December and January provide many occasions for reinforcing business relationships and, consequently, good opportunities for strengthening your connections.
Around mid-December in Japan, presents called o-seibo are given as an expression of gratitude to friends, associates, superiors, teachers, clients and anyone else to whom one feels indebted. Bonenkai (end of year) parties are held in offices and with one's friends to "forget the old year." Christmas celebrations are often incorporated into the merriment.
Businesses also use this time to reflect on the year's mistakes and plan for a prosperous new year. A year-end housecleaning is carried out in preparation for the New Year, but just in case the housecleaning might drive away good spirits of the New Year, care is taken to finish it before New Year's Day.
The last time one sees clients and colleagues (as well as friends and relatives) the following expressions are used:
"Kotoshi wa iroiro osewa ni narimashita" - "Thank you for taking care of me this year."
"Rainen mo, yoroshiku onegaishimasu" - "Please treat me kindly next year too."
These expressions are meant to reinforce the value you place on the good relationship you had during the year, as well as to convey your hopes for a continuation of such good relations throughout the New Year.
January First is a national holiday in Japan, although banks, government offices, and many businesses remain closed through the third. People visit friends during these holidays, and clients during the first days back at work to exchange the following greeting:
"Akemashite omedetoo gozaimasu" - "Congratulations on the New Year or Happy New Year!" (This, by the way, is not said before New Year's Day.)
"Honen mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu" - "Please treat me kindly this year, too" is added.
On a more formal occasion, the speaker may say:
"Sakunen wa iroiro osewani narimashita" - "Thank you for being so good to me last year" between the two phrases above.
These expressions are also written on New Year's cards called "Nengajoo" which are widely exchanged in Japan among friends, relatives, and business associates like Christmas cards are in the West. The majority of these are postal cards which contain a potentially valuable lottery number, but some people choose to create and send more individualized cards. Either way they should be individually signed and addressed. The post office holds these post cards and painstakingly delivers them all on January First.
An important exception to this custom is when there has been a death in the immediate family. Upon the passing of a loved one, the family will send a card in black notifying acquaintances of the death, and informing them that, in keeping with custom, they will not be sending (and wish not to receive) New Year's greetings.
If you don't live in Japan but have Japanese customers, it would be good to send a general Holiday or New Year card in December. A New Year's card should not arrive before January First, and you can ensure that it doesn't by writing "Nenga" in red on the front of the envelop so the post office will hold it until the First. Because hierarchy is important, make sure that a superior doesn't receive the same card as his or her subordinates.
Don't forget that important clients should be sent an appropriate gift in December. You wouldn't want your negligence to give a more appreciative competitor the opening to erode your relationship with your client.
If you have colleagues you mainly correspond with by email (foreign employees of a Japanese company often fit into this category) you should start your first email of the year with the New Year greeting above. If you don't have a reason to write during the first half of the month, it would be constructive to make a reason by saying you just wanted to wish them a Happy New Year, but it would be nice to start your email with the greetings in Japanese. If you receive a card from someone to whom you didn't send one, you should send one in return as soon as possible.
In Japanese companies, an informal New Year's meeting is held on the first day back at work and great effort is made to start the New Year on a positive note.
All of these are good opportunities for strengthening and deepening your business relationships.