I don’t know about other people but I tend to collect things that mean a lot to me and hold onto them as keepsakes. So over the decades I have acquired a collection of lovely picture postcards from my Japanese friends. It’s still only August but I know that many of them are already designing their year-end greeting cards.

With the advent of email, many people take the easy way out, clicking on a card and sending it on its way. The resulting message is mechanical and impersonal. But the greeting cards arriving from Japan through the mail are often made with heartwarming care. The Japanese year-end and New Year’s greeting customs clearly demonstrate just how considerate they are.

At year’s end they generally do not send Christmas cards, choosing instead to offer “Season’s Greetings” messages that do not cater to any religion. The messages do not reflect a Christmassy mood. Instead they are often reproductions of works of art: the fantastic woodcuts of Utamaro or Hiroshige, the “ukiyo-e”, as well as of screen prints and “nihonga” paintings. I think these images are both lovely and useful in promoting the country, and this kind of support of the arts is good for the image of any business. This picture is a work by Seiko Itakura, called Flowering Wild Cherry Tree, Peonies, and Dandelions.

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Japan uses the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac and attaches a great deal of importance to horoscopes based on it. At year-end the custom is to send out simple cards portraying the next animal in the Zodiac. The cards are often numbered, and serve more or less as lottery tickets. It is actually possible to win valuable prizes with them, in mid-January draws. See how easy it is to make someone happy.

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With many of my friends, we only share messages at the end of each year, when we tell one another about the events of the past 12 months. Some messages include a family photo showing an event dear to them on the cards they send to their friends. Luckily, there are many small shops where the cards can be made to order. In fact, I even receive such cards from the emperor’s family, too but hesitate to make them public without permission. Instead, I’ll use my own family photos as illustrations.

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The most unusual and perhaps the biggest treasure is the home-made picture postcard. Hobby shops offer a broad selection of figurative stamp blocks. You can choose the block best suited to the event or time of year and add your own drawings to the text, preferably hand-written. Some talented people even use a paint-brush to write the mandatory inscription.


And what is that mandatory inscription? It is often “Kinga shinnen” 謹賀新年、which is the equivalent of “Happy New Year!” However, it is also customary to send cards at the start of the year, not just at the end. Some people choose to send them at year-end, while others mark the start of the next year. The greeting at the start of the year is “Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu” 明けまして おめでとうございます meaning: “It has opened!” (the year, that is), which tends to be translated as “I am joyous!”

If you have learned about Japanese friendships, you will know that friends will definitely write to one another at the turn of the year, even if at no other time. They will send a card, either store-bought or home-made, and it will include a few lines of personal greetings meant especially for that addressee. For the busy Japanese who value friendship, this is a time-consuming project each autumn. I am not exaggerating when I say they are already getting the project underway. To show you just how important it is to them to prove that the year-end card-sending is not an automatic, impersonal, action, I am including a card sent by a dear friend who suffered a cerebral hemorrhage seven or eight years ago. Despite his illness he considered it important to send a handwritten message.


The envelopes the cards are sent in also deserve a few words. At home, choosing pretty stamps to put on letters is going out of style. That’s not true for Japan, though. In Japan, where packaging in general is considered important, people pay particular attention to the way a letter is “packaged.” I find it a pleasure to open an envelope that has lovely stamps on it. Tiny stickers attached to the rear of the envelope offer their own surprises.


I definitely need to note that one feature of the year-end greeting card custom is that it is NOT polite to send good wishes to any acquaintance who has recently lost a family member. This is just another sign of how thoughtful they are.

A picture postcard can be enough to make someone happy. It is “only” a card, but it gives us a powerful insight into the sender.

The postcards used to illustrate this article come from my own collection.

The source of the photo illustrating the accessories is: http://www.worshipblues.com/2012_12_01_archive.html