While e-mail and instant messaging makes communicating with someone a trivial matter, there are some situations where a handwritten letter can still be appreciated. Indeed, the fact that letters are so rarely received from person to person makes them all the more cherished; even a person’s handwriting can remind others of that person and all of the warm feelings expressed in the words that written by that hand.
One particular occasion where technology’s advance holds no sway would be “nengajou,” Japanese New Year’s cards. These treasured holiday trinkets are never sent through any other means than traditional postage. Most Japanese people will appreciate being thought of in this way by a foreigner to such a degree that any sort of errors pertaining to the grammar or incorrect honorifics will be hand-waved away; the letter alone is the most treasured element. Despite this easy-in, proper knowledge of Japanese entails knowing how to properly pen a letter.
The way that letters are written in Japanese is a very rigid but easily understood format. That having been said, you are free to write the letter out in either a vertical or horizontal arrangement. While the choice of orientation is largely a personal matter, vertical text tends to be associated with the elderly and formal occasions.
- Opening Word: The first word is written along the top of the first column.
- Preliminary Greetings: This is your “Happy New Years!” or similar expressions.
- Main Text: This starts in a new column, positioned one to two spaces below the top. “Sate” or “tokorode” are usually placed at the start of this text.
- Final Greetings: It is common to express wishes of health and good luck to the recipient.
- Closing Word: This belongs on the bottom of the next column, right beneath the final greetings. Note that opening and closing words are always paired so remember to use the appropriate partner term to whatever you wrote in the opening.
- Date: When writing out the numbers of the date, remember to use Arabic numerals when writing horizontally and kanji when writing vertically.
- Writer’s Name.
- Recipient’s Name: Remember to add the appropriate honorific, such as -san, -sama or -sensei to the addressee’s name.
- Postscript: All postscripts begin with “tsuishin.” You should not pen a postscript to a letter if it is to be addressed to a superior or is otherwise formal.
- No one appreciates it when you misspell their name. Double or even triple check that you are using the appropriate kanji.
- Unlike addresses in a country like the United States, Japanese addresses begin with the prefecture or city and finish with the resident’s house number.
- Postal code boxes are printed on most postage. Japan’s postal codes have seven digits. You should look out for a set of seven red boxes and write the relevant postal code into those boxes.
- The recipient’s name belongs in the center of the envelope and should be written slightly larger than the address’s characters. Remember to use the appropriate honorific; if writing to an organization, use the -onchuu honorific.
- Your name and address should be written on the back of the envelope.
The stamp goes in the upper left corner. While you can choose to write your text out horizontally or vertically just like when writing a letter, you should stick to the same format on both sides.
Sending your letter overseas
When mailing postage to Japan from an address in the West, the romaji alphabet of characters is acceptable for writing out the address. Note that while romaji is acceptable in these circumstances, kanji is still preferred.