attached with a tag in order to bring nengajo to a post office, but in 1907 it was allowable to post the nengajo regardless of the amount as long as there was the description "Nenga" on top of the postcard.
In the years of the Great Kanto Earthquake and the death of Emperor Taisho (December 25), the special handling for the year (to be delivered in the following year) was canceled (it was carried out in the years of the deaths of Emperor Meiji and Emperor Showa).
Because the amount of the private postcard increased as the total handling amount increased, in 1935 New Year's postcard stamps were issued for attachment to private postcards. However, due to the worsening condition of the times, an issuance of New Year's postcard stamps stopped in 1938, the special handling was stopped in 1940 and there was an increased demand for voluntary restraint with the outbreak of the Pacific War.
In 1948, after the end of the war, the special handling and issuance of New Year's postcard stamps resumed. Since that year, the patterns of the New Year's postcard stamps have been local toys associated with a zodiac animal of the year. In 1949, the Otoshidama-tsuki yubin hagaki (nengajo with lottery numbers) was sold for the first time (the first New Year postcard as the official postal card), which attracted public attention and became a huge hit. Taking this opportunity, the amount of nengajo being handled increased dramatically. In 1955, the New Year postcard was issued in Okinawa under the American occupation, and the New Year's postcard stamp was issued in 1956. Initially, the lottery was included in the charitable postcards, but in 1956 it was also included in the non-charitable ones. Since 1961, the postmark has been omitted from New Year's postcards; alternatively, a circular mark similar to the postmark has been printed below the price indication. In 1968, cells for the zip code were added due to the introduction of that system.
In the 1970s, it became popular to print drawings and letters on New Year's postcards, and since 1982 such drawings and words of congratulations have been printed on the back of charitable New Year's postcards. Since 1989, the lottery has been part of the New Year's postcard stamp as well.
In the 21st century, it has become common to create and print New Year's postcards with pictures taken by a digital camera, using a personal computer and printer at home. Since 2005, glossy New Year's postcards suitable for ink-jet printing have been sold. In 2008, triggered by the privatization of the postal system, new items such as carbon-offset New Year's postcards and New Year's postcards with cartoon characters were released.
Given the huge amount of nengajo and the commitment of delivery within a short period (of course there are also common mail and parcels), not only the regular workers but also temporary workers who are mainly students, work in the postal service at the end of the year and the beginning of the new year.
Although one person takes care of one delivery area in normal seasons, in December sometimes the person manages the delivery routes of normal mail in the post office and part-time workers deliver mail outside the office. This is because it's more advantageous for a regular worker familiar with family members and shop names on the route to manage the delivery routes. It's also assumed that the regular workers commonly work in the office because the nengajo may be addressed to a certain family member, or that it may have an address indication in an old system or the old address of a resident who has recently moved. There may be another factor whereby the regular workers have to match old addresses with new ones in many areas where the municipal names have changed due to the so-called "great merger of municipalities in the Heisei era."
If the amount of mail is too great to handle within the post office, such as in urban areas, a temporary prefabricated office or a meeting room will be used only for the division work in late December.
Around noon on New Year's Eve, the nengajo to be delivered on New Year's Day are prepared and the office is cleaned; thus the temporary system for the nengajo comes to an end in preparation for New Year's Day. In the vicinity of Saijo Inari Shrine in Okayama City, it's difficult to deliver the New Year's postcards on New Year's Day due to the numbers of visitors to the shrine, and therefore the nengajo have been delivered on the previous day, New Year's Eve, since 1978 (according to "NHK News").
At many post offices, a departure ceremony is held before the delivery on New Year's Day, but the peak of the process has passed and the nengajo are no longer in the post office. The nengajo are "previously sent" to the post office near the delivery area or the house of the related person (part-time worker or regular worker), and from that point they are delivered to the recipient families. Considering the protection of private information (against the risk that nengajo might be seen by family members at the previously sent address, etc.), there are increasing complaints with the "previously sending" system. It's common to try to complete the delivery during the morning. The delivery service wasn't performed on January 2 from 1973 to 2004, but service on the day started in 2005.
It's also possible to receive the nengajo, if it has arrived, before vacation as desired, but it requires an application to the post office (in the case of a corporation, it's possible to have the nengajo stored at the post office until the first business day and delivered no earlier than the first business day).
Due to the nature of the postal address-reading and sorting machine, numbers in the address are more correctly read in the case of Arabic numerals than Chinese characters, which causes less frequent delays due to misreading.
Kaeri nenga (nengajo sent as response to a delivered New Year's postcard)
Many people send the nengajo in response to those from people to whom they haven't sent them, and therefore the delivery of the nengajo continues until the day of lottery for the Otoshidama kuji (New Year's lottery) on postcards and postage stamps.
Fixed phrases for nengajo
There are several fixed phrases, but it's customary not to use two-letter words such as 賀正 and 迎春 to elders and people who have helped, except for colleagues and friends of nearly the same age.
Many people use "A HAPPY NEW YEAR" in English, but in English-speaking countries the common expression is "HAPPY NEW YEAR" without the initial "A."
The creation of nengajo
Nengajo can be created in the following ways:
Handwriting: In addition to brush writing in acknowledgment of a traditional style, colorful felt-tip pens or drawing materials are used, but patterns of the zodiac animals and lucky items, as mentioned above, are also often used.
Using stamps with various patterns
Using a rubber stamp of "謹賀新年" or the like provided in the post offices.
Using imo ban (a stamp made from a potato), keshigomu ban (a stamp made from an eraser), etc.
To create by woodblock printing. Before the emergence of the simplified printer, it was a common technique, and postcard-size woodblocks for printing were available.
Using a technique of aburidashi (invisible writing revealed by applying heat) using fresh juice of mikan (tangerine, satsuma), etc.
Printed New Year's postcard
Printed New Year's postcards are often used by those who have no time to create them, as well as those who send huge amounts of them (such as corporations). One way is a semi-order style of selecting one from among several patterns and adding his/her name and so forth; another way is to purchase postcards with pre-printed patterns. As for the latter, there are post office produced New Year's cards, plain New Year's cards printed by printing company and so on.
Creation by a photo shop
To briefly indicate a recent event in the family, it's convenient to show a picture of the family. There is a technique of printing the picture on dedicated photographic paper (thinner than normal photographic paper) and adhering it to a postcard.
In the case of the photographic New Year's postcard, the frame of the picture, layout of the name and address, decoration design and the like are usually specified in advance. The number of inserted pictures is usually one or two, but there are new types that accommodate three or four pictures.
It's mainly used when the user isn't good at creating it using a personal computer or he/she has no time to create one. The postcard can be ordered at an actual photo shop or through an internet site. To order it at the photo shop, in addition to ordering with a flyer there is a method of ordering through a terminal by entering a digital image via the ordering software installed in the terminal. Some photo shops fabricate the postcards on-site using a postcard pasting machine, but in many cases the postcards are fabricated in large quantities at a film processing laboratory or the like.
Given the increased weight of the photographic paper and paste, the four edges are trimmed off to bring the weight to within the range of 50 yen postage. Because of the pasting process, only a normal type is accepted for use as the official post card, so the ink-jet type and the glossy-type New Year's lottery postcard aren't accepted. Because the surface is glossy, oil-based pen is needed in order to add a handwritten comment. However, some laboratories use writable paper that accepts comments written with any type of pen.
One example is the FUJICOLOR POSTCARD by FUJIFILM.
Creation by simplified printing machine
Before the period in which printing with a personal computer became popular, the New Year's postcard was often printed by a household type of small, simplified printing machine. A typical simplified printing machine is Print Gokko (the brand name of small, silk-screen printer) by Riso Kagaku Corporation.
Creation by personal computer
The official New Year's lottery postcards suitable for ink-jets emerged in 2002. It was because increasing numbers of people were printing the postcards by ink-jet at home using their personal computers.
Despite being limited to the Kanto area in 2004, the New Year's lottery postcards made of photographic paper were released nationwide in 2005 so as to be adapted to the printing of photographic postcards at home. The price is 10 yen higher, at 60 yen.
To create postcards using a personal computer, it's popular to use software, which manages address data, for the creation of nengajo and shochumimai (summer greeting cards). As the end of the year approaches, many inexpensive 'mook' (publications) products, combining varieties of illustrations and dedicated software are displayed in book stores. Many websites are also opened offering free illustrations and pictures of zodiac animals, etc., for nengajo.
The postcard creation software includes Fudemame (Good Correspondent), Fude-O (Writing Brush King), Fude gurume (for postcard making), AGENDA (Kigyo) Atena Shokunin (for postcard making), Hagaki Studio (Postcard Studio) and RakuRaku-Hagaki (The design tool for postcards).
Some people create postcards using word-processing software (Microsoft Word, Ichitaro, etc.) instead of postcard creation software.
Creation by mobile phone
In accordance with the postal privatization in November 2008, Japan Post Service Co., Ltd. and KDDI CORPORATION produced a service of creating and sending New Year's postcards by mobile phone "Keitai POST" (cell-phone post), thus targeting young adults who are less familiar with the tradition of nengajo. Sammy NetWorks Co., Ltd. is dedicated to planning and management, and MyAlbum Co., Ltd. handles the printing of New Year's postcards.
Additionally, DoCoMo and SoftBank started Keitai POST in November 2009.
Otoshidama-tsuki Yubin Hagaki (New Year's lottery postcard)
Otoshidama-tsuki yubin hagaki (New year's lottery poscatrds) was first released in 1949. The lottery is held every January (it used to be around 15th but was on the 27th in 2008).
Refer to the section on Otoshidama-tsuki yubin hagaki (New Year's lottery postcards) for details.
Mochu ketsurei (refraining from offering [New Year's] greetings during a period of mourning)
It's a custom that a family that has experienced the death of a relative doesn't send a nengajo, but alternatively the family sends a postcard saying, "We refrain from New Year's greetings due to the mourning period" within the year. In such a case, not an official postal card but a private mailing card is used with a postal stamp (for mourning, the pattern of a wreath or a reed), whereas the postal card has become common with the diffusion of personal computers and printers.
It's believed that it would be better not to send a nengajo to the sender of the mochu postcard, but actually it isn't rude to send the nengajo. As indicated by the phrase "refraining from greetings" due to mourning, the concept of sending the postcard is to say, "We are sorry we can't send a New Year's greeting due to the mourning period," as opposed to, "We won't accept a New Year's greeting from you," (while some people believe it's rude to send the nengajo to a mourning family, it's common to send a kanchuomimai [winter greeting card] instead).
Electronic nengajo, New Year's mail
Although the nengajo should basically be written on a postcard, photographic material can be sent by e-mail or one can send the URL of a specific web page.
Increasing numbers of people use this approach because of the high compatibility with electronic data and the convenience of sending the nengajo. On the other hand, there is an aspect of placing a huge burden on the internet because many people send and receive large amounts of e-mail the moment the date changes to January 1. Particularly, New Year's e-mail via mobile phone has become a social problem along with the "Happy New Year call" as a greeting, and therefore mobile phone companies take measures to limit the telecommunications and phone calls on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.
The Republic of Korea
- Every November, Korea Post releases nengajo (greeting card and postcard). The practice doesn't include a lottery. It's a kind of greeting card, and Koreans don't send so many cards formally like the Japanese do.
The People's Republic of China
- In ancient times, there was a custom of sending a "name card" (a simple letter of New Year's greeting) among upper-class shitaifu (scholar-bureaucrats). There is described "宋元佑年間、新年賀節、往往使用傭仆持名刺代往" in "Qingpo zazhi," by Chou Hui, of Sung. In those days, shitaifu had large circles of acquaintances and it was difficult to greet all of them at New Year's. Therefore, except for the closest friends they wrote the name and address of the receiver and words of congratulation on a 6.06cm-wide and 9.09cm-long card made of "baikasen" (literally, ume [plum]-blossom paper) and sent an envoy for the New Year's greeting. The name card is believed to be the origin of nengajo. The circumstances of nengajo in China are similar to those of Japan today, and post offices sell the New Year's lottery postcards just as their counterparts in Japan do. It is also a trend to create unique nengajo using a personal computer. Recently, however, decreasing numbers of people send nengajo.
What serves as the nengajo on a global scale
Christmas cards, greeting cards
- In Europe, the United States and countries of South America, it's common to exchange Christmas cards before Christmas, and they include New Year's greetings. Generally, the Christmas holiday lasts for about a week from December 25 to the end of the year, but New Year's Day is the only official holiday for the New Year period and the usual economic/social activities resume on January 2.