As the year comes to a close, people send different forms of heartfelt messages around the world. This is done for all types of purposes, whether it be reaching out & staying in touch between family and friends, or keeping good relations between businesses and customers. In the US, many usually do this in the form of holiday cards, such as Christmas cards or New Years cards. Similarly, Japan has a practice of using cards as well, which is called nengajō (年賀状). What is the story behind nengajō? In this article, we’ll explore the history behind these letters of happy new year wishes & when they came about in Japan, along with the iconic appearance that has become a mainstay. We’ll also touch upon the rules & hardships that come along with following this tradition, as well as how technology is changing people approach sending out new year wishes.
MEANING AND HISTORY
The word “nengajō” stands for a written letter used to wish good fortune in the new year. In today’s standards, this is labeled simply as a holiday card. Such practice in Japan was recorded around the later part of Heian period (794 ~1185). Evidence of this is found within the collection of letters called “Unshū Shōsoku” (雲集消息), which were of the possession of Heian aristocrat and Confucius scholar Fujiwara Akihira. In this collection, there are exchanges of messages of New Year wishes between him and others. Considering the time period and how aristocrat families primarily had access to literacy education, it is believed that the practice of nengajō started with this group. Other examples of expressing new year wishes can be also found in educational resources called “Teikin Ōrai” (庭訓往来), which were used at private temple schools starting sometime in the 1300s during the Muromachi period. In the past, the most common phrases found in these letters included expressions of fortune or wishing happiness to the recipient as Spring was opening up throughout Japan. Along with the elite families, military families would also follow this tradition, as many warlords saw it important to uphold good relations with their allies.
In the Edo period, this practice was slowly being adopted by the common people. This is due to literacy education being made available through private elementary schools, which helped society as a whole develop with each generation. Still, the catch was that family had to be making a well enough income to afford education lessons. Education as a whole made it possible for many towns & prefectures to incorporate cultural traditions primarily elite families partook in the past. As nengajō became a growing practice among the masses, one form of transportation that became essential was the mobility of machibikyaku (町飛脚), or express messengers in English. This special service was introduced as a simple solution to meet the demands of Japanese citizens having their holiday cards reach their families, friends, and acquaintances on the exact day of gantan (元旦), or 1st day of the new year. Machibikyaku were depended on for this task up until the ending of the Edo period, as this service would be replaced by a more systematic process known as the postal system.
The postal system was introduced in Japan around 1871, with post offices slowly constructed in each prefecture throughout the country. The postal service would become fully established around Japan within the years, which from there a formal delivery service could be provided throughout the country. Citizens took advantage of this, for in late 1880s onward post offices had to handle the bulk of these holiday cards from everyone throughout Japan in the last month of the year, as postal workers had to work around the clock to ensure each and every nengajō made it to their destinations on the 1st day of the new year. This approach was adopted from how the machibikyaku were used for express deliveries in short periods of time.
DESIGNS AND FEATURES
Over the course of history, nengajō went through several visual and physical transitions. More ancient examples can be seen from resources like Unshū Shōsoku and Teikin Ōrai, where In the beginning this letters were sent that contained new year wishes in the form of one to two line greetings. Once Japan was unified by one sole power called the Tokugawa Shogunate and giving birth to Edo period in the early 1600s, nengajō retained its letter form as common people emulated what was done in the past. In some of these, illustrations were added along with the message depending on the sender’s taste. These new year letters were folded into a smaller, compact size, which made easy to carry by those who could travel, or be piled with other letters in a square box and easily distributed by machibikyaku once they reached their destination.
As Edo period came to an end, with Meiji period taking its place in late mid 1800s, advancement in modernization would influence how people would send out nengajō. With an actual postal system in play, actual holiday cards called nenga hagaki would be made available for purchase. This version was especially well received during the early to mid 20th century, as people could go to their local post office, book stores,or specialty shops and purchase these pre-made cards. This period saw a very iconic look for these holiday cards, where on one side would be for the address of the sender & recipient and the stamp, while the other side would feature some form of illustration followed by space for one’s message.
Speaking of which, with the inclusion of the card design came other features that gave sending nengajo more appeal. The 1st one being otoshidama-zuki nenga hagaki (お年玉付き年賀はがき), which are holiday cards equipped with lottery numbers. These lottery numbers are issued by the postal system and give the recipient a chance to win small prizes. Take note that these cards are only purchasable from post offices, as this is one of the ways the postal service makes money. There are 2 periods in which these lottery holiday cards can be purchased, with the earliest being July, and the latest during August. These lottery cards are different from regular cards used as nengajō, which are generally made available from November 1st. Surprisingly, these lottery holiday cards became the “expected” way of sending new year wishes at one point.
The other appealing feature would be the nenga kitte (年賀切手), or new year stamps. These specialized stamps were introduced to the public in late 1935, and were designed to be placed on nengajō. Over the years, these stamps featured unique art themes to make them more eye-catching, such as having a national landmark, a symbol attached to a specific prefecture or island in Japan, a person in an attractive outfit, and to the ever familiar Zodiac animals. New year stamps are still in play today, both physical and digital stamps (more on this later).
RULES & HARDSHIPS
Nengajō has a pivotal place in Japanese society. In modern times, people took sending these holiday cards out seriously, especially for maintaining good business relations. Since their purpose is to wish the recipient a fortunate new year, they need to be prepared & sent out at on time. There are actual protocols that need to be followed when sending these out.
- The period for sending out nengajō is from the last week of November to around 2nd~3rd week of December
- Cut off time for the post office to receive nengajō is December 25th
- While any type of holiday card can be used, official ones issued by the post office were the expected type
- Nengajō had to be bought at a particular time, especially otoshidama-zuki nenga hagaki
While this is a seasonal practice, just keeping in mind when to prepare for this isn’t too much of a hassle, especially when sending out personal holiday cards for family and friends. On the other hand, businesses are hard pressed with getting all of their holiday cards out at a timely fashion. Companies are expected to take seriously the custom of sending out new year wishes to everyone they communicate throughout the years, whether it be customers, associates, and vendors. This includes individual workers who are the position of working directly in business transactions.
Speaking of which, there was a point where sending nengajō was a serious endeavor that equipment was needed to assist with the volume of holiday cards that was required to be to sent out. From the late 1970s to early 2000s there was a handy device called “Print Gocco” (プリントごっこ), which allowed anyone to custom design their cards with the typical designs found on nengajō. It was small & simple to use, and would allow anyone to fully design a typical holiday card in a short amount of time (specially-supplied cards from the post office generally were used). Of course, what a Print Gokko could not do was duplicate a hand written message, which a person had to do themselves. In terms of experience with a Print Gokko, my Japanese father-in-law invested in this during his years of full-time employment at a company. It wasn’t for personal use though, but instead needed to prepare nengajō for customers and business partners he interacted with over the years. Every year he had to prepare around 200 of these holiday cards at home using the Print Gocco, and making time to write personal messages based on recipient. My wife explained that was a daunting task on him, and how others in Japan had the same routine as him. This is an example of how important keeping good relations through nengajō was viewed upon throughout the years.
Another example of the importance nengajō presented was impacted on the Japanese postal system. Pressure was placed on post offices around Japan for many years, especially during the late 21st century, when the economy was at its highest point and many high-profile businesses doing well worldwide. During this period, the volume of mail that included nengajō was unmanageable during regular postal schedule. This instilled a critical end-of-the-year overtime during the last week of December, where Post Offices had to hire part-time workers, usually students, to handle the task of delivering nengajō on January 1st. This is reminiscent of how machibikyaku worked during the Edo period. As of recent, this end-of-the-year overtime was lifted off the post office, due the lesser volume of physical holiday cards they see nowadays.
DECLINE DUE TO MODERN ADVANCEMENT
Nengajō has cemented its place in Japanese culture. However, how people continue this tradition of new year wishes is changing. Advancement in technology has given the world options for ease of accessibility for many areas of interest with the introduction of computers and smart devices. People can enjoy nengajō through these methods, but in return interest in sending out physical mail has dwindled considerably.
Let’s take a look at how technology has given people options with nengajō. From the late 20th century to early 21st century, print shops, as well as online services that can be accessed on one’s personal computer, offer options to customizing and designing unique holiday cards. Through such service, customers do such things like choose font type, adjust layout, to adding their favorite pictures, including of family members. The popularity in this was due to the departure from the more traditional look of nengajō since the start of the Meiji period, to a modern standard that fit everyone’s personal taste and style.
Technology of smartphones in the early 21st century would further give people greater ease of sending holiday wishes through digital nengajō using SMS, such as Line app. Along with one’s personal message and decorated picture, users can add cool looking new years stamps. Digital nengajō is a very cost-efficient way of staying in touch and is extremely popular way among different age groups in Japan. Of course, with this ease in communicating with both family and friends through tech, the more traditional method of “snail mail” using paper cards and physical stamps is not relied on as it once used to be decades ago.
This concludes our look at nengajō and its impactful history in Japanese culture. As a well-documented practice, there are some really nice designs that can be viewed online of cards & stamps used within the last century. Even though there’s a departure from physical nengajō, sending them digitally is also cool, as it still retains the spirit of wishing a happy new year to loved ones & friends. As a whole, one can have fun making a comparison of this holiday card practice in Japan with one’s own country’s standards.