Visiting Japan? We share the history and meaning of a special New Year’s Eve Japanese Tradition, sending postcards to loved ones.
As the year-end approaches, the Japanese cultural tradition of sending New Year’s postcards is gaining seasonal momentum once again. Similar to Christmas cards in other countries, the Japanese send “nengajo” (年賀状) as part of their winter celebrations. But unlike in Western countries, the Japanese postal service offers some special services as part of the tradition.
Cards on New Year’s Morning
The Japanese New Year’s tradition of sending greetings through the mail goes back perhaps 1,000 years. And while younger Japanese are less likely to partake in the ritual, millions and millions of postcards are still sent each year in Japan. And it is part of the custom here in Japan that the postal service works to collect the cards and ensure they are delivered all at once on New Year’s morning (which known in Japan as “Gantan”). Receiving New Year’s cards on the first morning of the year is a very old tradition in Japan.
In much of Japan, the post office will deliver cards on New Year’s morning between 6 and 7 am, to ensure that they are received in time to be read before the first day of the year (which begins at midnight).
The Tokyo post office delivers around 1.9 million cards in this manner, with the service free of charge.
For the rest of the country, the postal service will collect the cards and deliver them to your local post office on New Year’s morning. If you live at a house that has a mailbox, you simply put your postcards in there.
If you live in an apartment, you may want to put your postcard in the mailbox of your building’s entrance.
Thanks and Plans for the New Year
The general theme of nengajo is to express your thanks for your most special relationships, and to show an interest in seeing each other in the coming year. You might send cards to friends and family, and also often to business acquaintances and clients.
Talking with friends in Hokkaido (the northern prefecture of Japan) recently, many are already making plans to send cards this year. A local in Hokkaido might send only a few cards, or as many as 100.
While New Year’s cards are not the same as Christmas cards in other countries, they are still a big part of the culture here in Japan. It’s easier to mail cards from the convenience of your own home, but you can still go to the post office to send them, too.
The post office will have special lines for sending nengajo, and you can even find postcards with the stamp already printed on them. In post offices throughout the country, there are special nengajo lines and windows. You can also mail your cards from most convenience stores, as well.
While the custom of sending New Year’s cards has begun to fade in some areas, it is still a large part of the culture here in Japan. The custom of sending New Year’s cards remains strong in the countryside, and it is still the case that many people send cards to friends, family, and business associates.
You can also send nengajo through the mail to friends and family, as well.
The Basics of Nengajo
You can buy cards at the post office or at stationery stores – even at many of the thousands of convenience stores. Cards with pre-printed messages are common, but you can certainly hand-decorate your own. A traditional message of “Happy New Year” (“謹賀新年”), or perhaps something more personal, might be printed on the card. And while China and Japan have different traditions, they both share an interest in the Chinese zodiac, and the animal for the new year is often part of the design. For example, 2021 was the Year of the Ox. And 2022 you can expect a lot of Tigers on display on the cards.
As you write the address (typically written vertically) on the card, you would add the word “nenga” (年賀) as well, and the post office would know to put the card aside, to be delivered on New Year’s morning in particular (this is true for all cards designated with “nenga” received after December 15th). The timely delivery is part of the tradition of these cards in cities throughout Hokkaido (and across Japan), where you might wake up in your apartment in Sapporo to receive delivery of several messages to start your year.
Returning the Favour
For expat friends living in Hokkaido (or newcomers in general) the tradition is a beautiful look into the many holiday customs centered around the New Year, which is the most significant time of the year for most Japanese people. It is a chance to learn about the culture. And one additional aspect to know about the Nengajo custom is that if you receive a New Year’s postcard, it is customary to send one in return.
It is probably safe to assume that most foreigners are not expected to know the exact customs of Japan. However, if you receive a nengajo, you can write your own, and send it off immediately, and the post office may have time to deliver it the recipient before January 3 (which is considered within the New Year holiday season).
Be Part of the Culture
For expatriates from the West or digital nomads living in Japan this season, the nengajo tradition could be a great way to lean into daily life in Hokkaido and deepen your relationship with the locals.