So you sent (or tried to send) out a lot of New Year's cards this year, to which you received a lot of warm, preprinted, orange, 50-yen-ink-stamped postcard replies. But among your replies this year was a normal, non-New Year's postcard with a normal, non-New Year's stamp, and it came a week later than your other cards, to boot. It all seems a little out of character from your Japanese friend, who's normally so attentive to tradition. What's the deal?

喪中 (mochuu) is a Japanese word that translates as "in mourning." When a family member of a first- or second-degree relation to you (first-degree = parents, children, spouse; second-degree = grandparents, siblings) passes away, in Japan it is traditional to honor the deceased with a one-year mourning period. (Case by case, families may choose to identify themselves as 喪中 for deaths of more distant relatives, like the spouses of siblings or children, as well.)

Over the New Year's celebrations of that year, the mourner sends out no greeting cards. Instead, at the beginning of the winter season they send cards informing their friends and coworkers of the loss.

When you receive a card like this, it's of course customary to reply with appropriate condolences. But, as an additional step, it's polite to make a point of not sending that individual a New Year's card. Why? Because New Year's cards are congratulatory and wish their recipients a bright and happy new year, a pretty distinct contrast to the way your friend is probably feeling.

Now, slip ups happen. Sometimes you send a card to someone you haven't been in touch with for a while, and family tragedies can occur any time, even right before the new year. If you accidentally send a card to someone who is in mourning, the proper recourse for them is to reply to you after the 松明け (matsuake), a old Japanese calendar event that marks the ending of the New Year's season. (Matsuake, by the way, is on January 7th in Eastern Japan and January 15th in Western Japan.)

Their reply to you will be as a normal postcard, and they'll probably inform you of the loss and apologize for not being able to send you a New Year's card that year. Since this is the first time you're hearing of the loss, it's polite of you to at this point send one more postcard to them, avoiding any congratulatory language and telling of your condolences.

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