In November 1988, Japan's printing companies were left scratching their collective heads over what to designate the coming year. For wall, desktop and pocket calendars utilizing the Western system of counting years, the year would be 1989 in any case.
The problem was that 87-year-old Emperor Hirohito (who is now referred to using his posthumous name Emperor Showa), was gravely ill and not expected to recover. If the monarch were to expire before Dec 31, the next year would not be Showa 64, but would carry the "nengo" of his successor. Many people fretted that a poorly timed demise could result in a glitch in protocol. (He passed away on Jan 7, 1989.)
Unfazed by the controversy, Japan's post office sidestepped the issue, printing the nengajo as Showa 64, as if nothing was remiss. But a mood of "jishuku" (self restraint) brought on by the emperor's prolonged illness took a pronounced toll on demand for cards that year, and the ministry was to announce demand had fallen by 11.7% from the previous year. By 1990, however, the figure had rebounded to 500 million cards sold.
Even following the collapse of the bubble economy and through the "lost decade" that followed, the postal system was still able to maintain respectable sales of the new year's cards. But the Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Nov 10) reports that the card sales began falling sharply from 2004. Compared with 4.46 billion nengajo sold that year, the number for 2014 had dropped to 3.41 billion, a decline of 25% over one decade.
At least one reason for the cards' plunging popularity is believed that young people are less accustomed to writing on paper and prefer to send their greetings in electronic form.
"For the past five years, I haven't sent a single card," a 24-year-old female company employee in Tokyo tells the Nikkei. Instead, she sent out New Year greetings to about 50 friends via Twitter.
During her childhood, she said, she had customarily sent out cards. And now? "It's troublesome to write out addresses," she shrugs. She stopped for good while still in high school, and these days does not even respond to the cards she receives.
A salaryman in his 50s living in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward customarily mails about 80 cards to his colleagues at work and clients. Before he had sent out over 100, but explains that younger people are not in the habit of sending, so he receives fewer and as a consequence sends fewer.
According to an survey conducted via the Internet last January, nearly 30% of respondents said they do not send any nengajo. Among those who do send, about 70% said they send fewer than 50 cards.
A 78-year-old woman living in Koshigaya City, Saitama, said she produces 70 individually hand painted cards, each bearing the animal of the Zodiac corresponding to the coming year.
"A nengajo is an important gift that represents my wishes to the recipient for a safe year. If I don't illustrate them myself, I'm not able to convey those feelings," she remarks.
For 2015, smartphone users will have the option of sending new year's greetings using a new application offered free of charge by LINE, in collaboration with the postal system. The app is unique in that it facilitates the sending of a paper postcard when the mailing address of the recipient is not known. The way it works is when the recipient receives a notification via the chat app from a friend who wants to send a card, he or she agrees by entering a mailing address. Using the downloadable "nengajo design kit" app provided from the post office, one of a number of card designs can then be selected and printed out for mailing.
Information about the new system (in Japanese) can be viewed here.© Japan Today