New Year´s postcard – "Nengajo" with all its pleasure and pain

Historical background
It is certainly an internationally common practice to send greeting cards for the New Year. The Japanese people have been exchanging New Year´s greetings for more than one thousand years. It is not sure when the Japanese people started such practice, but surely not earlier than the official adoption of lunar calendar and the start of New Year´s greeting ceremony in the court in the 7th century. During the Edo period (1603-1867) the private courier system developed in Japan and sending greeting letters to remote friends and acquaintances became common.

However, the current prosperity of "New Year´s postcard" (nengajo) has its roots in the introduction of modern postal system from the UK in 1871. This ignited the nengajo boom of the Japanese people toward the end of the 19th century. The rapid increase of nengajo caused an excess burden on the Post Office around the New Year, because everybody wanted a postmark dated "First of January". In order to cope with paralysis of postal service, the Post Office started in 1899 a special service for nengajo, namely it started to give much required postmark "First of January", if the postcards were posted between the 20th and 30th of December.

In 1935 special New Year´s stamps were put on the market for the first time and attracted further people. The number of New Year´s postcard reached more than 700 million in the same year. Thereafter, the number of New Year´s postcard decreased due to the lack of materials in face of war, and the special handling of nengajo was suspended in 1940. In a sense the number of nengajo is a kind of barometer of peace.

Lottery postcard
After the war the handling of New Year´s postcard could not start immediately, because people were still struggling with the reestablishment of daily life. The special handling of New Year´s greeting card was resumed in 1948 and the number of cards started to increase commensurate with the progress of reconstruction. In particular, the increase of greeting card was strongly promoted by the introduction of lottery for official New Year´s postcard in 1949. In the peak year 1993 the number of New Year´s postcard reached 3.7 billion; in other words a Japanese individual including newly born baby sends out about 30 cards in average.

The prizes of the lottery reflect the general living conditions of the corresponding time. The first price was at the beginning sawing machine, then electric washing machine, portable TV and so on. I personally had an incredible experience with the lottery. When my daughter was in the pre-school, one of the greeting cards she sent to her friends got the first prize: a super modern TV. The mother gave us a call to report on this incredible New Year´s present. The family still lives in the neighborhood, but I am sure that they do not use the TV anymore, as digital system was introduced in the meantime and the old technology became out of use.

Recently people come to write fewer New Year´s postcards. One of the reasons why the number of New Year´s greeting card decreased since the mid-1990s is obviously the development of internet. More people send their greeting by e-mail. Young people in general are less interested in writing many greeting cards. In addition, economic stagnation might have decreased the expenditure on greeting cards.

Official New Year´s postcard - address side

Postmark is ommited for the current official New Year´s card and a illustration indicating the New Year´s greeting is insted printed below the stamp.

Lottery number is printed at the bottom of the address page.

Official New Year´s postcard
Address side

Preparation of New Year´s postcard
In fact preparing New Year´s card is a hard and painful but interesting task. Among others we have to decide on the design of nengajo, because it is not friendly to use ready-made design. Therefore, we all have to be a temporary artist for the preparation of nengajo.

When I was a child, PC was not available and many people made their cards using woodblock and other materials. Printing is a preferred method in the preparation of New Year´s card, because we write many cards as I mentioned before. Children often used sweet potato in place of woodblock, as raw potato is soft enough for small children to curve figures and is durable at least for a few dozen of prints. There were many kinds of home printing tools. But, most of them have been replaced by smart computer software.

As for the addresses, there are now various kinds of addressing software with database. However, I do not find it friendly to use computer for the whole preparation process. We need somewhere the trace of our manual work. Therefore, I always write addresses with a writing brush and traditional sumi ink, though it causes lots of additional work.

Nowadays, almost all cards are made with PC and we can seldom see handmade cards. PC makes it easier and more popular to print family photos on the New Year´s cards. Young parents are eager to show their babies, newly-married couples their wedding photos and pet loves take up their beloved animals. It is also usual to print Chinese zodiac using photo, illustration or calligraphy; 2011 for example is the year of rabbit. Mt. Fuji is also popular for New Year´s card, as seeing it at the year begin is believed to bring good luck. Much attention is paid to the visual effect of New Year´s postcard, but some people try to put as many letters as possible and inform about their life. Everybody has his own style.

My personal case
I am in fact one of those lazy people who are reluctant to send New Year´s postcards. When the year-end approaches, I always feel gloomy, because I have to do lots of things, if I am to send New Year´s cards: update the address list, buy postcards with lottery, draw illustration and decide on the text. Then, write addresses, add some handwriting and bring them to a postbox. But, this is not the end; always my address list does not cover all senders of greeting cards to me. On the first days of the New Year, I have to print additional cards, write addresses and greeting words and post the finished cards.

I used to write some 60 to 70 purely private cards and in addition up to 150 cards for business relations, though business cards are taken care of in the office and I do not have to respond to all incoming cards. When we are abroad, the workload is doubled, because I cannot use the lottery postcard issued by the Japanese post. I have to buy dozens of greeting cards and stamps, write all texts manually, put stamps on all of them and send them through international post service.

Therefore, I stopped sending New Year´s cards to the Japanese friends several years ago and started sending greeting e-mails instead. Then I stopped even sending e-mails last year. Nevertheless, I received some 60 private greeting cards last year and this year as well. Maybe, I have to resume writing nengajo to my close friend next year, so as not to fail in my social duty.

In short, nengajo offers us a possibility to be an artist. Whether it makes fun or becomes just a burden, it is up to you.

Some examples of nengajo
Depicting rabbit with writing brush and sumi ink
Short sentences related to rabbit, with a rabbit illustration
Calligraphy of the Chinese character "rabbit"
Mt. Fuji is a sign of fortune at the year beginn.
A photo of the wedding for the people who did not participate.
Recipients can imagine the pleasure of parents from such a card.
Some people report from their overseas tours in the previous year.
Of course there are anime fleaks.
And there are also dog fleaks!