Fascinating, Unusual and Shocking Facts about Gift-giving in Japan
Anyone who has either studied about or has been to Japan will most-likely know that gift-giving permeates within the Japanese culture.
From the biggest shopping mall to the smallest tourist stall one can find all manner of items intended for gift-giving. Some are so exquisitely wrapped that you don’t even want to open them! There are whole companies dedicated to producing prepackaged gift items. In many department stores you can find a display section with an assortment of boxed gift items. The varied assortment of items surprises many foreign visitors. Most of the items aren’t exactly what most non-Japanese would consider “gifts”. Gift items can include boxes of laundry soap, bar soap, shampoo and conditioner sets, instant coffee, assorted juice sets, hand towels and nori (dried seaweed)!
There are also boxes with assorted selections of Japanese tea and snacks. Alcohol is also a popular gift item. You can find almost any item in its “gift ready” form- arranged in a pretty box along with one or several other items made by the same company. Even ordinary items like cooking oil and condiments are tastefully arranged in a box and gift wrapped.
For a fee, some stores will have the gifts delivered right to the recipient’s door. There are gift-giving catalogs that are regularly sent in the mail.
There are so many types of gifts in Japan that it is impossible to list them all. But, one might ask, on what type of occasion would you give a box of laundry soap or cooking oil as a gift?
The answer is, it can be complicated but, let’s take a look at some of these occasions as well as other types of “gift” items.
There are two major and fairly well-known gift giving seasons.
Oseibo - “year end gift” beginning around mid December. Oseibo is reserved for those to whom a debt of gratitude is owed. For example, it’s common for students to give teachers something during this time. Anyone to whom you owe a debt of gratitude to you might consider giving a nice box of bar soaps, hand towels or something you know they will appreciate. Coffee or tea is always appreciated as well as many of the items listed above.
Ochugen - is the ”middle of the year gift” which is observed early to mid July. Ochugen is generally a time when gifts are sent to parents and immediate relatives. The same types of boxed gifts mentioned above are appropriate.
The culture of giving and receiving gifts in Japan is very different from gift giving and receiving in western culture. A newcomer to the country might be surprised and a bit confused by it all and it’s a good idea to try and learn a little about it if you are planning on spending any length of time in Japan. In most countries gift giving is done with “no string attached” but that is not the case in Japan. Every gift given or received creates a bond of obligation. It is a continuous cycle of “on” and “giri” the constant circle of mutual ties and obligations and of strengthening relationships.
Let’s take a short look at some of the other other gift-giving occasions.
Otoshidama-these are gifts of money that are given to children by adults on New Year’s Day.
Omimai - gifts for those who are sick, hospitalized or for someone that has had some accident or misfortune.
Senbetsu - These are known as “going away gifts”. People going on a trip are sometimes given gifts of money by relatives as a means of financial support for the trip. In the days of old it was a custom for ordinary citizens to venture out on a pilgrimage to Ise Jingu, the main Shinto shrine in central Japan. It was an arduous and expensive journey that not everyone could make and villagers would donate money to the pilgrim as a means of financial support and as a way of participating in the pilgrimage. The pilgrims in return would buy “omamori” -amulets or good luck charms from the shrine, as well as other gifts, for those who helped fund the journey. This is where the next custom stems from.
Omiyage - one type of “return” gift. Return gifts are given to people that have helped you or given you gifts-someone to whom you owe “giri” which roughly means duty or obligation or someone that has given you senbetsu. Often businesses will give omiyage to their customers for their continued patronage. It isn’t unusual for a newspaper company to give a case of laundry soap upon renewal of the annual delivery contract-or for that same company to give a case of beer when initially signing on with their company! Giving omiyage is what drives a good part of domestic travel gift sales! Almost everyone feels that they can’t return home without “a little something” for family or friends!
Kekkon Oshugi - a money gift for a wedding. Gifts for the bride and groom are only monetary. Usually, a minimum gift from a friend of the bride and groom is 10,000 yen or about $100.00 USD. Family members of the bride and groom can expect to give between 30,000 - 100,000 yen as a gift-that’s about $300.00-$1,000.00 USD. Wedding guests always get a “thank you” gift as they leave the wedding party. Gifts of pottery, sets of small dishes and glassware are not uncommon thank you gifts.
Kouden - this is a gift of money given at a funeral. The standard gift from non family members is around 3,000 yen or about $30.00. Family members can expect to give more. The money is placed in a special envelope and handed to family members at the entrance of the funeral ceremony hall where the gift is logged onto a ledger. In return the mourners are given a gift bag containing a small gift of thanks, usually tea or dried seaweed or something similar.
All of the gifts mentioned above obligate the receiver to give “okaeshi” or return gifts. Which brings us to the last “gift” called Orei.
Orei is the most important of the return gifts and can be difficult for non-Japanese to understand. As a matter of fact, orei can at times seem more like a bribe. The list of occasions to give orei is far too long to write about here but, lets look at some examples that may surprise and even shock you!
Let’s say that you lose your wallet and someone finds it and turns it into the police station. The police will contact you and give you the finder’s contact information so that you can contact that person and give them 10% of the cash that was in your wallet at the time you lost it. That is a form of orei. It could be considered an obligatory reward for getting your wallet back. A “thank you” to the finder for turning the wallet into the police station.
People studying the Japanese arts such as Tea Ceremony or the martial arts might be surprised to learn that it is “expected” that students give monetary orei to the teacher after the student is promoted in rank. It can be very confusing to those that don’t understand this custom. What’s even more confusing is that the “gift” must be slipped secretly to the teacher - even though everyone knows what is happening. Doing it upfront would be considered in bad taste. The teacher usually takes it without even acknowledging it. It isn’t mandatory but it is mostly expected that the students show their appreciation and recognize the debit of “giri” that they have incurred.
Several times a year the village priest comes over to chant sutras at the family butsudan (altar) and the priest is given orei for his services. This can be done discreetly by slipping an envelope onto a tray with a cup of Japanese tea and a small sweet treat and then setting it on the table while the priest has just finished chanting and is putting away his sutra books. After setting the tray down one quickly leaves the room and returns a tactful few moments later. This gives the priest time to take the envelope and conceal it within the sleeve of his robes. Upon returning to the room he will be found quietly sipping his tea. The envelope will have disappeared and won’t be mentioned. The obligation will have been met.
Finally, there is also a polite amount of time to wait before giving an obligatory or “return” gift. It is never polite to give a gift immediately after receiving one. That gives the impression of wanting to get the obligation over with as soon as possible! It’s important to let some time go by first. It is also important to remember the status of the recipient. Giving to someone of lower or equal status is different than giving a gift to someone who is superior.
The fascinating and confusing custom of Japanese gift giving can be successfully navigated with a little study and a lot of patience!