Q:At New Year’s I’ve received some unfamiliar-looking postcards. What are these? What should I do about them?
A:These postcards are called nengajo. They are greeting cards sent out at the New Year to say "Happy New Year,” thank the recipient for their friendship in the previous year, and express hopes for the relationship to continue in the future. In the olden days, it was customary in Japan to go around the neighborhood at New Year’s and give your greetings in person. However, partly because it was difficult give in-person greetings to people who lived far away, it became common to send New Year’s greetings in a letter instead. As the Meiji Period began, the nengajo postcard as we know it today gained popularity.
It is important to send a response as soon as you receive a nengajo. Good etiquette recommends that nengajo arrive within the first week of the New Year. You can purchase the special postcards at post offices or convenience stores. They can be decorated with pictures, or they can be blank—pick whichever you like best. Also, the postcards let you enter a raffle called otoshidama-kuji, which usually takes place in January. Your chances of winning are very low, but if you do win you can get wonderful prizes. This is one fun motivation for sending and receiving nengajo.
In recent years, because computers and cell phones have become common, the number of people who skip sending the postcards and just send New Year’s greetings by email has risen, but receiving mail on New Year’s still makes people very happy, so please give it a try this year! Just remember that it can seem tasteless to send a typed postcard, so make sure to hand-write a personal greeting. You will be sure to leave a good impression.