Japanese nengajo (年賀状), or New Year greetings cards, are a fun and easy way to show your appreciation to everyone you care about over the holidays. They’re also a great way to send cool Japanese well-wishes to your friends and family back home.
However, there are rules on who, when and how to send your nengajo. There are even restrictions based on what happened the previous year. To avoid offending a large group of people too early on in the year, here’s a step-by-step guide to sending your New Year’s cards.
Step One: Buy or create your own nengajo
You can pick up pre-printed nengajo in stores like Loft and Don Quijote, stationery shops, post offices and even supermarkets from late November. There are hundreds of different designs to choose from, but most will have a version of the upcoming year’s zodiac sign.
Some people like to include photos of themselves or their family, and there’s usually an option to create digital designs and print them off. Some websites offer free printable designs. The Japan Post has a whole page dedicated to making your own nengajo. You can also just buy a standard card and write nenga (年賀) next to the address to indicate that it’s a New Year’s card.
Step Two: Write your message
Once you’ve made your nengajo, it’s best to include a message (there’s nothing more mysterious or creepy than an empty greeting card), and Japanese has many stock phrases to wish somebody a happy new year so that you can mix it up a bit.
Of course, you can write a more personal message. The custom of nengajo is based on nenshi mawari, or the New Year’s holidays. Traditionally, people would visit family, friends and neighbors in person to say thank you for their support or help during the previous year.
Japanese New Year Phrases
|Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu
|Happy New Year
|Shinnen omedetou gozaimasu
|Happy New Year (alternative)
|Sakunen wa osewa ni narimashita
|Thank you for everything last year
|Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu
|Thank you in advance for this year
|Gokenshou to gotakou wo oinori moushiagemasu
|Wishing your family good health and happiness
The Japan Post website also provides some example phrases in Japanese for different social contexts that you can copy.
Step Three: Send your nengajo
Usually, when you buy nengajo, they already include postage, which means you don’t need to buy stamps and get a furry tongue sticking them all on. Japan Post starts accepting nengajo from Dec. 15. The whole postal service revs up, changing post boxes to include a separate opening for nengajo and labeling each card to ensure they will be delivered precisely on the morning of Jan. 1 — as long as you sent them before Christmas.
If you are a bit late to the game, you can still send cards up until Jan. 7. Any date after that is considered socially unacceptable.
The post office hires part-time workers to help deliver an estimated two billion cards to households in carefully bound bundles. When nengajo are delivered, it’s an exciting time for families to open their parcel on New Year’s and check out the year’s designs.
Most cards will have a version of the upcoming year’s zodiac sign.
Keep in mind that you’re not supposed to send nengajo to a person who has had a death in the family the previous year. They will have sent a mochuu hagaki (喪中はがき) or mourning postcard, to let you know not to send one if you’re not sure.
To send your nengajo abroad, Japan Post has an ¥18 stamp that can be added to the normal postcard (already postmarked) to be delivered by airmail. However, there are no guarantees that the postal service at the other end will do as efficient a job.
Many people use nengajo with lottery numbers for the New Year’s Jumbo Lottery. The numbers are issued by the Japan Post and usually printed on the bottom of the card. Prizes are announced on Jan. 15 and typically are household items like TVs or laundry appliances like washers and dryers. The odds are stacked — something like like four billion to one — but you never know, anything’s possible. This just might just be your lucky year!