A typical Nengajo
The Japanese may not send very many Christmas or birthday cards, but they do send a lot of special postcards called nengajo that are delivered on New Year's Day.
New Year's is a very special holiday in Japan - it's probably the biggest item on the calendar of annual events. There used to be a custom of calling on relatives, neighbors, and those who bestowed kindness over the preceding year during the first few days of the new year. But after the post office began issuing postcards in the Meiji period (1868-1912), people began sending these cards instead as a form of greeting.
In response, the post office started a service whereby it delivered these greeting cards on January 1 if they were posted by a certain date in December. Postcards carrying lottery numbers went on sale in 1949, with the holders of winning numbers receiving prizes. The popularity of nengajo increased immensely as a result, and the practice of sending postcards took root. Today the post office prints up more than 4 billion prize-carrying New Year's cards every year.
In addition to inscribing standard phrases like Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu (Happy New Year) on these cards, people often jot down what they've been up to lately and their new year resolutions. They also decorate the cards with color markers, oil or acrylic paint, black ink, montages of colored paper, paper cutouts, or woodblock prints. Recently people have also been creating original cards with their personal computers. The number of people sending and receiving by email not just designs but also nengajo themselves has increased sharply. On the Internet, nengajo services permitting video clips to be sent together are available as well, finding many users, young people in particular.
Kadomatsu are placed in front of entrances to homes
Popular graphic elements include such New Year motifs as kadomatsu (decorations made of pine branches), kites, plum flowers, and the sun rising against Mount Fuji on New Year's Day. Even more popular, though, are illustrations of the animal for the coming year under the Chinese zodiac, which moves in a 12-year cycle. The Chinese zodiac isn't referred to all that often in Japan anymore, but it's still a popular item on New Year's cards.