Every year in late December the Japanese postal system is inundated with colorful post cards crisscrossing the country. These are 年賀状 (Nengajo) or New Year’s cards. Similarly to the way many westerners send Christmas cards to family and friends, Japanese people send nengajo to friends and family, coworkers and business associates, customers and clients across the country, conveying seasonal greetings and well wishes to all.
Unlike holiday greeting card traditions in other countries, nengajo are expected to arrive precisely on January 1st. The Japanese postal system begins accepting nengajo on December 15th and prints a special stamp on them. Nengajo received by the post office between December 15th and 25th are guaranteed to be delivered on New Year’s Day.
Another rule of nengajo is to never send them to someone who has recently lost a loved one out of respect for the family. In fact, families who lose loved ones generally do not send their own nengajo but rather send out a 喪中葉書 (mochu hagaki) – morning postcard – notifying others that they will not receive nengajo in the upcoming year.
The most common designs incorporate the animal corresponding to the upcoming year in the Chinese Zodiac cycle. You will also see traditional Japanese imagery, like Mt. Fuji, the rising sun, or the classic picture of the Great Wave of Kanagawa among others. Also, modern, popular characters like Hello Kitty and Mickey Mouse have made appearances.
Nengajo also have common set phrases of greeting. Below are a few examples:
● "shinnen akemashite omedetou gozaimasu"/"kinga shinnen"/"gashou"/"geishun" – all mean approximately "Happy New Year"
● "kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegai shimasu" - I hope to receive your favor in the coming year as well
● "minasama no gokenkou o oinori moushiagemasu" – Wishing everyone good health
There is also usually space to write a hand-written note. It is not necessary to write a personal note to everyone, but usually people will write something personal for family and friends.
Nengajo can be either printed or handmade. Many people simply order them from stationary vendors and print shops; both online and offline. Nengajo post cards can also be purchased in department stores or just about anywhere that sells letters or paper products.
You can also buy blank nengajo templates and then apply ink with rubber stamps to design your own. Some individuals go so far as to buy their own special ink brushes and write their messages in beautiful traditional calligraphy. Click the image(s) to see details.
While nengajo are a relatively modern element of Japanese culture, having only begun being delivered by the Japanese postal service in the latter half of the 1800s, there are a number of traditions that have sprung up around them.
One is that nengajo are addressed by hand, even if the card is entirely pre-printed otherwise. This is an opportunity for Japanese to show off their penmanship.
Another is the nengajo lottery. The Japanese postal service issues a number of special nengajo that have lottery numbers on them. On January 15th, the winning numbers are picked and then announced on TV and in the newspapers, with prizes ranging from a flat-screen TV, a free vacation, a laptop computer, various kitchen appliances, special unique food items, video game systems, and other smaller items.
The New Year in Japan is a time of various traditions, customs. If you would like to immerse yourself in Japanese culture and celebrate the New Year in a traditional way, be sure to check our articles on osechi ryori, Japanese New Year traditions, and New Year's decorations.
If you would like to learn more about Japanese traditions, visit "traditions" page.
© 2023 Japan Living Guide. All Rights Reserved.