Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Memories of Japan: New Year's Postcards and New Year's Money for Kids

Chinese character for "horse," since
2014 is the Year of the Horse
Today is Wednesday, January 1, 2014. 


Happy New Year !  

The Japanese used to send greeting letters to friends and relatives in the New Year, but during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) the Japanese Post Office began issuing postcards, and a lot of people began to send these, instead. The custom of  sending New Year cards ( 年賀状 nengajō ) became fashionable, and soon most people were sending cards instead of letters.

Nenga hagaki from the post office.
This one is from 2008, the Year of
the Rat.  The "stamp" is in the top
left corner (50 yen).  The numbers
in boxes at the top are the zip code:
the main code is 3 digits, and the
other four digits are code for
within that zip code.  The
address is written on the right,
starting with the prefecture
(state), then town, then ward or
neighborhood, and then building
and apartment number. The
line on the left is the addressee's
name, ending with sama, more
formal than san. The return
address has not been filled out.
The lottery number is in the lower
right corner.

World War II interrupted a lot of customs in Japan, as you may imagine, but in 19149, the post office started selling special post cards with lottery numbers on the address side and blank space on the message side, called 年賀はがき (nenga hagaki).  These became immensely popular to the point that, nowadays, so many cards are sent that the post office has to hire hordes of university students part-time to help with sorting and delivery.  As in the United States, addresses are read by machine, and they do use postal codes there, but the extra workers still have to help sort and bundle the cards for each household, besides delivering them. The post office delivers in excess of 4 billion lottery postcards on New Year's Day, plus millions of postcards bought in stationery shops and homemade ones.  The cards are the only mail that is delivered to your door on this holiday.  It is estimated that the average person sends anywhere from 20 cards to several hundred, depending on who they are, their age, and their status in society.  Businesses also send nengajō to their clients.  

The cards go on sale in November, and the post office begins to accept cards that are ready for mailing on December 15.  There is alwyas a special slot especially for nengajō.  Cards should be mailed by the 25th to ensure delivery on New Year's Day.  Typically, cards for each household are bundled with a rubber band to make delivery easier. If you use your own postcards (not a lottery one from the post office), you have to print nenga (年賀) on the address side under the place where the stamp goes, so it will be delivered on January 1 and not before or after.  If you get a nengajō from someone whom you didn't send one to, it is common courtesy to send one to them belatedly, with appologies, sometime within the first two weeks of the new year.

The message side of a nengajo card not
from the post office, with the character
for horse in gold, and the words Happy
New Year written in hiragana syllabary.
This looks like something I would have sent.
Some people choose to buy cards from stationery shops, department stores, and even supermarkets and convenience stores ( called konbini, which is a shortened form of the Japanese pronunciation of the English word "convenience").  Many of these are pre-printed with designs such as the kadomatsu bamboo and pine decoration, nature scenes, daruma dolls, which represent new year's resolutions, or popular characters such as Hello Kitty, Doraemon, or one of the Disney cartoon characters.  Some of them even feature "J-pop" stars, which would be analogous to having a picture of Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus on your holiday greeting card.  (Fortunately, that's not common!)  Many cards have a representation of the animal for the current year in the Chinese zodiac.  (2014 is the Year of the Horse).  There are also blank cards for those creative Souls who wish to decorate their own, and many do, especially if they are proficient in calligraphy.  There are also stickers on sale that you can put on your cards.  Nowadays, young people create new year designs on their computers and print their own cards.  There are also online services that allow you to choose designs, choose a traditional message or write your own, pay for the cards, and have them sent to an email address on January 1.  Online cards can include video clips that you have made, which is becoming very popular among young people.

There's not much room on a card for a private message, but some people do put a sentence or two about what they've been up to.  It's certainly not the same as sending one of those long Christmas letters that many families do here in the United States.

The drawing for the lottery occurs in late January, with the winning numbers announced on TV and in the newspapers.  The prizes are nice.  Last year's top prize was a computer with digital camera and printer, or a digital TV.  The next three numbers drawn got a digital camera and digital picture frame or a humidifier or a bicycle.  The next prize after that, matching the last four out of six digits, is popular regional food items.  There were two 2-digit numbers drawn, for which you could win a set of postage stamps.   

Mochū hagaki are sent to announce a
family is
in mourning.

The Japanese have a fairly strict rule about people who are in mourning, however.  When there has been a death in the family, you send to your friends a special card called Mochū Hagaki (喪中はがき) in early December (or as soon as possible after a December death).  Mochū means "mourning period."  These cards have messages sent in black ink, sometimes with a tasteful design in grayscale, asking friends not to send any nengajō for the following new year and apologizing for not sending any out.  (Even the postage stamp used on these cards is supposed to be a dark color or something plain.)  People keep these cards so they will know whose names to cross off their nengajō list for the year.  This custom takes a lot of pressure off the bereaved, and I have always liked that idea.  People just don't feel much like celebrating, and it's painful for them to be forced to do the whole holiday rigamarole.  This custom is why I believe that Emperor Showa's death may have been delayed until after the New Year holidays in 1989.  If the death had been announced any earlier, the whole country would have shut down, and businesses that make money selling food items, decorations, clothing, tourist items, and other new year-related merchandise would have been sorely taxed. 

After the big earthquake in Fukushima, many people died or were displaced.   The post office took special measures to find displaced persons, if possible, so that they could hear from loved ones.  Many of the displaced, however, skipped sending nengajō in 2012, not only because they didn't feel like it, but because of the added expense.  

Happy New Year.  Please give me your favor again this year.  Heisei 10, January 1
Heisei 10 was 1998.  These are plum blossoms (ume), which blossom in winter, a harbinger of spring.

This one is written left to right.  The first two lines are Happy New Year.
Third line: Please give me your favor again this year.
Fourth line is the date, written Heisei 26 (2014) New Year's Morning
The flowers are tsubaki, camellia, another late winter-blooming flower.
This modern postcard has the date written European style. These are three daruma dolls.
The character on the largest and smallest ones is "luck/fortune/blessing."  The character
on the middle one is "happiness."  Notice that all of them have one eye.  You fill in one eye
of the daruma doll when you make a wish.  When your wish is fulfilled, you paint in the other eye.

This card has an alternative way of saying Happy New Year on the right, then
in smaller print, a wish for happiness in the new year.  On the left is the
date, written Heisei 26 (2014), New Year's Morning.

Otoshidama envelopes
Another New Year custom in Japan is that of giving otoshidama ( お年玉 ) or new year's money, to children. The money is folded into thirds and put into colorfully decorated envelopes called pochibukuro, usually within the first three days of the new year, although you can give it to relatives' children later, if you won't be seeing them during the New Year celebratory time.  Otoshidama can be given late, but never before New Year's Day.

Besides giving otoshidama to your own kids, you can give it to nieces and nephews, granchildren, or the children of friends and neighbors.  Kids receive otoshidama at least until they finish high school, but some university students also get money nowadays.

Only bills are used for otoshidama, never coins, so the minimum amount put in an envelope is 1,000 yen, the smallest bill in Japan.  (For those of you who remember the 500-yen note, those blue bills were suspended in 1994.)  The amount of money a child gets depends on how old he/she is, how many children the giver has to give otoshidama to, and how much the giver can afford.  

Gifts of any kind are always given and
received with both hands in Japan.
Older kids were supposed to get more money in the old days, but now many parents give all the kids the same amount to avoid jealousy and arguments.  An elementary school child might get between  ¥1000 and ¥5000 in each envelope. A junior high or high school kids might get up to ¥10,000.  The bills don't have to be new, but most of the time people do try to get new banknotes for otoshidama in late December.  Kids seem to like getting spanking new bills.

In a 1999 study by the Kumon Children's Research Institute, the average total amount of otoshidama was ¥40,000, but a more recent study said that the average amount in 2007 was only a little over ¥20,000, up from only about ¥19,000 the previous year.  This indicates to me that Japan's economic woes have had a big impact on this custom.  :-)

Two little girls opening otoshidama envelopes

If this girl got ¥3000 in each envelope, she has at least
¥15000, or $143.  If she got ¥5000 in each envelope
she has
¥25000, or just over $238.  No wonder Japanese
kids love New Year's Day!

More formal otoshidama envelopes  The word
otoshidama is written above the bow.


Here is my New Year wish for my readers: 


Thank you for all your kind help in the past year.


I hope for your continued favor this year.


 Wishing you all good health in the new year!

decorated envelopes called pochibukuro.dec
decorated envelopes called pochibukuro.
decorated envelopes called pochibukuro.
decorated envelopes called pochibukuro.

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