I am doing a lot of writing right now. There is this blog, there is the What’s up in Kyoto website, there is a writing job I have taken about hotels, there are still the smartphones I talked about before, I want to redo my main business website, and then there are a few personal things I’d like to get written.

And then, it’s the end of the year, where three of my friends have their birthdays in December and of course we’re talking about Christmas cards and nengajo New Year’s cards as well. The birthday cards are no problem, and I have already bought Christmas cards for selected friends – the unselected ones get Christmas emails – and I need to make one Christmas card for a special friend of mine who likes handmade Christmas cards because she decorates her house with them. I think I sent her handmade Christmas cards for about 15 years already, and I see no reason to discontinue the tradition.

The nengajo are a bit more complicated though. They are always a pain to write for me because it’s customary to write addresses by hand, which goes very slowly. This year, since my grandmother has died, I thought I would get out of that because you’re not supposed to send nengajo in such cases according to Japanese customs. I was planning to send cards to business partners though, since they don’t know about my grandmother anyway.

Yellow Bird and Chrysanthemum on the rock by KakuteiHowever, Japanese customs are Japanese customs, and I have to adhere to them – instead of nengajo New Year’s cards, I have to send mochuu hagaki Mourning cards. They tell details about the deceased family member and also inform the recipients that “I am in mourning, so I will not send any New Year’s cards this year”. They are sent very early in December and are essentially meant to let the recipient know that they should not send a nengajo either.

Of course, Japanese customs are not my forte, so I asked a friend of mine how to go about writing those mochuu hagaki. First thing she did was to get her book about Japanese correspondence (yes, she IS Japanese!) where these things are detailed, and she picked out a very very short version of a mourning card. Since I am a foreigner and sending these to my friends only, she said I will get away with three simple lines: “My grandmother died on May 25th, she was 99 years old. I am sorry for not sending a New Year’s greeting this time.”

This last line is a standard formula, but this is not the only thing that’s standard here. For example, most Japanese post cards have preprinted fields for the post code and a field indicating the spot for the stamp, which are usually red – a sign of joy. In this case, these fields have to be black, obviously. Also, I should send the cards on an “unlucky” day to give the right impression, which this year means I must send them on Sunday, December 2nd. Sharp! Imagery is supposed to lean towards flowers like lotus, chrysanthemums etc. At least she said it’s okay if I just print them out, no handwriting necessary.

Yes, Japanese customs… If even Japanese need written instructions to get them right, how am I ever supposed to understand even a fraction of them?