Don’t throw those boring New Years cards away!

December 16th, 2013 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Betting on the horse: Japan Post presents its New Years postcard selection on its home page.

Betting on the horse: Japan Post presents its New Years postcard selection on its home page.

As promised two posts ago, we’re now going to explain the prizes attached to New Years cards. We pointed out in that article that the custom of sending nengajo (New Years greetings) or nenga-hagaki (New Years postcards) has been declining in recent years, a development that concerns JP because it’s always derived a good part of its revenue from the custom. Last year, JP sold 3.27 billion cards, which sounds like a lot, but represents a 20 percent drop since sales peaked in 1999.

Many years ago they started a lottery contest. Each card has a number printed on it, and sometime in the middle of January, JP conducts a drawing for winning numbers. However, the people who buy the cards and send them are not the same people who receive them and thus have the chance to win prizes, so the lottery incentive for buying cards escapes us, unless you assume that the more cards you send the more you are likely to receive, but that sort of cause-and-effect logic wouldn’t actually kick in until the following year, right?

According to NHK, the idea of combining nengajo with a lottery started in 1949, when the price of a postcard was ¥2 yen. In the years right after the war, the exchange of nenga-hagaki took on special meaning, since it was a good way to inform friends and relatives that you were still alive and where you were. The lottery, which is called otoshidama, the term for New Years gifts of cash given to children, made it even more appealing, because so many people had nothing at the time, so the prizes were for the most part practical: sewing machines, skeins of wool, bolts of fabric. As Japanese society became more affluent, the prizes became more aspirational: TV sets and other high-end home appliances, or coupons for international or domestic travel.

In the Jan. 6, 2010 issue of the weekly magazine Bunshun there is an article about the prizes. That year the grand prize was a 32-inch high-definition flat screen TV. The article goes on to explain the keihin hyoji-ho, or “incentive indication law,” which states that a company which offers prizes as an incentive to boost sales cannot offer prizes whose value is more than 20 times the price of the merchandise or service that is sold, so, theoretically, if a postcard costs ¥50, then the most you could win is something worth ¥1,000. But, in fact, JP got a special dispensation, since a different law was passed specifically for nengajo, and that law says you can offer prices worth up to 5,000 times the price of the lottery ticket.

Another condition of the special law is that if the card is received by a company rather than an individual, and that card is a winner, the person who claims the prize must present proof that he or she is an employee of the company. Another condition is that the prizes must be claimed within six months of the drawing (it’s up to one year for conventional Takarakuji lotteries, which are sold as lottery tickets so the incentive law doesn’t apply).

However, there’s another difference between Takarakuji and nengajo lotteries that’s more fundamental to this discussion. Takarakuji publicizes the rate of winning numbers that are claimed, but JP doesn’t. Bunshun interviewed an expert who conjectures that Takarakuji prizes are cash, while JP prizes are goods. If all the cash available for prizes isn’t won in a given year, Takarakuji just keeps the money and adds it to next year’s jackpot, but what can JP do with unclaimed goods? People aren’t going to be interested in last year’s model TV, and the lesser prizes, like travel coupons, usually come with a time period in which they have to be redeemed. Another prize is sheets of stamps, which are deemed legal tender, but for some reason they are destroyed if not won in the lottery.

The impression one gets from the article is that a fair number of nengajo prizes are not claimed every year, mainly because people don’t really care, and one reason they don’t care is that it’s inconvenient. In order to check the numbers, the receiver has to read the right newspaper on the right day or go to the nearest post office, and most people can’t be bothered. Now, of course, JP publicizes the winning numbers on the Internet, but even that may not be enough, so this year instead of prizes, JP is offering cash, thus making it more like otoshidama.

It’s not a lot of cash, though. The top prize is only ¥10,000. The incentive is that the odds are more in the public’s favor. In the past, when the top prize was an expensive appliance, the odds of winning were one in a million. But this year there are 33,936 first prize winning cards, which means the odds of getting one is one in 100,000. There are also 339,365 furusato prizes (“home town” prizes, meaning products associated with specific regions in Japan), so the odds of winning one of those is one in 10,000. And the other prize is, again, sheets of stamps. The odds of winning those is one in fifty.

JP will announce the winning numbers on Jan. 19.

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