This year I wrote about 40 New Year’s cards with Japanese addresses (and roughly 20 to go overseas). It’s a tradition in Japan called nengajo, but like all analog traditions it seems outdated. Whenever I asked friends my age for their address they looked back confused. One Japanese friend told me only old people do that, while another sent me his email address.
For the past year I’ve been working as a digital illustrator. I’ve drawn over 200 images on a pen and tablet, but nothing I can touch and can hang on a wall and almost less that gets seen for more than a day. I keep telling myself I’ll make more art, but in the wrong environment I’m not even sure what that means.
So this year I looked forward to making cards again. Knowing that I had all year to do it you wouldn’t think I’d wait til the last half of December to work on it. But November came with just an image floating around in my head. I finally put it down, finished it off, and printed at three in the morning a week before the deadline. You see, especially in Japan the post tries to get all these nengajo with all their drawings of pigs (according to the Eastern zodiac) delivered exactly on the first day of the year. In order to make their lives easier, you’re asked to drop off your cards by the 27th.
I submitted my order at 3 in the morning December 21st. Immediately after pressing confirm I decided to compare with my card from last year. Frantically I went back to the order page and scanned through the Japanese for the word “cancel.” I had drawn by pig, written my note, and even put 2019, but forgotten the most important part which of course was to write “Happy New Year.” I went back into Photoshop, added the forgotten text, and pressed order, only to feel once again unsatisfied and immediately cancel. I decided these types of decisions were not best to be made at three in the morning.
I received the cards in time, and wrote out all the addresses one by one. Nowadays you can even submit a spreadsheet with all the addresses to be printed on the back, but I don’t see the point. If you’re already gonna be old fashioned enough to send out New Year’s cards, then why not add the personal touch of writing out the names yourself.
I’ve been getting cards for as long as I remember. Birthdays, Thanksgiving, Easter were all made possible by Hallmark. When I was in 4th grade I had a pen pal named Peter Li from Australia. He sent me a picture of him in a school uniform (which of course to me only signified he was Catholic) and his handwriting despite only being 10 years old was written in a beautiful cursive script I’d only seen in British films about the 1800s. (I switched our conversations to email out of shame.) By the time I reached Junior High I started writing letters to a grandfather who until that point I hadn’t even imagined ever existing. Of course I had a Grandma Davis, but I’d never supposed if there even was a Grandpa Davis. Looking back I’d seen pictures of Gramps, my dad’s Grandpa, holding me as a baby and must’ve assumed with scraggly white hair and gold teeth that he’d fit the role of Grandfather well enough. My real Grandpa Davis was in prison. Even back then through all our correspondence, I never thought to ask how he wound up there. I’ll only say there’s nothing like getting a letter from someone who can only escape the place they’re in through words.
How did they do it? We ask ourselves of the previous generation, not realizing that those methods are still available. Even now, for the three plus years I’ve been in Japan I’ve only spoken with one of my best friends from high school through the regular postcard in the mail, and that seems to be enough.
When I graduated college I had this idea of hand printing postcards every month to stay in contact with those I left by going to New York. I made it to August before the dedication faded. As a poor wannabe artist living in the most expensive in America, spending money on materials, postage, and time is a hard squeeze in a budget of food and rent. I think these New Year’s cards are the residual passions of that initial project.
It’s now January 3rd in Japan and only one person has told me they’ve gotten their nengajo. How did they do it? I ask myself, looking at a message on my phone that has been read but getting no reply. How did you send something off to a family member, a lover, a pen pal, trusting that the address was up to date, the postage price correct, and not to be intercepted by a meddling family member or jealous friend. And then of course, you have to rely on them being diligent enough to go through the same proccess in return. I have the Supremes singing through my head, “Wai-aa-aai-ait Mr. Postman.”
If you get a card from me, don’t feel obliged to message me right away. Maybe you weren’t even expecting it. Just know that unlike an email, that card took time. I held it in my hands, shuffled it in my bag, biked it to the post office. You might one day find it in a shoebox and throw it out, barely remebering who I am. But at least for now, it’s a physical connection between you and me.