Sending nengajō (new year cards) is as synonymous with end of year traditions as osechi (new year food) and NHK’s “Kohaku Uta Gassen” on New Year’s Eve.

However, these annual greetings have been falling out of favor in recent years as people have increasingly opted to extend their best wishes for the year ahead through email or social media. The truly busy can even outsource the entire process to online printing companies and have everything completed in a couple of clicks (provided they have the names and addresses at their fingertips).

In 2004, around 4.45 billion new year cards were delivered nationwide. By January 2020, this figure had shrunk to less than half of that.

However, industry experts are forecasting something of a shift in fortunes in the next month or so, with Ryukyu Shimpo expecting some 1.94 billion new year cards to be deposited in mailboxes across the country.

The uptick is being fueled by COVID-19, with many people unable to return home to visit loved ones and, instead, turning to more thoughtful methods of communicating with their families.

According to a survey conducted by Futaba Co., a company based in Nagoya that has been printing customized new year cards for the past 45 years, 40% of respondents said they would not be returning home for the new year, opting instead to send greeting cards.

Futaba is expecting a 120% increase from the same period last year, with most cards being sent to parents followed by friends.

Taking advantage of this surge in demand, Futaba’s promotional slogan this year is “Let’s meet over nengajō.” At least one company appears to be getting some mileage out of the pandemic.

Still, isn’t it more convenient and environmentally friendly to send a digital new year card? According to a survey compiled by Itmedia in 2016, it appears we’re still a long way from that becoming the accepted norm. Eighty-nine percent of respondents said they were regular senders of new year cards, with 69.8% of these people expressing a desire to receive physical cards in the mail. Japan, it seems, isn’t quite ready just yet to make the leap required to move this tradition online.

That said, a number of people don’t believe the custom is worth the time and effort. On Twitter, many women complain about the added expectation they’re burdened with over the holiday season.

“I have to do something about new year cards,” @perorinsaya wrote. “It’s such a hassle, I’m ready to vomit. The cards I’m preparing are all for my husband’s family and his friends. It’s his business, not mine, so why do I have to do this every year? Yet here I am, writing out the greetings and making sure they arrive in everyone’s mailboxes on Jan. 1. I’m such a Goody Two-shoes.”

As we transition from the Year of the Rat — a pretty awful year, I think we can all agree — to the Year of the Ox in 2021, perhaps it’s time for us to re-examine the purpose of sending new year cards and decide whether to continue the tradition?

After all, the ox is traditionally believed to protect humans from illness, and symbolize a slow, steady pace toward prosperity. It’s hard to think of a more appropriate message with which to ring in the new year.

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