The end of the year is a busy season everywhere around the world. In Japan, as in many Asian countries, it becomes even busier thanks to the custom of writing New Year’s cards, or 年賀状 (nengajō) as they are called here.
Though few people I know seem to be particularly enthusiastic about the required preparations (design the cards, determine who to drop or add on one’s list of addressees, keep track of address changes, bereavements, etc.), virtually everyone is looking forward to finding this lovely little rubber-banded deck of cards in their mailbox on the very first day of the new year.
While the advancement of communication over the Internet has led to a significant decrease in the number of card sales, there can be no doubt that the custom of nengajō writing is still very much alive and kicking. According to Japan Post, in 2015 a total of more than 3 billion cards were issued nationwide. This is an average of 23.8 cards per person, including newborns and all other non- or pre-literate citizens.
A recent online survey asked 600 people about their preferences when receiving New Year’s cards, and in particular, about those types of cards they were not particularly happy about getting. The things they said revealed quite a few inconvenient truths, at least for such lousy nengajō writers as me.
By far the most frequent complaint, given by 224 people, was about cards without any handwriting on them. True, even ordinary home printers and the right software can produce some quite sophisticated and professional-looking cards these days, fake handwriting included. However, it seems that for most people, technology is not all there is to it — or at least not when it comes to New Year’s greetings. Writing the receiver’s address by hand goes some way to acknowledging this, but, of course, there is nothing like a true handwritten message.
Yet not just any message will do — particularly not when it’s only the good old あけおめことよろ (akeome kotoyoro), as some people now pejoratively call the off-the-peg New Year’s greeting あけましておめでとうございます。今年もよろしくお願い します (Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu. Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegai shimasu). A total of 124 respondents said they found this phrase wanting of a personal touch, and thus insufficient as the sole message on a New Year’s card. It seems that ultimately there is no getting around coming up with some more ambitious prose.
And that’s no doubt the hardest part of the nengajō game, because there are quite a lot of things people do not really want to hear about. Ninety-six survey respondents said that they didn’t like any form of 自慢話 (jimanbanashi), or bragging about oneself and one’s achievements over the previous year. Another no-go area is overly personal questions such as そろそろ結婚？ (Sorosoro kekkon?, “Is there a wedding coming up?”), which 23 of the respondents condemned as おせっかい (osekkai, meddlesome) or 大きなお世話, (ōkina osewa, none of your business).
Apart from the message itself, there are also a few things that can go wrong with respect to the design of the card. A thing no less than 108 people said they disliked were cards showing photos of the sender’s child or children only. Even if you do not agree with the position of one 30-year-old respondent, who was quoted as saying 子どもが嫌いなので (Kodomo ga kirai nanode, “Because I hate children”), you too might occasionally have wondered what the point is in 一度も会ったことのない子どもの写真を送られてもなぁ~ (ichido mo atta koto no nai kodomo no shashin o okurarete mo nā, being sent a photo of children one has never met), as one 47-year-old respondent put it.
Also, be sure you use the official Japan Post nengajō cards, with お年玉 (otoshidama, New Year’s gift) numbers at the bottom. A lottery drawing each year in the middle of January determines which of these are the lucky ones, and if you happen to have one of them inscribed on a nengajō you received, you may win anything from a trip to Guam or Gunma, to the latest in flat-screen technology or a long-wished-for set of commemorative stamps. Though the chances of winning one of the more valuable items are rather small — Japan Post estimates it’s 1 in 1,000,000 — the odds will get even smaller with every numberless card you have in your bundle. That’s why 57 people singled out homemade nengajō without otoshidama as one more type of New Year’s card they would rather do without.
But now for the good news: Among all the complaints about common deficiencies of New Year’s cards, a small but significant contingent of 43 people remarked that they had never ever received a nengajō they had not been happy about. I guess I’ll take this as an encouragement to get my New Year’s cards ready this year, too — even though I’m sure they won’t please everyone.
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