Last year, people in Japan exchanged some 2 billion New Year’s greeting cards called nengajo (年賀状). As long as they’re marked appropriately and posted in the specially marked mail slots between Dec. 15 and 25, they’ll be delivered to friends, family and business associates nation-wide (by an army of holiday part-timers) on Jan. 1.

Technology has taken some of the work out of addressing, writing, stamping and mailing them in the last few years.  Any number of Internet and keitai sites allow exchange of e-greetings by Web mail or mobile phone. Apparently, though, nothing beats flipping through that nice fresh stack of real cards, signed, sealed and delivered on the first day of the year. Now several services are preserving the personal paper touch while taking the work out of addressing them by sending real nengajo via virtual addresses.  Even if you don’t know your online friends’ e-mail addresses — or even their real names — you can send them the cards.

The two main services offering this feature are Japan Post’s WebPO and Net-nengajo. For either one, you select the cards and choose your message online, addressing the card to an e-mail address, social network profile name or Twitter handle.  The service then tells the recipient a card is waiting and asks for a real-world name and address. This goes directly onto the card without ever being revealed to the original sender. Mixi has a similar nengajo system in place for exchanges among its own members.

Nearly all of the most popular designs feature rabbits —  plush, real or polka-dotted — since 2011 is the year of the rabbit on the Chinese zodiac calendar. There are also anime and sports teams (including the American NFL  . . . Go Jacksonville Jaguars?), as well as sponsored cards that cost a bit less (Kirin kampai!).

In addition to your own semi-real friends, Net-nengajo also lets you pick from dozens of celebrities to send new year’s cards to and get a “reply” from your chosen idol. The service’s cards start at ¥180, more than twice the cost of Japan Post’s service, though its cards seem to be a bit more customizable. Using WebPO’s Twitter link nets a further discount of ¥5  per card for the Japan Post Service. These cards may be a good way to get a little closer to online friends if, that is, they are real friends. How many people will start 2011 by finding out their online buddies are, in fact, bots?

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