Ethnographic approach on cultural practice through CMC

New Year greetings in Japanese mobile phone e-mail as example

Noboru Sakai, Tamagawa University [About | Email]

Volume 18, Issue 1 (Discussion paper 2 in 2018). First published in ejcjs on 29 April 2018.


This study empirically investigates how people use CMC(Computer Mediated Communication)as a traditional communication tool, with Japanese mobile phone mail (Keitai-mail) as an example. From 43,295 Keitai-mail for communication purposes collected from 60 young Japanese people (age: 18 to 30, gender, 30 male participants and 30 female participants), people use Keitai-mailto send greetings on New Year’s Day as an alternative method to traditional paper-based postcard exchanges, as well as an effective opening device in communication. At the same time, traditional paper-based greetings are also welcomed and people seem to use Keitai-mail for New Year greetings as an alternative method, not an exclusion or replacement of this traditional method.

Keywords: CMC, New Year greeting, Japanese, ethnography.


This paper discusses how Keitai-mail is used as a part of or as an alternative method in cultural practice, using the example of New Year’s greetings. In Japan, it is a normal cultural practice for people to send a New Year’s communication called a Nengajō(年賀状), using a special type of postcard (calledNenga hagaki, see Figure 1) to congratulate their friends, families, and contacts on New Year’s, and ask for the continuance of their good relationships over the coming year. Such greetings and cards are sometimes sent by and to those who rarely have contact in real life as well.

Figure 1. New Year postcard. Source.Japan Post Network

Sakai, Figure 1

From a traditional viewpoint, Japanese people have utilised New Year’s day to pray for a good harvest, and as a means to welcome the God of the Earth into each home (Japan Iroha dictionary project, 2006). At present, many people in Japan participate in New Year’s events such as Hatsumode, and/or prepare New Year’s ornaments in a traditional manner, and prepare a special menu called Osechi Ryori, which signifies as a prayer for the flourishing of the family and their surrounding land (Kibun, n.d.). Nengajyo is a traditional practice; evidence shows this has existed since the Heian era (785-1192). This form of greeting has been regarded as a special event to refresh relations for the new year (Fujifilm, 2017).

Nengajō exchanges are very common and are done by every generation, from children to elderly people. Therefore, Nengajō is a good example of an enduring cultural practice, unlike some which sometimes disappear after children grow out of their a youth. To be able to send Nengajō on New Year’s Day (i.e., January 1), people buy Nenga hagakiin December. They then post the card several days before New Year’s Day, so that recipients can receive them on New Year’s Day (of course, some Nengajō are received after New Year’s Day, depending on when they are posted).

In terms of composition, certain special customs are observed. Nengajō greetings typically begin with the New Year greeting of “明けましておめでとうございます” (/akemashite omedetou gozaimasu/, “Happy new year!”). There are several variations of this greeting, such as omitting the last five mojiございます, using the English “Happy New Year,” using the abbreviated formあけおめ/ake ome/, and so forth. This greeting is a compulsory part of New Year greetings. After that, people may include several types of messages such as “今年もよろしくおねがいします” (/kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegai shimasu/, meaning “please continue a good relationship with me this year as usual”), “去年はお世話になりました” (/kyonen wa osewa ni narimashita/, meaning “Thank you for your cooperation over the last year”), and so forth. Of course, people can also include general content in New Year greetings, but Nengajō have the specific composition characteristics shown above.

The practice of New Year greeting is one of the major cultural practices influenced by technology. In the past, the postcards were written by hand. However, as reasonable-cost PCs and printers have been widely purchased by households, over the last several years in particular, many people including non-professionals use Nengajō templates to create them on their PC, then print them out. This technology increases the expressiveness of Nengajō: for example, people can easily include pictures without using special techniques. At the same time, however, Nengajō should still be posted before a certain day: the timeframe is the same as for the traditional handwritten postcards. In some senses, the exchange of Nengajō is a time-consuming practice.

Reflecting on this dilemma between current trend of communication via mobile devices and traditional communication practices, this study analysis how people uses CMC(Computer Mediated Communication)as a traditional communication practice, to be a milestone in this rapid IT and communication technological development.


This study re-investigates the corpus of raw data on communication practices appearing in Keitai-mail which the researchers gained through fieldwork. In detail, this study analyses 43,295 Keitai-mail for communication purposes collected from 60 young Japanese people (aged 18 to 30; the ratio of males to females is 1:1, i.e, 30 male participants and 30 female participants) during May 2009 to January 2010.1The participants use mobile phones sold by the three major Japanese Keitai companies: NTT Docomo, Softbank,and au. The numbers of participants using each Keitai company are as follows: Docomo28; SoftBank11; and au21. Keitai-mail are collected through the Keitai-mail backup software Keitai-master MX(ver 4.5) (Jungle Inc., 2009), with the selection of participants which Keitai-mail could offer. Because of differences in specifications, Decome Emoji(“Decorative mail emoji”) stored in au mobiles could not be collected.

Result and discussion

As Keitai-mail are a normal part of daily communication, in particular among young people, they are also used for New Year greetings. This has an effect on the timeframe of such greetings (here, Keitai-mail for New Year greeting are calledNenga-mail). First, the extent to which young people use Keitai-mail for Nengajō(the so-called Nenga-mail) is considered. In the corpus, there are 131 Keitai-mail which were exchanged on January 1.1 Among them, 84 were New Year greeting messages. This means about two-thirds (66%) of theKeitai-mailexchanged on New Year’s day were New Year greetings, having a special type of composition, showing thatKeitai-mailare already widely used in this particular type of cultural practice.

Throughout the corpus, 161 New Year’s messages were found; Table 1 and Figure 2 show when the messages were exchanged (Figure 2 includes the days when people did not exchange Nenga-mail in order to display the distribution). These displays show that 84 Nenga mails were exchanged on New Year’s Day, 53% of the total number of exchanges (note: the dates of four Nenga-mail could not be decided for technical reasons and were therefore excluded in the calculation of proportion).

Table 1: Number of New Year messages exchanged via Keitai-mail
Day Frequency Proportion Day Frequency Proportion
12/31 1 0.64% 1/9 1 0.64%
1/1 84 53.50% 1/10 1 0.64%
1/2 30 19.11% 1/11 1 0.64%
1/3 9 5.73% 1/14 1 0.64%
1/4 5 3.19% 1/15 1 0.64%
1/5 2 1.27% 1/19 1 0.64%
1/6 5 3.19% 2/7 1 0.64%
1/7 10 6.37% Unknown 4 -
1/8 4 2.55%

As these data show, people exchanged the messages on New Year’s Day in the same way as ordinary Nengajō, but two new trends can also be discerned here: 1) Keitai-mailinvolve on-the-spot communication, i.e., Nenga-mail are both created and sent on New Year’s Day, so that people decrease the number of or even do not write Nengajō before the day itself; 2) even though they exchanged Nenga-mailmost frequently on January 1, the proportion for this is still only just over half.

As for the latter, interestingly, although the participants exchanged Nenga-mail in the first three days of the New Year,2 some of these Nenga-mail were exchanged on later days in January and even in February, something not normally envisaged in the traditional exchange of postcards. To analyse the characteristics of such late Nenga-mail, several mails sent on later days are shown below: the left-hand side shows the original text, and the right-hand side its translation.

Date: January, 8; Sender: Female; Recipient: Male
(無題) (No title)
あけおめー元気だよ息子もすくすく大きくなっとります HNY*ーI’m fine My son is growing up so fast

* An abbreviation for“Happy New Year”

Date: January, 14; Sender: Female; Recipient: Female
(無題) (No title)
Xちゃんあけおめ~遅いけど笑新年はっぴーに過ごしてますかYは毎日あっというまに過ぎ去ります 今年はお互いでらいいパートナーを見つけようねそれには自分みがきが第一じゃ あとね贈るものあるから住所教えてくれろ~
X, HNY* But it is too late. lol Are you happy this new year For Y(myself), everyday is soon gone Let’s find a very good partner this year To do so, the most important thing is to grow up myself In addition, I have something to send to you, so please tell me your address~
Ya, please have a good friendship with me
Date: January,15 ; Sender: Female; Recipient: Female
おはよう Hello

Belatedly, happy new year
I hope there is lots of happiness for you and me
By the way, is Y growing up fast I hope to meet you ー

Is that too early
Date: January, 19; Sender: Male; Recipient: Female
(無題) (No title)


HNY* and PHGR**
Have a good time at the end of the (Japanese) fiscal year

** An abbreviation for “Please Have a Good Relationship”

Date: February, 7; Sender: Male; Recipient: Not known
(無題) (No title)
Happy New Year.
Please have a good relationship with me this year
Do you live around X now?

These five Nenga-mail exhibit gender differences which we will discuss elsewhere. The messages exchanged between females are longer and contain many emoticons. On the other hand, messages become shorter with fewer emoticons when each or both of the senders and recipients is/are male.

In addition, we find a range of interesting neologisms and abbreviations in the message patterns of the New Year greetings. The third example includes あけおめand ことよろ/koto yoro/, which are abbreviations of あけましておめでとう(“Happy New Year”, note: the firstあcan be written in both Hiragana and Kanji明) and ことしもよろしく(“Please have a good relationship with me this year”) respectively.

As for the timeframe of Nenga-mail,some people are concerned about their delay in sending their New Year greeting. For example, two of the five mails above include the writers’ apologies for the delay:

[Belatedly Happy New Year]

This message is a part of a Nenga-mail sent on January 2. This shows that even though people failed to send New Year’s mail on New Year’s Day and delayed it by only a day, some think this is too late to send a New Year greeting mail. A similar example is found in another mail sent on January 4 (this is also a part of a longer text):

[I’m so late, but Happy New Year!!]

The sender feels that sending a New Year greeting message on January 4, three days after New Year’s Day, is very late, perhaps because January 4 falls after the first three days of New Year(sanganichi),and New Year has already gone. Several texts include similar messages, but in total, 11 out of 73 Nenga-mail exchanged on days other than January 1 include messages concerning the delay. This means that as only 15% of the e-mails mention the delay, sending a New Year greeting after New Year’s Day is not seen as a significant matter.

The first five examples show that people also include some questions instead of just finishing with their New Year congratulations. For instance, the Nenga-mailsent on February 7 includes a question asking where the person lives. Another text also shows this tendency:

[Happy New Year
will Prof X’s lectures be held on the 15th?]

These examples show that New Year greetings can be regarded not only purely as a stand-alone celebration of the New Year but also as an opening statement of communication in the same way as other greetings like “good morning” or “hello.” The example below shows the use of a New Year greeting as a communication device, i.e., an opening statement:

[Happy New Year. It may be too early to do so, and please excuse me, but I would like to inform you of a change in my Keitai e-mail address. Thank you.]

This message was sent on January 9. In general, it was no longer necessary to say “Happy New Year” by the ninth, and it would not be problematic if someone sent a Keitai-mail advising of a new Keitai number or address as their opening statement by that date. Therefore, we can assume that this is the sender’s first e-mail to the recipient since the New Year, so that using a New Year greeting is an effective opening to the communication.

As the discussion above shows, Keitai-mail have brought about a new trends in the timeframe of Nenga message exchange practices. Nenga-mail are prompt and people can easily send them. Moreover, they can also send them later, after New Year’s Day, as well as using a New Year greeting as their starting point for communication. These characteristics are trends found in Keitai-mail. At the same time, some participants also expressed some feeling of strangeness in using Keitai-mailas a substitute for traditional paper-based New Year greeting.

Components of Nenga-mail

This section analyses the components of Nenga-mail.Table 2 compares the average numbers of each component betweenNenga-mailand the texts as a whole. It shows that the length of Nenga-mail is longer than the average for the total.Nenga-mailhave 30 more moji than ordinaryKeitai-mail. In particular, Nenga-mailcontain approximately double the number of emoticons. One interesting feature here is that in Nenga-mail there is less replacement by Emoji. This can mean that there are no words suitable to be replaced since replacements occur in a limited manner only when the meanings of Emoji are clear.

Table 2: Proportion of components
Component Nenga-mail Total Difference
Length 71.27 41.64 27.80
The occurrences of the five scripts 66.48 39.02 25.74
Emoji as a picture 2.63 2.02 0.58
Emoji as replacement 0.11 0.18 -0.07
Emoji total 2.74 2.20 0.51
Decome as a picture 1.67 0.29 1.29
Decome as replacement 0.17 0.03 0.14
Decome total 1.84 0.32 1.43
Kaomoji 0.21 0.09 0.11
Total number of emoticons 4.79 2.62 2.06

Figure 2 illustrates the different uses of emoticons in Nenga-mail and in the total the Keitai-mailcorpus, and shows thatNenga-mailcontain most of each type of emoticon. In particular, Nenga-mailapply Decome much more than do texts in general. Decome are relatively demanding and time-consuming to create in mail applications. New Year’s Day is a special day and exchanging New Year greetings is also a special cultural practice for Japanese people. This special occasion lets people createKeitai-mail with many emoticons, which means texts are so decorated, colourful and eye-catching that they feel luxurious and beautiful, and people will try to celebrate this special time by applying decoration in order to create a special-looking text even on the Keitai screen.

Figure 2. Use of emoticons in Nenga-mail and the total corpus

Sakai, Figure 2

Looked at another way, it can also be said that even though Japanese traditional culture may have fallen out of fashion, young people do retain a sense of tradition to a certain extent, and Nenga-mail reflect this. That is shown by the fact that they add some aura of celebration to the mail they create. Otherwise, they would not make the extra effort.

Keitai-mail as the successor to paper New Year greetings

For young people, it seems to be common practice to useKeitai-mail to send a New Year message as an alternative to sending the traditional paper-based Nengajō, so some might predict that Keitai-mailwill replace all paper-basedNengajōin the near future. However, the corpus also includes cases where people hesitated to use Keitai-mail for New Year greetings (only the part of the message important to this discussion is presented here):

[Happy New Year. Sorry about the Nenga-mail, because I couldn’t write a Nengajō (*≧ω≦*)]

[Happy New Year
I did not have time to write a Nengajō, and sorry I use instead ]

These two messages show that the senders apologised that they could not send a New Year postcard, and it can be seen that there is some hesitation in using Keitai-mail as a New Year greeting. Furthermore, some sent paper-basedNengajōeven though they could have sent a greeting by Keitai-mail, as the examples below show:

[I plan to write a Nengajō so please tell me your address ]

This is typical of the messages in which people show their intention to send a New Year postcard. In another case:

[This is so sudden for you, but can you tell me your address? I think it has been three years?, but I want to write a Nengajō. lol]

In this case, the sender had not written paper-basedNengajōfor three years, but she decided to send one again this year. Another similar case:

[Hi I plan to send a Nengajō this year, so I want you to tell me your address]

This example also shows that the sender intended to send a postcard this year although s/he had not yet done so. Interestingly, this message was sent around noon on 31 December, meaning that the postcard would not arrive on New Year’s Day. If Nenga-mail had been used, the message would have arrived that day, but the person preferred to use a paper-based postcard this time.

These cases illustrate that even though some have stopped writing paper-based Nengajō,particularly by substituting Nenga-mail,they have not abandoned the possibility of creating paper-based postcards again some time. Therefore, it can be said that paper-basedNengajōhave a special meaning for Japanese people. Another interesting example follows:

[I received your Nengajō. Thank you very much. Now I’m writing replies to 4 Nengajō. I received them from unexpected people. My prediction was too easy.]

In this case, the recipient of a paper-based New Year postcard sends Keitai-mailto say thank you to the sender, and to tell the sender that he is busy creating extra postcards for people from whom he did not expect to receiveNengajō.This is an example showing that people have occasion to make aNengajōwhen they receive one.

The cases shown above could reasonably be considered to indicate that, instead of disappearing, Nengajōwill live on together with Nenga-mailas two different methods of New Year greeting, reflecting the strong Japanese cultural root that New Year’s day is a time to refurbish life, even unconsciously feeling and practicing various inherited rituals.


Young people useKeitai-mailas a means of greeting on New Year’s Day as an alternative method to traditional paper-based postcard exchanges. The promptness ofKeitai-mailexchange has influenced the timeframe of New Year greeting practices: the times at which they create and send Nenga-mailhave become more flexible. In addition, New Year greeting messages can also be used as an effective opening device in a communication. This new communication medium, Keitai, adds another dimension to this cultural practice which is no longer restricted by the traditional norms.

At the same time, the use ofKeitai-mailfor New Year greetings does not mean people have forgotten the sense of preciousness inherent in tradition and the traditional postcard method. The creation of longer and more decorative mails can be seen as a reflection of the special sense of New Year’s Day, and a wish to create a special mail in celebration. Moreover, some also like to write traditional postcards even though they could useKeitai-mailinstead. Therefore, the emergence of Nenga-mailcan be seen as a phenomenon which does not vanquish this tradition but opens up a new possibility of expression. Therefore, people use both this new way and the traditional way together to achieve effective communication.


This paper is based on my PhD dissertation (University of Queensland); I would like to express my gratitude to my advisors: Emeritus Professor Nanette Gottlieb, Dr. Yuriko Naga, and Dr. Michael Harrington. This research project was supported by several scholarships and a research grant: The University of Queensland, the Faculty of Arts International Scholarship covered the tuition fees. A living allowance was provided by Nanette Gottlieb’s Australian Professorial Fellowship, funded by the Australian Research Council. In addition, Tokyo Foundation also supported my data collection in Japan. I am thankful for these forms of financial support.


Fujifilm. 2017. 意外と知らない、年賀状の由来と歴史、豆知識 [A trivia on the origin and history of Nengajyo people would not know].(Accessed December 5, 2017).

Kibun. n.d. おせち料理大辞典 [A big dictionary of the New Year dishes]. (Accessed December 5, 2017).

Japan Iroha dictionary project. 2006. 日本の伝統文化・芸能辞典 [The dictionary of Japanese traditional culture and arts]. Chobunsha, Tokyo, Japan.

Japan Post Network. 2017. 年賀はがき [A New Year postcard]. (Accessed December 5, 2017).


[1] The number of 131 seems small, but the theoretical average of Keitai-mail per day found in the corpus is approximately 119 (= 43,295÷365), so the number is reasonable.

[2] The first three days of New Year (January 1 to 3) are called sanganichi, national holidays in Japan, and people generally regard this period as New Year.

About the Author

Noboru Sakai is an adjunct lecturer at the Center for English as a Lingua Franca, Tamagawa University, Japan. He holds a PhD (Language studies) from the University of Queensland, an MA (Applied Linguistics) from the University of Queensland, and BS (Information systems) from Soka University, Japan. His research interest is communication in society from a holistic view, including its related multidisciplinary research fields. He in particular studies computer mediated communication (particularly among young people) based on sociolinguistic perspectives. He also researches in applied linguistics, emphasising computer assisted language learning and Japanese translation.

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