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How I Say ‘Thank You’ With The Japanese Tradition of “Nengajo”

The year-end is a reflective period for many of us. We think back on our accomplishments and losses for the year, fueling new hopes – or resolutions –  for the future.

Our gratitude is often expressed directly to people in holiday cards, gifts and other tokens.  But, for me, holiday traditions don’t adequately express thanks for the people who made notable, positive impact in my life that year. That’s why I fell in love with the Japanese tradition of “nengajo” – to do just that.  

Over a decade ago, a close (American) girlfriend of mine, who spent long stretches working in Japan, shared how touched she was to receive handwritten cards from co-workers on New Years Day. She was surprised by, yet appreciated, the heart-felt revelations of personal impact she had made on these colleagues. She shared with with me months later at dinner in New York. I have never forgot that conversation from over a decade ago.  From that conversation, my idea to acknowledge my year’s most impactful people was born.

What is nengajo? 

I researched the topic and learned that the Japanese tradition involves sending cards or postcards to friends, relatives and co-workers to show appreciation to open on January 1.  There are specific customs followed in these cards – like specific “gashi,” or greeting words, to respectfully reflect the status of the relationship, the number of “gashi” and other fine details that are followed in Japan.  

From my research, Japanese“families still look forward to the morning of January 1 when that year’s nengajo arrive, neatly bundled, in the mailbox.” I also learned that this is one of the most important days in Japan, with over 3 billion negajo – or New Year’s cards – bought and sent.  

My riff on “nengajo”

Without direct experience of the custom, I follow the broader spirit in my annual card-giving. 

I start by reflecting upon the following:

  • Who has made the most impact on me this year?  
  • Whose advice, partnership or support changed the course of my year?  
  • Who do I want to share this information with?
  • Is it appropriate for me to share this with them?

When I reflect upon these questions, I often only come up with a handful names – maybe 2 or 3 names – that fit all criteria. 

With this small group, I either hand select a card from the stationery story or choose something I have at home.  I handwrite a note of thanks and include brief details about the the “negajo” custom and specifics on how they have uniquely impacted me this year. 

Since they are unexpected and not the norm in the US, I have leeway with how many I send and when I send them. I send mine just after January 1, in the lull after the new year and just before I get back to my normal routine.

What traditions do you have to acknowledge people’s impact on your life? Share it with me below.

Want to learn more about “nengajo” –read more here.

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