With the yearend rush fast approaching, Dave has a very timely question about Japanese New Year cards:

“I’m not a Christmas card kind of guy and last year was no exception. However, at New Year’s I got a bunch of postcards from friends and coworkers wishing me a happy 2013. Who should I send them to and when should I send them by?”

The cards Dave refers to are called nengajō and serve largely the same role as Christmas and holiday cards in Western countries — as greetings to friends, relatives and colleagues. Just as less people are sending holiday cards these days, younger generations of Japanese are also cutting back on New Year’s greetings, being more likely to send an email via their cellphone. However, the nengajō still holds an important role in social custom here, and as Dave notes, even foreign residents who would never think of sending cards back home may wish to brush up on the etiquette.

As a rule of thumb, if someone sent a card to you last year, return the favor this year. It would be prudent to send one to your manager and senior colleagues at work, as well as to older Japanese friends and anyone who has helped you in the past 12 months. It’s also a nice way to stay in touch with friends in other parts of the country. Nengajō can also double as greetings for friends and families back home, too.

Even very small Japanese children send nengajō to their classmates and teacher, and writing the cards is a good way to practice their penmanship. Older kids, particularly girls, often enjoy designing their own nengajō for their school friends. And while it might seem a bit twee, our vet sends a nengajō to our three cats, wishing them a “purr-fect” new year and reminding them not to forget their shots.

The basic nengajō design includes a picture and greeting on the front, with the stamp and recipient’s address on the back. The sender’s address can go on the back, or may be pre-printed on the same side as the design. Cards often feature the animal for the coming year, which is a horse for 2014.

With digital technology, it is very easy to make the cards. Any large department store will have a photo counter where you can choose from a variety of designs and add your own text and photos. These are popular with families, since they can include a picture of the kids to show how they’ve grown.

If you prefer something simpler and cheaper, you can make your own nengajō on your computer and print them off at home on postcards, which you can buy from the local post office. On Japan Post’s website, you design your cards online and they’ll be printed and delivered to your door (print.shop.jp-network.japanpost.jp/nenga — Japanese only).

Ideally, nengajō should arrive on New Year’s Day. Legions of part-time delivery staff, hired for the holiday season, work through the night on Dec. 31 to accomplish this. The post office starts accepting the cards from Dec. 15 and guarantees that those posted by the 25th will be delivered on New Year’s Day. Not everyone is so prepared, though, and plenty of cards arrive on the second or third of January and beyond. From around the 15th, you’ll see red public post boxes have a special slot specifically for nengajō, so be sure to use the other slot for sending regular mail.

If you receive a nengajō from someone you didn’t send one to, there is no shame in quickly writing one and posting it off, even if it will arrive late. It’s generally considered OK for about a week into the New Year. Luckily, convenience stores stock a range of cards for just these last-minute occasions.

Please note that you shouldn’t send a nengajō if a person had a death in their immediate family the previous year. This usually includes a child, parent or grandparent, or a sibling or their partner in some cases. As a courtesy to those on their nengajō list, in November bereaved families send out a simple white card, edged in black, announcing the passing of their loved one and apologizing for not sending nengajō. If you happen to receive this type of card, known as a mochūketsurei hagaki, no action is necessary on your part. However, if you didn’t know about a family’s loss in advance and sent them a nengajō anyway, don’t worry about it too much. They will take the greeting in the spirit with which it was sent.

Kiwi Louise George Kittaka has been based in Japan since she was 20. In the ensuing years she has survived PTA duty for three kids in the Japanese education system and singing live on national TV for the NHK Nodo Jiman show, among other things. Send comments and questions to lifelines@japantimes.co.jp.

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