Oshogatsu, or the New Year’s holiday, is a very special time in Japan. Perhaps the most honored and celebrated of the Japanese holidays, preparations begin long in advance as people clean their homes from top to bottom (osouji), prepare traditional food to be eaten during the first three days of the new year (osechi ryori), and write New Year's greeting cards, or nengajo.
Much like the Christmas and holiday greeting cards exchanged in the West, nengajo are an important part of Japan's New Year festivities. They serve as an expression of gratitude to friends, family and colleagues and help to maintain strong relations from year to year.
This year, why not spread a little holiday cheer by participating in the JICC’s first nengajo design contest? The winning design will be sent as the JICC’s official New Year’s greeting and appear in the official embassy newsletter, Japan Now. The winner will also get the chance to experience another beloved Japanese New Year’s tradition when they receive a fukubukuro—a goodie bag full of surprises!
Oshogatsu, or the New Year’s holiday, is a very special time in Japan—a time for people to return to their ancestral homes, spend time with their families and get in touch with their roots. Perhaps the most honored and celebrated of the Japanese holidays, preparations begin long in advance as people clean their homes from top to bottom (osouji), prepare traditional food to be eaten during the first three days of the new year (osechi ryori), and write New Year's greeting cards, or nengajo.
Much like the Christmas cards and holiday greetings exchanged in the West, nengajo are an important part of Japan's New Year festivities. Now an established tradition, this relatively modern custom can be traced back to the tradition of nenshimawari, or New Year’s visits. During the first few days of the New Year, people would call on friends, family, neighbors, and others who had helped or shown kindness to them during the previous year to express their gratitude in the hopes of preserving their good relations in the year ahead.
When the post office began issuing postcards during the Meiji period (1868-1929), the more convenient trend of sending nengajo spread like wildfire. Today the average family sends over a hundred nengajo to relatives, friends and colleagues. Even businesses are sure to mail one to all their customers. In fact, more than 4 billion New Year’s postcards are sold in Japan each year.
The most popular nengajo designs often incorporate the eto, or zodiac animal, for the new year, traditional Japanese motifs like Mount Fuji or the rising sun, and popular characters like Hello Kitty and Mickey Mouse. To add to the excitement, the Japanese postal service also conducts a nengajo lottery, marking each of its specially produced cards with a number. Lucky numbers are announced in the newspapers, with winners receiving everything from free postal services to TV sets and kitchen appliances.
Like many Japanese traditions, there is a very specific nengajo etiquette code that has no equal in Western culture. While Christmas cards may arrive anytime from Thanksgiving to New Year's, nengajo are expected to be delivered precisely on January 1st, not a day before or after. The post office begins accepting nengajo on December 15th, giving each a special mark to ensure it will be delivered promptly on New Year' Day. Waiting for your bundle of postal love (they literally arrive bound together) and wading through the flood of New Year’s wishes on January 1st is a cherished holiday tradition, similar to anticipating and opening presents.
When a surprise nengajo arrives from someone may have been forgotten, the accepted practice is to return the kindness on January 6th, reminding the sender to take care of their health in the cold weather. It is also important to remember that if someone has recently lost a loved one, a nengajo should not be sent out of respect for the family's mourning.
This season, why not spread a little New Year cheer with your own nengajo? Or better yet, help the JICC celebrate by submitting a design to our very first nengajo design contest! The winning designs will be sent out to the JICC’s mailing list as the official New Year’s greeting and be included in the embassy’s official newsletter, Japan Now. One winner will even get the chance to experience another beloved Japanese tradition when they receive a fukubukuro—a goodie bag full of surprises!