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Saturday, January 3, 2015

Japan's New Years Postcards

Let's talk about Japan's New Year's Postcards, otherwise known as nengajō  (年賀状0).

It's a way for people to reconnect with friends and family, and depending on your disposition, it can be fun or a right royal pain in the butt as you have to go out and purchase multiple cards (postage paid) or go out and have a printer at the Post Office create them for you complete with a personalized photo and message that you wish to place on  it.

Like Christmas cards, these New Years cards tell everyone you are still alive and well. The card on the left was from my boss Hanazaki-san... who used water-colors to paint the sheep and the grass - a nice personal touch.

It's a way for the post office to make money, and it's a way to show that you aren't a slave to e-mail greetings, which is what I did this year for zero cost.

To make things more palpable for the snail mail card senders, each of the postcards also contains a series of lottery numbers on them that the Post Office will pull to offer prizes to the selected thousands. It's kind of cool... here's a greeting "Happy New Year" and "oh yeah, I got you a lottery ticket - hope you win and maybe share your good fortune?" Riiight.

Each new years card contains the requisite greetings:
  •  kotoshi mo yoroshiku o-negai-shimasu (今年もよろしくお願いします) (I hope for your favor again in the coming year); 
  • (shinnen) akemashite o-medetō-gozaimasu ((新年)あけましておめでとうございます) (Happiness to you on the dawn [of a New Year]);
  • kinga shinnen (謹賀新年) (Happy New Year);
  • gashō (賀正) (to celebrate January);
  • shoshun/hatsuharu (初春) (literally "early spring", in the traditional lunar calendar a year begins in early spring);
  • geishun (迎春) (to welcome spring).
God... I'm such a cynic...

One of my favorite cards... a primitive looking set of kanji block letters and a pre-printed hand-written message from the sender.
In my three years in Japan, I would receive over 100 of these cards from various people - gaijin being more Japanese than me; co-workers; and Japanese friends.

Yet... I did not send any out myself... much to my great shame.

Some advice... since it is too late to do so now... perhaps you should make plans to do so for next year. At least keep it in mind. There is nothing worse than receiving gifts and well wishes from people and knowing you did not do the same in kind.

I'm not sure why I didn't send these nengajō out to people, but it is safe to say that it was just something that never seemed to enter my mind. 

Serious stuff these New Year's cards! A card sent to me by a male music teacher at Ohtawara Jr. High.
I did spend a lot of money purchasing and sending presents to people back home in Toronto or to whomever was my girlfriend that week, so even if I did think about it, I am unsure if I would have had the money to buy any of these pre-paid postcards. That's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it.

I did seem to live from one paycheck to the next in Japan, but that was because I was intent on enjoying my decadent self. Today we live, for tomorrow we die.

I mean, what's the point of roughing it or suffering to save a few yen when I could be out enjoying every single possible moment of my time? So I would purchase that stereo system for my apartment. I would purchase that recording device for my television. So I would buy unnecessary masks, wood carvings, pottery, books, magazines, roast duck, beef, veggies, flowers and vases, wall hangings, ukiyo-e and whatever the hell I felt like, and traveling to different parts of the country and staying in fancy hotels, and buying postcards and film for my camera - because when might I ever get the chance to do so again? 
The kanji stamps are awesome, as is the playful nature of the mother and her lamb.
I had no debt back home like most of the other assistant English teachers who seemed saddled with heavy university debts... I had lived at home, worked over the summer and paid my own way... yes, I had no 'freedom' away from mommy or daddy, but it's not like they were ogres... in fact, they encouraged me to go out and have fun - to leave my Star Trek basement of virginity. I also taught piano and clarinet while in journalism school, so I always had money for my car and for food and drinks that I happily shared with those who wished they could pay me back.

Ahhh... I am so far off tangent, it's not funny... but basically, I spent my money every chance I got in Japan... and yes, perhaps I was a little selfish in not thinking about others enough to purchase and send out New Years greetings... but that was a Japanese thing and despite me always (while in Japan) wishing to be more Japanese, I knew I would never be.

It's that kind of attitude I possessed that Japan needs to change. Why should people (foreigners, in this case) want to love in Japan. It's always going to be for a while... not for a lifetime... because Japan makes it impossible to become fully acclimatized. And people want to become acclimatized. More's the pity.

A fin example of an ink-stamp graphic and a personalized hand-written message to little ole me. 
Okay... rant over... Along with the standard postcards offering greetings and maybe a family photo, it might instead offer greetings with an image of whatever Chinese zodiac animal the year is (even though the Chinese zodiac year doesn't begin for another six months from now - read HERE for a bit of better understanding on that whole thing).

Like the zodiac your gypsy mother warned you of (I'm a happy but moody Scorpio that likes people but prefers them to keep their distance because that's what they do anyway), there are 12 creatures in the 12 year Chinese zodiac cycle, with each creature representing a single year.

These animals are: 
Rat (1996, 2008, 2020)
Ox (1997, 2009, 2021)
Tiger (1998, 2010, 2022)
Rabbit (1999, 2011, 2023)
Dragon (2000, 2012, 2024)
Snake (2001, 2013, 2025)
Horse (2002, 2014, 2026)
Goat/Ram/Sheep (2003, 2015, 2027)
Monkey (2004, 2016, 2028)
Rooster (2005, 2017, 2029)
Dog (2006, 2018, 2030)
Pig/Boar (2007, 2019, 2031)

Let's play music with me... well... Keiko was a music teacher... and I'm pretty sure we did play music together later that year or next as we did date a few times.
I am, according to the Chinese zodiac, going back in 12 year increments, a Dragon... which is the only one of the animals in the zodiac that is imaginary. I won't get into the personality of a Dragon, except that for me it seems to be spot on. The dragon IS supposed to be the strongest of all the zodiac signs, which is why countries like Japan (via Tokyo) wanted the Olympics in 1964, and China (via Beijing) in wanted it in 2000 and were really pissed off when Sydney, Australia got it.

Career-wise, we dragons are supposed to be that type to embrace challenges and take risk, including: journalist, teacher, inventor, manager, computer analyst, lawyer, engineer, architect, broker, and sales person.

The fact that I would love to be an architect, wrote and passed my LSAT (law entrance exam) but decided not to pursue it, have been a door-to-door salesman, have been a journalist and have taught piano, clarinet, soccer (maybe baseball this Spring) and English... means I am a prototypical bloody dragon. Mama mia... I hate following pre-destiny. It's like my dogma just got run over by your karma.

But... if you were paying attention, it's 2015, and thus in all countries except China, Vietnam and Korea, it's already the Year of Sheep. 

A card made by a Japanese teacher of English who created her three-line message in three languages! Her hand-written message is certainly cleaner than mine!
Because Japan takes this stuff seriously, I decided to skip right to the source - China, to see what they had to say about the year - if you are a Sheep/Ram or Goat. I think the Chinese use goat, while the Japanese do the fluffy sheep - they're soooo fluffy!!!
  • Lucky Colors: green, red, purple
  • Lucky Numbers: 2, 7 or combinations of the same (72, 27)
  • Lucky Flowers: carnation, primrose
  • Lucky Direction: North
  • Lucky Months: August and November
  • Year of Birth: 1919, 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015, 2027
I have sheared a sheep before. It lived to tell the tale.

I did say this was a serious time, right? Well, the Sheep playing golf - hand colored - is hardly that, but there are pre-printed personal messages all over this card from various members of the sending family.
When sending a nengajō you are supposed to do it by hand to show off your skill at shodo (handwriting). I write like a rooster with a broken claw, so that wouldn't be a good thing, though I am able to write as fast as you can talk provided you aren't an auctioneer. Reading what I wrote - that's also difficult for you as well as for me.

There is also room on the cards for a personalized message, and I can verify that that every card I received had one of those - you are all such nice people.

A neat hand-written address: my name A-n-do-ryu Ji-yo-se-fu-san on the left, my apartment building and number in the middle and city name and section of the city on the right. There is a space (five blocks) to note my postal code in the bottom right corner, but that was left out in this case.    
Now, as mentioned, there are a pair of lottery numbers on the cards (bottom left and bottom right corners of the card immediately above)... but I didn't know that and thus never checked the numbers. Also, when I was there, I think the numbers were only placed in the Japanese-language newspapers because I don't recall seeing anything in the Daily Yomiuri English-language newspaper I received every day at my doorstep.

A simple-looking card, but a highly original piece of artwork (beautiful in its simplicity), complete with beautiful separation of the senders name and and address on the left top and the holiday greeting on the right.
Of course, nowadays, those adept at the computer can create their own art and message on the devices and have a printer print up their very personalized cards for them.

While I have placed some of my own New Years cards given to me in 1991 throughout this blog article, I should note that the Japanese post office has done something cute with this years (2015) cards.

MY CARD???? Wait!!! Did I actually send out New Year's cards that year? Apparently I did!!!! I'm not an a$$hole! When searching through my cards  - Japan sells postcard holders complete with stickers, so I had no problem finding cards sent from 1991 (believe it or not, I am highly organized despite the chaos) - I found numerous cards sent to me mentioning the thoughtfulness of my New Years cards... a couple even claiming that my formation of handwritten kanji was better than their students and even their own. I know they were lying and being polite, but damn... I wish I kept an example of my own card.
So... I did send out my own New Years cards... but it appears as though I only sent them out to the Japanese teachers I worked with.

In 2003, the sheep in the stamp was knitting a sweater. In 2015, the sweater is complete.
I can hardly wait to see what the sheep will do in 2027. I certainly would like to be around for that!
For fun, here are a couple of sets of commemorative stamps from my collection:
A set of commemorative New Years stamps from 1967.

A set of commemorative New Years stamps from 1991.
And... just because I love providing more information than any other blog on Japan out there, here's a block of stamps from 1993, The Year of The Rooster that has lottery numbers ON each individual stamp - more bang for your buck... though I should note that the stamps did go UP a considerable bit in cost back in 1992 (Year of The Monkey) to 62 yen. The Japanese Post Office loved me... always going in just to buy stamps for my collection.

Yeah... I have a lot of collections. My hobby is hobbies.

Kanpai and best of luck in 2015.
Andrew Joseph

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