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Christmas Gifts in Japan, Do's and Don'ts

In one of my previous articles this year, I discussed the importance and widespread adherence to a culture of gift-giving in Japan, and also the importance of not being caught up in a constant awkward exchange of gifts neither side can really afford to maintain.

Modesty and consideration both for personal preferences and established cultural norms are crucial in choosing an appropriate gift, whether it be for a colleague, a friend, that special someone in your life or your family.

With Christmas however, the whole dynamic shifts somewhat.

I mentioned in a previous piece that, on the face of it at least, Japan doesn’t really do Christmas. This is not a Christian country, and whilst I always somehow have managed to wrangle a day off on Christmas Day down the years, Christmas never has been, and most likely never will be a recognized national holiday.

However, whilst Japanese people don’t do Christmas vacations, they certainly do Christmas presents!


Photo: Sean MacEntee on Flickr

Already now, just at the beginning of November I can see shops beginning to fill up with Christmas gifts, decorations, cards and so on. IKEA in Osaka even has a giant Christmas tree, replete with assorted cutesy stuffed animals. Just the kind of thing guaranteed to make all your Japanese lady friends squeal “Kawaii!”

The ensuing deluge will most likely run right through until December 25th, and then it will all magically disappear by the morning of the 26th!

Christmas Tree at Ikea

Christmas Tree at Ikea

Photo: Violette79 on Flickr

So, what are the best gifts to get for your Japanese friends, colleagues and loved ones this year?

Also, what presents are best avoided, lest we upset our colleagues?

Here’s a rough guide based on my experiences down the years and also the numerous mistakes I have made!

First off, work colleagues. Depending on a number of factors, most commonly whether they have kids or not, some of your colleagues may opt to skip Christmas completely, so the last thing they want is to be guilted into buying gifts for a festival they personally have no interest in.

However in the interests of maintaining workplace harmony, it’s probably best to take an all or nothing approach. Either you buy a small gift for everyone or don’t bother at all.


Photo: Mosman Library on Flickr

Since I work in several schools, each with a minimum of about 50 teachers and support staff, it’s important to make sure I cover all the bases. To this end, I give everyone a Christmas card and leave it at that. Even then, the process of buying so many cards, still runs into several thousand yen in expenses. But, it is only once a year and I think it’s worth it for the sake of building better relations with colleagues.

Next up, friends. Again in this regard it is important not to go overboard and be mindful that your friend will feel obligated to get you something in return, even if perhaps they can’t afford it.

Hence, small scale things are a good idea. For male friends perhaps a nice tie or a set of cufflinks, or maybe one of those beer gift sets they sell in the Japanese supermarkets and department stores at this time of year.

Christmas Gift for Men - Neck Tie

Christmas Gift for Men - Neck Tie

Photo: Tiago Pereira on Flickr

For your female friends, maybe a small mirror or bath set is a nice idea. I recommend the natural soaps and bath bombs from places like Lush. They are always well received.

Lush Cosmetics products for Christmas.

Lush Cosmetics products for Christmas.

Photo: Ruth Jonston on Flickr

One common thread that transcends genders when it comes to buying Christmas gifts in Japan, is to buy European.

Japanese are absolutely crazy for European luxury goods. Whether its Italian fashions, Spanish pottery or German beer steins, your Japanese friends will really appreciate almost anything that carries a foreign brand or is of European origin.

Hand-made and precious goods are especially well-received.


Photo: 305 Seahill on Flickr

And now, that most important of all Christmas presents, that one that you absolutely, positively must get right at all costs.

I refer of course to the all-important present for your partner.

Whether it’s your boyfriend, your girlfriend, your husband or your wife relationships have often started and sometimes ended depending on the choice of Christmas gift.

For younger Japanese women in particular, the Christmas gift is seen as an important indicator of love and affection. If you’re fortunate enough to be dating such a woman, you can expect a very generous Christmas gift. However, you will also be expected to reciprocate accordingly.

So, here are some ideas for gifts for that special someone in your life. Let’s start with the boys.

Most Japanese men love European fashions almost as much as the ladies do. So, if you don’t mind splashing the cash a bit, then perhaps a nice designer wallet, scarf or jacket is a good way to go.

If you go to the likes of Don Quihote, or any of the major department stores, you can find a variety of aftershaves, colognes and other fragrances too from all around the world.


Photo: Marie Anakee on Flickr

I especially recommend the Italian and French fragrances. Many of my European and American friends find their floral fragrance to be a bit too perfumey, but my Japanese friends almost universally love them.

Now, that most difficult of choices, getting something for the wife or girlfriend, perhaps both, if that’s your kind of lifestyle!

Knowing what women want is a lot like learning a martial art, no matter how much practice you put in, or how much experience you gain, one can never claim complete mastery of the art. Just as we feel we are reaching our goal, another obstacle pops up to block our path. After all, the understanding of a woman’s mind is such an alien concept to men, Mel Gibson even made a film about it, back in the days before he became a drunken bigot.

Nonetheless, we can but try our best.

Again, fragrances and perfumes from Europe are quite a safe bet. Avoid deodorant and body wash sets though. Perfume, to me, suggests: “You are beautiful, and this fragrance will just further accentuate that beauty.”

Deodorant and soap on the other hand seems to say: “Sure, you’re beautiful, but I think we can do something about the smell!”


Photo: Maria Morri on Flickr

I would also avoid food items. Sure, most women love Belgian chocolates, but in Japan, especially for couples, a lot of significance is attached to the Christmas gift, so it needs to be something that can be preserved and observed. Therefore, it probably isn’t a good idea to get something that will be munched out of existence before the Christmas Turkey is even cold!

Jewellery is also a good choice, but again, be sure to take the time to know the style and fashion your lady loves, and keep the receipt just in case. Unless, you’re planning a proposal, don’t buy your girl a ring for Christmas, you’ll only get her hopes up, or perhaps inspire feelings of dread, depending on how well the relationship is going!

All joking aside though, the best presents at Christmas time are the ones that show thought, consideration and appreciation for the person you love. This is a universal concept that the Japanese buy into wholeheartedly as well.

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