Japanese New Year Cards – Interesting Facts and How to Write Them Properly
Nengajyou （年賀状）are special New Years cards people send to friends, family, and co-workers to express gratitude and celebrate the new year. People started writing them in Japan around the Nara period, the one before the Heian period. These elaborate, colorful, and heart-warming cards show a person's appreciation and affection for being helped in the previous year and help maintain good relationships in the year to come; they’re like Japan’s Christmas cards.
These cards get shipped via the Japan Post postal service. There was a custom of making sure all of your intended new years cards were in the mail by December 25th. This was so the post office could ship them all on new years day, but with the increase in online new years cards, and to give people more time, December 30th became the new peak sending time.
People need that extra time, because traditionally the cards are inked, written, and drawn by hand. One card might not seem hard, but when you think about all the people you have to send cards to like grandma, your parents, your siblings, your aunts and uncles, their kids, family friends, your own friends, co-workers, your boss, your boss’s boss … huh, my wrist just snapped!
There’s a special postcard called an “Otoshidamatsuki-yuubinhagaki” (お年玉付郵便はがき) for new years. These cards can be ones with a plain white backside and a frontside with a 63 yen postage plus space for a sender and recipient’s address. There are also more elaborate postcards with pre-printed images and messages; however, handwritten Nengajyou generally show more thought and consideration.
Nengajyou correspond to the Chinese zodiac, so each year they use a different animal in the cycle. Next year will be the year of the cow (丑), so if you’re in Japan, or anywhere else in east Asia, you may see stores with white clay cattle and racks of cards with cute images of cows and bulls.
Nengajyou aren't hard to find. If you want the plain white ones for a handwritten card you can walk into any supermarket, post office, or convenience store and purchase as many as you need. For pre-printed cards, there are usually lots in malls in Japan and at stationary stores (文房具屋).
If you decide to send a Nengajyou or 20 this year, here are some tips and basic guidelines to consider. On the front of the postcard, your name and address go on the bottom left side. The recipients name, followed by "sama" (様), goes in the middle. Their address, and/or any company or organization info, go on the far right. If the recipient has a special title, like "shachou", put that in smaller characters above their name.
On the back of the card, one can draw an image with the relevant animal. You don’t have to hand draw everything though, luckily, because there are usually special stamps sold near the cards that have pre-molded images and messages. There are also special ink pads with many different colors besides the usual red and black. There are even special stickers and envelopes for the more daring and industrious card-maker.
There are even standardized new years greetings depending on whether you’re sending the card to a teacher, someone of higher or lower status, relatives, parents, someone who got married, someone who became pregnant, someone who gave birth, replies to received Nengajyou, and for someone who has suffered a calamity or loss that year. These phrases are usually set words followed by a greeting, but keep in mind to whom you give which greeting. Its customary to write "akemashite omedetou gozaimasu" (あけましておめでとうございます) to people at new years, which is fine for friends and family, but when writing a card to your supervisor or boss it's better to write the expression "kingashinnen" (謹賀新年). After the new year's greeting, remember to add the date for the new year. This date follows the imperial calendar, so instead of January 1st 2021, you’d write "Reiwa 3 nen gantan" (令和3年元旦).
If you’re ever not sure what to write (like me!), there are plenty of sites with tips and good/bad examples to reference. If you’re a foreign worker like me, people will be surprised by you just sending a new years card though so don’t worry too much. Here’s a card I’m sending to some friends and co-workers:
Bonus: Christmas Cards
Japanese Christmas cards are also amazing. When I lived in the USA I never felt like the Christmas cards were all that impressive, but the cards here really pop. There are more plain cards with tiny Santas hoisting a mikoshi in a shrine, and more elaborate fold out cards that play Christmas songs. I’ve found one’s shaped like lanterns, fireplaces, snow globes, and tiny town squares. A lot of us might not get to go home for Christmas this year, but sending one of these Christmas cards will show just how much we care about the people back home.
Have a Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Joyous Kwanzaa, and Happy New Year! Remember to write your cards.