A Change in Seasons (Greetings)

by tjm Holden

23 January 2006


ReDotPop, like its publisher, PopMatters, is all about the popular. So, why am I about to tell you about the unpopular? Well, one answer may lie in the fact that what once was, no longer is. Popular, that is. But a second, more important (or “significant” as semiologists might say) answer could be that decline in popularity may be a sign of deeper things. Societal organization and cultural values kind-of-things. Which I will tell you about, like this . . .

Ever on the look-out for indicators of change in the ReDot realm, I recently came in possession of a new one. It was no coincidence that this hint of mammoth societal shift surfaced with the unfurling of the new year because, in fact, it came in the form of information about the new year. “Nenga jou” they are called in the local vernacular. “Year Greeting Card” in ReDot-lish (if you want to get technical); but, basically, the clue I’m talking about came in the form of what you’d call your standard season’s greetings card.

In much of the west, these cards are often distributed in association with Christmas. This being Japan (and Japan being predominantly non-Christian), the felicitations focus on the transition into a new year. And, this being a country employing the Chinese lunar calendar, the 12-year, animal-based cycle often makes its way into new year’s greetings. [Quick, can you name all 12 beasts associated with the cycle? If you are Chinese (or Vietnamese or Japanese), probably. If not, and are curious, here’s the zoological pecking order: mouse, cow, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. Well, actually, the Japanese, for whatever reason, substituted the wild boar for its porcine relation. A famous book drew comparisons between the Japanese and Jews, but I don’t believe aversion to pork was one commonality discussed].

In any case, if you are wondering which year this is, I’ll give you a hint. Its icon often sports floppy ears, shamelessly dangles its tongue from its open mouth, has sharp incisors, is occasionally laden with fleas, foolishly chases after bounding balls, bays with abandon at noises going scurry in the night, and, tends —despite all those tendencies — to be universally loved. Yup, canines were major fixtures on the greetings I received from colleagues and friends this past month. And next year when I receive scores of images of piggish-looking boars, I will remind myself (repeatedly) that these illustrations are not necessarily a commentary on my character. (I will concede, though, that some colleagues may enjoy the opportunity to avail themselves of the association).

But I digress.

The real point is: it is unclear whether I will be fortunate enough to be snowed under in sows next year. And should dearth actually materialize, it would not be because people have taken a sudden dislike to me and those others under my roof who share my name (after all would those with genuine distaste for me pass on a free chance to tag me with a picture of a pig . . . or boar); rather, the drop-off in deliveries may simply be, as I mentioned at the outset, that life in ReDotsville appears on the cusp of change. The fact that change is looming or else that change has been breached is not much in dispute; what is open to question is the reasons behind this change and what they might mean.

Before going there, you should know this: nenga jou account for some 35 billion cards sent out per year; a staggering number that, according to this writer in JapanVisitor.com, works out to (approximately) 30 cards for every person (children included) in Japan. Finally we encounter a fact to help put a positive spin on declining birth rates. Amazingly, these cards all get delivered in a span of 15 days —; but the majority make their way to new homes in the initial 72 hours of the new year.

As with most things in ReDotdom, there are rules. To wit:

No sending before the First of January.
Anxious, zealous, or otherwise overly-efficient season’s greeters will be penalized by the Post Office whose efficient motor-bike riding minions will sit on would-be mailings until the first day of the new year.

For every card received, a card sent.
Most important for reasons we will consider in a paragraph or two, but basically, it is about being polite and ensuring that you aren’t dissing those whose bowl you swim in. Nenga jou is your way of showing respect, keeping a positive vibe, and ensuring that everyone continues to feel warm thoughts about you.

Mailings allowed up until the 15th of January.
This is essential and perfectly captures the political dimensions of human relations in Japan. Imagine, for instance, if someone has you on their list but you don’t have them on yours. Without the “everyone has 15 days to mail cards to one another” rule, there could be no getting around the fact that you hadn’t regarded them as important and hadn’t really intended to give them a card. Those 15 days means that no one can ever point the finger. Sure, their card may have beaten yours — it may have made it into the mail days before yours did back to them — but you can always claim (in your mind) and, importantly, they cannot dispute the possibility that you simply were slower than usual this year in mailing your cards out. Right. But there you have the beauty of a system that protects would-be offended and would-be offender in one fell swoop.

No cards for people who have lost a family member in the past year.
The joy of a new year must not be allowed to overshadow the loss of the previous year. Hence this important caveat. Yes, but . . . how are senders to know and avoid offending those in mourning? Following a death it is the duty of the bereaved to send cards out to everyone on their list informing them of the death in their family. The ball is then in the sender’s court. It is their duty to make a notation on their list and remember not to stick that label on the card if and when it gets spit out of their printer three months later, along with the other 200 names on their list.

So many rules, so much time (and money!) involved in designing the card, contracting with a printer, collecting addresses in the computer, printing the labels out, making sure that there are no death-connected folks on the lists, affixing labels and stamps to the postcards, separating the cards into “local” and “national” piles, getting the cards in the mail in a timely fashion . . . why? Is it really worth all the trouble to engage in this activity? Well (and those of you nodding off or itchy to move on to other tasks can be excused) the reasons can be categorized as social and economic.

Regarding the former, appreciate that nenga jou are not simply greeting cards. They are like social WD40; only better, because they are relatively odorless and stainless. Nenga jou are social balms, keeping human relations greased, free of friction and protected against corrosive rust, in a society based on connectivity, mutual aid, and on-going, persistent interactivity. The details of cards may vary — some feature personal photos; others sport the printer’s standard decals; many adopt sumi-e styling done up in thick black brush strokes — but all cards employ some kind of text. Whether pre-printed or etched in by hand by the sender to provide a personalized touch, the following stock phrase will inevitably appear: “kotoshi mo douzo yoroshiku onegaishimasu” (“this coming year, also, feel free to take advantage of me” . . . basically). Underscoring and reaffirming that sender and receiver are locked in an on-going relationship of give and take.

Therein lies the motive logic behind us ReDotsters engaging in licentious nenga jou distribution. Despite the smiling mugs and the grand shots of “our last vacation in Bali” or “the kids’ day at the Louvre”, nenga jou are sent forth for reasons other than vanity or desire. They are political emissaries sent on missions of need and born of iron-clad must. Regrettably, it is the combination of obligation, routine, fear (of being snubbed or, worse, being perceived as snubbing someone else in one’s social circle) that accounts almost entirely for the profligate dispersal of greeting cards.

Which brings us to economics. You see, this profligacy has accounted for almost 20 percent of the postal service’s annual revenues. But now that the government is in the process of privatizing the postal service, this will become money diverted from the public coffers into . . . well, where do you suppose that money will ultimately land? This being Japan, I wouldn’t be surprised if a friend or 76 of the ruling party have recently set up delivery services that, coincidentally, will land sub-contracts with the new private postal service for delivering next year’s New Year’s cards. That could be good for the general economy, one might suppose. Yet, it certainly won’t work in the favor of citizens hoping to block the next threatened tax hike. Moreover, the ripple effects might be harder to assess. Until this year the timely deliver of nenga jou depended on an army of part-timers (generally students on break) willing to dash around cities on motorbikes in the first few hours of the New Year. Now, the new private companies (and any sub-contractors) might prefer to keep the windfall all in-house.

Of greater immediate concern is the fact that there were less nenga jou in my mailbox. And this is not really a concern centering on hurt pride or the angst associated with the possibility that I am growing less popular. No, the concern is that dwindling deliveries is a sign of something larger. For it is not only me who is finding less cards in his mail box; it is the entire ReDot realm. The decline in greeting cards is a society-wide phenomenon, it seems, and one that has been in the making for some time. According to this writer, there has been a six year slide in the volume of New Years cards sent. The numbers dropped by nearly eight percent compared to the previous year; he cites 2,052 million (which, though far from the 35 billion figure above, it should be observed that this lower figure was derived from a next day, 2 January nd accounting, alone). Thinking about these declining numbers we might begin to fret: might this drop be viewed as a social indicator? And, if so, an indicator of what?

The author attributes the precipitous decline to the increased use of electronic mail, but I have my doubts. I did receive one e-card (out of about 150 or so). Even given my wobbly math skills, I can guarantee you that that’s nowhere close to eight percent. Other factors could easily be implicated, if you ask me. For one: the elderly. Japan, as we all know, is an “aging society” which, as you can appreciate, means that with older people hanging around, you are going to get older people doing what older people are prone to do — which is to say: die. And, indeed, as they go about their natural business, and as less and less kids are created to replenish them, what you’ve really got is less people to write and send less cards. From there, it’s simple mathematics — or maybe that’s economics . . . if not black logic. Whatever name it goes by, it seems Malthusian (if only in reverse): not enough warm bodies to keep the production of greeting cards at a constant or elevated rate.

An application

(by way of discerning the consequences): the folks who would have sent me cards will be dying off in the coming years and I will have less and less targets to send cards to, in return. I may be sad and lonelier, but, on the bright side, I should end up saving a tidy sum.

The implications

(by way of convincing you of the profundity of this topic): in this sense less cards is not only a sign of the circles I swim in, it also reveals the organic nature, the very real underlying rhythms of, and the future consequences for this society we humbly call “Japan”.

Those economists among you — and don’t try hiding, I can see you out there — will likely be quick to point out that a strong argument could also be made that less cards in the stream of commerce is less about human components than structural demise. Isn’t it simply the case, you wish to argue, that declining nenga jou distribution is a reflection of the current economic down-turn? Granted, Japan’s decade-long recession almost certainly has played some factor in this. Which, in practical terms could be restated as: if I have to choose between pleasing a colleague and placing a crust of bread on my dinner plate, I will opt for the latter.

But even such rational decisions have social consequences. And this is about the last thing that has to be said (and read!) about this topic on this particular day. The fact that I choose not to send a card to a colleague — whether because I have less money than in the past to siphon off from my pay check for such a social duty, or because some voice in my head is saying after all of these years of public dissimulation: ” it’s time to just get real, dude” (the Japanese have a word to go with that mental state: “mendokusai”, or simply too much of a bother to waste precious energy on) — then that has repercussions. Much like one of those prisoner’s dilemmas where the “tit-for-tat” strategy becomes the rational choice: my not sending a card will lead to his not sending a card; and from there, the whole damn house of cards simply crashes to the ground. No more cooperation; all sharp-edges and hard surfaces. For once all pretense is thrown out with the fish scales and bleached bones.

Once it becomes strangers unfettered by a perceived sense of mutual relation and obligation in common space, then what you have is the beginning of (and quick plunge toward) the end of civility. And from there it is but one half hop, a short step, and nary any jump at all to the sense of isolation; a view of segmentation and individualized zones. That “screw it” feeling that has recently wrapped itself around nearly everyone in the ReDot realm is a reflection of the fact that all the debilitating pretense suddenly matters less than it once did. And the result has been a collective shredding (and shedding) of belief in any conception of community.

All that out of one simple act . . .

The rooster we exchanged last year, that didn’t get transformed into a dog this year . . . well, you can bet that he will make sure that it won’t become a boar (or even a pig) next year. Then we will know. I can hear it in the expression flitting through his eyes as we pass one another on 16 January: “That guy over there. That Holden. I may share a corridor and meeting room with him, but we really inhabit totally separate ReDot worlds.

Damn sure I’ll never send him a nenga jou again!”

Topics: redotpop
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