Your Easy Guide to Japan’s New Year’s Greetings Cards, the Nengajyou

Your Easy Guide to Japan’s New Year’s Greetings Cards, the Nengajyou

The number of New Year's postcards 年賀状 = nengajyou issued in 2021 clocked in at approx. 1.83 billion pieces. 

These cards go on sale yearly from November 1, and post offices begin collections on December 15 to achieve a January 1st delivery. 

Photography studios, stationary stores, and even your local Lawson or 7-11 will have dedicated sections presenting New Year's postcards 年賀状 = nengajyou

So just what do you need to know about Japan’s year-end greeting traditions? 

Are your Japanese friends expecting you to send these? Will you get side-eye if you don’t? And what should you do if you’re the recipient of a New Year’s postcard?

Here’s everything you need to know (and a little bit extra) about Japan’s New Year’s greetings. 

The early history of the nengajyou in Japan

According to Japan’s online museum dedicated to New Year greeting cards, the first New Year's greetings in Japan were exchanged not too long after the adoption of the Chinese calendar by the Yamato court in the beginning of the 7th century. 

The museum goes on to note that while there is no historical record of who sent the very first New Year's greetings in Japan, a collection of letter examples written by Fujiwara no Akihira in the late Heian period (794–1185) contains several illustrations of New Year's greetings, suggesting that they had become widespread among the elite during that time.

With the establishment of the Gokaido under Tokugawa Iyesu’s rule, and the explosive rise of merchant culture, letters were exchanged not only among the upper class, but also among the working class, too (likely due to the extremely high literacy rates that Japan enjoyed compared to other countries during this same time period). 

A reference to New Year’s greeting cards in a 1702 poem further shows they had become a standard greeting during the Edo period (1603–1867). 

Nengajyou gets a boost from Japan’s postal system

When Japan’s postal system was established in 1871, New Year's greetings were still sealed in envelopes. But with the creation of the postcard medium, citizens quickly switched to sending New Year greetings via postcard from as early as 1875. 

[Image: A nengajyou postcard from 1877. Nengajyou Hakubutsukan.]

[Image: A nengajyou postcard from 1877. Nengajyou Hakubutsukan.]

Subsequently, the volume of New Year's greetings caused annual postal delays. Citizens wanted their greetings to be postmarked on the first day of the New Year. Therefore, there would be a rush to the post offices in the week immediately prior to January 1. 

Various systems were experimented with to ease the year-end postal burden. Finally, in 1899, a special countermeasure was legislated. And if you brought your New Year greeting card to the post office between December 20 and 30, it would be postmarked on January 1 and delivered in the New Year (not necessarily on New Year's Day).

The number of post offices designated for special handling of New Year's greeting cards gradually increased, and by 1905, all post offices in Japan were able to handle this service. However, back then, New Year's greeting cards had to be sent in a certain number of pieces and brought in-person to the post office.

In 1907, new legislation allowed postcards to be sent to mailboxes as long as they were marked "New Year's greetings" on the front—and it is the current system we use today. 

The New Year’s postcard lottery お年玉付き年賀

The lottery-postcard system first started in 1949 (Showa 24), when Masaji Hayashi, a private citizen, proposed the idea of attaching a lottery number to each New Year greeting card sold by the post office. 

Essentially, he felt that people might stop sending cards to each other (this was right after World War II), and that attaching a raffle number to each postcard could encourage people to inquire after friends and help lift the spirit of a depressed nation. 

The ministry decided, why not? The prizes included a sewing machine, wool fabric, gloves for school-aged children, an umbrella for school-aged children, etc. 

[Image: Poster advertising the first New Year’s postcard lottery from 1949. Postal Museum Japan.]

[Image: Poster advertising the first New Year’s postcard lottery from 1949. Postal Museum Japan.]

The New Year postcard lottery became an instant hit. The volume of New Year's cards increased significantly that year and rose with each subsequent year until 2003. 

Today, the New Year’s postcard lottery is still in place; this year, the lottery drawing will be held on January 16, 2022, and the first prize is either 300,000 yen in cash or 310,000 yen worth of electronic money. The full list of prizes can be found on Japan Post’s site

Who should I send nengajyou to? 

Japanese use this greeting as a way to stay in touch with relatives, friends, and acquaintances. It is also acceptable to send greetings to coworkers, one’s boss, and business partners. 

Overall, sending New Year’s greetings has been on the decline. In 2003, the number of New Year's cards issued reached a high of 4,459,360,000, but by 2020, the number had dropped to 1,941,980,000.

Similarly, the number of New Year's cards per person peaked in 2003 at 35 per person. But since then, the number of cards per person has gradually decreased, reaching a record low of 16 cards per person in 2021. 

Still, a survey of 1,200 people conducted this year revealed that over half planned to send New Year’s greeting cards. And more than 60 percent of those surveyed had sent greetings the year before. 

Having said all that, as a foreigner in Japan, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be hurting any of your relationships if you don’t send them out. Additionally, there are a rising number of Japanese who would prefer to not. 

Some people are letter-writing-greeting-card-types. Others aren’t. Bottom line, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to. 

Where can I buy nengajyou

Is there any shop that doesn’t sell nengajyou? Kidding aside, you can buy them pretty much at any department shop, convenience store, online, or at your local post office. 

You can buy them singly or in bulk. The price is 63 yen per card, which includes the price of postage. 

How do I write an address on a nengajyou?

Here’s an example from Dekiru.net on how to address a New Year’s greeting card. 

[Image: Dekiru.net]

[Image: Dekiru.net]

  1. Pay attention to spacing. There should be a gap of 1 character space between the zip code and the right edge of the postcard. Write the full address, including the prefecture, and use Chinese numerals when writing vertically and digits when writing horizontally.

  2. The name of the apartment building should be written slightly smaller and lower than the first address line. 

  3. The name should be written slightly larger than the address and include a space between each character to maintain a pleasing balance. 

  4. Include “sama” 「様」below the name. If the letter is addressed to a mentor, doctor, lawyer, or politician, add "Sensei” 「先生」.

  5. If you are sending a “normal” postcard (not one specifically sold as a New Year postcard), write "Nenga" 「年賀」in red below the stamp.

  6. Your return address/sender info should stay within the width of the stamp. (It is also acceptable to write your address on the back of the card.) 

What type of message should I include in the New Year’s greeting? 

New Years’ greeting cards all follow a typical structure. Here’s an example provided by Japan Post: 

[Image: Japan Post.]

[Image: Japan Post.]

In general, a New Year's card consists of the following items in order.

  1. A New Year greeting, such as 「謹賀新年」「賀春」are often written in a larger size than the rest of the text.

  2. A sentence expressing gratitude for the previous year's relationship, joy at having successfully arrived at the New Year, and other sentences that express thankfulness.

  3. The body of the letter, including recent developments, aspirations, thoughts, and apologies.

  4. Concluding remarks, including wishes and expectations for the recipient's health, happiness, prosperity, and success

Although there is some variation depending on degrees of closeness, this is the general structure of a New Year’s greeting card, and you can’t go wrong if you follow this outline. 

If you want to copy and paste text, Japan Post provides standard phrases for a variety of situations. Link here

When do I need to send this out by? 

Postal collection of New Year greeting cards begins on December 15. If you want your New Year’s greeting to be delivered on January 1, make sure you have sent it in by December 25. 

You can reply to New Year’s greetings from January 1 to January 7. 

Take note: From January 8 onwards, it will become a winter greeting and not a New Year greeting. 


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