Wednesday, December 2, 2009

new year's cards

Japan has a long tradition of exchanging New Year's greetings in writing, apparently going as far back as the Nara period (AD 700s). It wasn't until 1873, when the Japan Postal Service began to print standardized postcards requiring less postage than an ordinary letter, that the idea of postcard greetings began to catch on. In 1899, the current system of nenga yuubin (New Year mail) was conceived, in which all mail marked as New Year's greetings, and which is posted within a specific time frame in December, will be delivered en mass on New Year's Day. There are lots of other delightful historical details on the subject that I don't have room to post here, but maybe you can read them for yourself on Wikipedia Japan (in Japanese only, sorry).

There are many cool things about traditional Japanese New Year's cards, not the least of which is how images and words are used. Certain images are associated with the New Year holiday specifically, and with spring (which New Year's day is symbolically the start of) in general. For example, the etegami I drew for New Year's 2009 depicts sprouting water chestnuts (water caltrops). The sprouts make it a felicitous image and conducive to word play, a common device with etegami in general, but especially at New Year's. The accompanying words translate roughly to: [the new year brings with it] the sprouts of new possibilities.

For New Year's 2010, I made several new designs. One depicts a toy top, symbolic of the new year because it is one of a group of traditional toys that children used to play with during the New Year holidays. The accompanying words say: May 2010 be a well-balanced year [for you]. Word play again. The rest of my holiday etegami are variations on tiger images, because 2010 is the Year of the Tiger. I've posted one of these here. The animal representing a particular year is probably the most common motif for Japanese New Year's cards.

Not all New Year's cards are etegami, of course. These days most people whip up greeting cards on their computers, using stock images and formulaic words. If you have over 100 people on your greeting card list, as I do, it really is too much to expect of yourself to hand-make each one. What I do is draw several original designs, and color-copy my favorites to send to the people on my list. For my fellow etegami artists, though, I do make an effort to send original cards only.

Tell me what kind of cards you will be sending this year. Something hand-made I hope. After the holidays I plan to post a sample of some of the etegami cards I receive from my Japanese etegami colleagues.


  1. I very much enjoyed reading about the new year's traditions in Japan :)

  2. I got mine! Marvelous, marvelous.