Japan's Culture of Gift Giving
Gift Giving in Japan
Text and photos by Aliona Jefimova
Foreigners who come to Japan may be surprised by how often they receive gifts on numerous occasions, sometimes without any particular reason.
The tradition of exchanging gifts in Japan has a venerable history and is extremely important in relationships between people. Whereas receiving a gift is nearly always a pleasant experience, it can also be overwhelming since the gift brings with it the unstated assumption that you are expected to give something in return.
When are gifts given?
Whereas in the West people usually exchange gifts on birthdays, Christmas, and Valentine's Day, in Japan these occasions are not considered "traditional" as they have come from the West. However, they are becoming popular among increasingly Westernized' Japanese young people. In the past everyone's birthday was celebrated on the same day New Year's Day. Thus, the tradition of giving a gift on the actual day of birth originated in the West.
The uniquely Japanese gift giving occasions are Ochugen (given between the 1st and 13th of July) and Oseibo (given at the end of the year). The latter is a time to give a present to one's boss to express gratitude for employment.
Another "unique" tradition is "key money" money presented to your landlord at the beginning of the tenancy agreement, as if to say: Thank you for letting me rent your room. This money is often used to repair any damages the tenant may (or may not) have caused when he leaves--and is never refunded.
Children are given Otoshidama on New Year's Day, which is always a packet of money. Japanese children rarely receive toys or sweets on New Year's the traditional present is money.
One of the most burdensome traditions is omiyage - the gifts you bring back from even the shortest trip. This stokes the perception abroad that Japanese are very rich and do not care about money.
Most of these souvenirs are not for the buyer, but for other people. It is extremely important not to forget anyone, as they might be offended and the relationship could worsen. Another vital point is that the omiyage should be produced in the area the person traveled to it does not have to be anything big or expensive, a local fruit or a key ring with an image of the local attraction would suffice.
Giving gifts at weddings, the birth of a child, or a funeral is practiced in many Western countries, but not via the postal system. For these occasions most Japanese would prefer giving money, and the amount depends on your relationship to the person. Some time later after the ceremony, you will receive a box of cookies, whiskey, cooking oil, chocolates, coffee, or soap--in the mail. Nowadays there are special gift delivery services all over Japan that have wide range of gifts.
Money is usually presented in a special envelope (noshibukuro) tied with a cord. Before buying an envelope, make sure you know which kind of envelope you should give for the particular occasion. The black envelope for a funeral, for example, would obviously not be appropriate at a wedding.
Gifts of cash are common in Japan. While giving money to a teacher to express gratitude for teaching one's child might be considered a bribe in the West, in Japan it is not unusual. A new company employee, in addition, may be given a substantial amount of money to cover the expenses of moving to another city.
Thus, it is important to remember when and what to give; however, you also should not forget that the presentation of the gift itself is extremely important in Japan. There is even an expression "Japanese wrapping culture." In general, the content of the gift is not as important as presentation.
What kind of gift should you give?
All things considered, there are many things you should beware of when you give or receive gifts in Japan. If you are not sure, the simplest thing to do is ask a Japanese friend.
Things to remember when giving a gift:
- Choose your noshibukuro carefully.
- Have the gift wrapped at the store where you buy it.
- If you are traveling, buy a locally made gift.
- Money is usually acceptable.
- When in doubt, check with a Japanese friend.
Books on Japanese Gift Giving
Articles by Aliona Jefimova