Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Among all Japanese customs for the New Year –the twin kagami-mochi (鏡餅) with their elaborate decorations waiting patiently on the family altar to get eaten, the “kado-matsu” (門松) compositions with branches of pine and bamboo (and occasionally plum-tree) in house entrances, the wooden lunch boxes “jubako” (重箱) with their colorful combinations of seafood and vegetables that make up the “osechi-ryori” (御節料理) meals for the first days of the year or the endless lines for the “hatsumode” (初詣), the first visit to a temple or shrine- the one I find to be the most representative is also the most mundane and the least Japanese in its origin: it’s the nengajo (年賀状) postcards that are delivered, literally in billions, on January 1st and only then. Despite their simplicity (or perhaps exactly because of it), nengajo gather on their few square inches the essence of the country and its culture.
From their beginnings (the idea of greeting postcards was imported to Japan from the West during the Meiji period) to their design (there are available premade but the proper way is to buy them blank and decorate and write them by hand, usually incorporating “eto”/ 干支, the animal of the year according to the Sino-Japanese zodiac system; 2015 is the Year of the Sheep) and from their omnipresence in stationery shops, post offices, stands in front of stations and temporary seasonal stores almost two years before New Year’s to the post office’s commitment to deliver them all within the 24 hours of the first day of the new year (and the fulfillment of this promise despite the enormous numbers involved) there is nothing in these small pieces of thick paper that doesn’t express one of the structural elements of Japanese society: the influences from the West and China, creativity within specific limits, obsession and conformity (or, if we’re feeling more generous, consistency).
Beyond all the above though, nengajo are one of the most discernible expressions of that most powerful among Japanese life’s driving forces: the impossibly complicated network of obligations or “giri” (義理) within which the Japanese shape their everyday life and whose rules and intricacies they learn before they even learn how to speak or write. The recipients’ lists of the New Year cards include, beyond family and close friends, the tens of people to whom the sender owes some small or big obligation and their dispatch is a reminder that the obligation remains alive in their heart. The extent and the importance of the obligation might vary (and it does) depending on countless different parameters and its fulfilment rarely ends with a nengajo but in the Japanese value system its confirmation, particularly in the beginning of the year, is the best proof that there still exists the relationship, the cornerstone of any true society.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.