The tradition of sending “nengajo,” or New Year’s postcards, has been in decline as people turn to the Internet, social networking and digital gadgets like smartphones instead of putting pen to paper.

Japan Post Co., the postal arm of government-owned Japan Post Holdings Co., is thus hoping to get younger generations interested in writing paper greeting cards this year by introducing a digital feature known as augmented reality, or AR.

“Young people are using smartphones now, and we hope to attract them to the New Year’s greeting card tradition through those smartphones,” said Hiroyuki Sugita, senior manager at logistics and sales at Japan Post.

“By connecting digital to tradition, we want them to discover the fun of sending New Year’s greeting cards,” he said.

Numbers tell the story about the decline in nengajo. Japan Post’s issuance of New Year’s cards peaked in 2003 at 4.45 billion. The number has been falling every year since 2008, and only 3.3 billion have been issued this year.

In a bid to revive interest in the New Year’s tradition, Japan Post this year is selling cards that offer virtual character content, including Hello Kitty and Japan Post’s Poskuma bear mascot, via augmented reality.

Japan Post said all plain New Year’s greeting cards, which account for about 80 percent of the 3.3 billion copies, have an AR feature provided by Sony Corp.

The AR feature is viewable via a special app downloaded on smartphones.

The stamp locations on the cards have an embedded AR code that, when viewed through a smartphone, displays Poskuma mascot offering a greeting.

Japan Post will update the special AR content on New Year’s Day so it features the pop idol group Nogizaka 48.

Japan Post has produced various New Year’s greeting card designs over the years, but they never offered digital elements, Sugita said.

“This time, we have blended (digital elements in the paper cards) with smartphone applications, so that customers can enjoy a different experience,” he said.

Japan Post has also prepared 15 million copies of Hello Kitty-themed New Year’s cards with an AR feature provided by creator Sanrio Co.

“We’ve surveyed people about (greeting card) characters and Hello Kitty is popular every year. Kitty is also popular with younger generations of women that we’d like to target for New Year’s cards,” said Shuichi Adachi, assistant manager of the postage stamp and postcard division.

Naturally the AR content of the Hello Kitty cards boasts the feline character, which will appear on card recipients’ smartphone screens, clad in kimono and offering a greeting.

People can also touch and move the AR Kitty around on the screen and adjust its size.

Recipients can also take a picture with the AR Kitty and use it on return greeting cards.

Adachi said just offering an AR feature that offers virtual content wouldn’t be very interesting, so Japan Post made it possible to take pictures with the character and use them to design New Year’s cards.

Still, it is unclear how AR content will help motivate people to get back to the paper tradition, as many young people now use SNS services like Facebook , Twitter and Line to greet friends over the holidays. Japan Post offers Line nengajo services, too.

While the Internet and smartphones have contributed to decline in nengajo writing, Sugita and Adachi also mentioned that Japanese people are generally becoming more sensitive about giving out their home addresses as they become increasingly aware of the need to protect personal information.

This trend is also cooling people to the traditional New Year’s greeting cards, upon which they provide their address and personal notes, they said, in the belief that going digital is somehow safer.

Also, “people can easily contact their friends with smartphones, so they don’t need to know their address,” Sugita said.

Sugita noted that while young people nowadays rarely write and send New Year’s greeting cards, the tradition is also on decline among older generations.

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