Dec 23, 2018
Americans are no strangers to end-of-year greeting cards. After all, Christmas cards are sometimes the only correspondence you may receive during the year from certain relatives, friends, or work acquaintances. Because of this, Christmas cards are an important way to show that you are thinking of someone -- even if they happen to be far away or if life happened to keep you apart for whatever reason.
In Japan, there is an equivalent: the nengajō, or New Year’s card.
Like Christmas cards in the U.S., nengajō are a person’s way of maintaining and nurturing relationships, especially those that are relatively dormant throughout the rest of the year. For folks working in Japan, it is an important tradition to pick up, so I’ll offer a few tips and tricks on how to approach this part of New Year’s culture.
What are nengajō?
There is no set standard for nengajō, but generally speaking, it is just a postcard. The postcard typically has some little artistic representation of the coming year’s zodiac animal, so all of this year’s nengajō have boars (inoshishi) on them.
While the postcard format is popular, it’s not unusual for folks to opt for full cards or a slip of paper/letter sent in an envelope.
Where can you get nengajō?
If you are thinking of starting the nengajō tradition in your household, you can visit your local Japan Post, supermarket, Aeon, or even Daiso (or other 100 yen store) to find nengajō on sale. The cost of run-of-the-mill nengajō is pretty cheap—after all, the stores expect you to buy a lot of them, so economy of scale works in your favor.
There are now online options for nengajō, but I’m hesitant to comment on the quality or price of that method since I have never used those services.
What are some important things to keep in mind when it comes to nengajō?
There are three things you should keep in mind when it comes to nengajō: cast a wide net to include Japanese family, friends, and work network; make sure they go out in a timely fashion; and don’t sweat the format. Some additional details on each of those things...
Keep in mind that nengajō aren’t absolutely necessary for folks with whom you have routine contact, especially around the New Year’s time. A good rule of thumb: if you’re going to be able to see someone close enough to New Year’s to say the proper New Year’s greeting (“Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu. Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu”), then you don’t have to send a nengajō. The proper recipients include extended family, friends, and your work network. From a career standpoint, the work network is probably the most important in Japan, since the nengajō is a way to keep relationships healthy despite infrequent contact.
The key for nengajō is that they should arrive sometime in the first week of January, but it looks better the closer to the 1st that it is received. This was something new to me, since I grew up where Christmas cards were good to receive anytime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and New Year’s cards were good any time in January. Oh boy, let me tell you though: one year (the year my first child was born right around New Year’s) I took my time sending my nengajō out, and people weren’t afraid to tell me I’d messed up. They would laugh and say, “Oh [genkidesuka]-san, you were slow on your New Year’s greetings this year!”
Japan post has a special service that will allow you to schedule delivery for all of your nengajō, but the time is fast approaching if you want to try to use that service.
3) Don’t sweat the format
I have said it on city-cost before, but I’ll say it again: don’t try to out-Japanese the Japanese. Nobody expects us expats to have the system down pat, so don’t try to fit a square peg in a round hole if it’s not your thing. You don’t have to send out standard nengajō cards. One year, I ordered customized New Year’s cards that had pictures of my family from the year that just passed.
Or, you can do what I’ve taken to doing, and that’s sending electronic nengajō. I create my own nengajō e-card and then send a message to every key contact I have, wishing them a Happy New Year and giving them a brief update on my work and my family. Sure, a paper card is more meaningful, but if you have a broad network, this method can get the job done.
Hitting the books once again as a Ph.D. student in Niigata Prefecture. Although I've lived in Japan many years, life as a student in this country is a first.
Blessed Dad. Lucky Husband. Happy Gaijin (most of the time).