Perfect Presents: The Art of Gift Giving in Japan
One aspect of Japanese culture so frequently remarked upon by those who visit this great country is the politeness and the overwhelming eagerness to please of their Japanese hosts.
It is therefore not too surprising that the giving and receiving of gifts is and has always been a massive part of Japanese daily life. From small mementoes, to elaborate, expensive items, Japanese buy a wide range of gifts for their friends, colleagues and business associates every day. However the exact nature of what one should buy、for whom and on what occasion can present a series of headaches to the uninitiated. So today, for your reading pleasure, I present a simple guide to navigating the potential minefield that is gift giving in Japan.
Firstly, it is important to consider who you are buying the gift for. As in most western cultures, the closer you are to this person be it personally or professionally, the more effort you are expected to put into your gift ideas. You will notice that I said effort, and not expense. In Japan, it is the quality and thoughtfulness of a gift that will score you the most points, rather than how elaborate or expensive it may be.
Probably the most common type of gift you will buy as a foreigner in Japan is “omiyage”.
Omiyage is basically a souvenir of one’s travels. When you take a trip home, or even a short break to another destination within Japan, it is customary to buy a small gift for your colleagues. As is the custom, this should be something that relates distinctively to the place you visited. For example, as I write this article from my desk, I noticed in my desk drawer some “dango” (Japanese sweets) from Okayama Prefecture, a small milk chocolate from Kagoshima and a little bottle of apple vinegar from Aomori. These were all gifts from my colleagues who visited their family and friends in these regions during the recent “Golden Week” holiday period. Likewise, in my case, I didn’t actually take a holiday as such during golden week but I did visit Kyoto for a one-day trip. Whilst there, I picked up some “Tsukemono” (Japanese pickles) as a present for my colleagues.
Of course, as I am a school teacher in my day job, buying omiyage for so many coworkers (more than 30 in my case) can be a very expensive exercise. However, your colleagues will appreciate this, and as such it is not expected that you buy anything too fancy. For example, in the case of a large group, it is often customary to buy a large bag of sweets or sembei (dried, salted crackers) and give one to each of your colleagues. Considering that you can usually buy a bag of 20 or 30 such items for less than 1000 yen, this is a far more economical way of meeting your gift-giving obligations.
This brings me to my next point, in terms of how much you spend, even if you find yourself doing quite well financially, it’s important to consider that those around you may not be so fortunate. Much of the gift-giving culture in Japan centres on obligation or the perception thereof. If you go and spend 4 or 5 thousand yen on expensive gifts for a colleague, they will feel embarrassed about accepting such an expensive gift. But more importantly they may also feel a huge amount of shame and embarrassment if they cannot afford to buy something similarly costly for you in return. In short, do not spend more money than you would feel comfortable to allow others to spend on you.
Secondly, you need to consider your relationship with the individuals you buy gifts for. For example, using my own circumstances as a guide. Working in a school, as an English teaching assistant, I tend to spend a bit more on the gifts for my Japanese English Teacher colleagues than I do on the rest of the teaching faculty. These are the teachers I work with most closely, in fact I teach alongside them every day, so as such I feel obligated to go a bit further to show my appreciation for their hard work every day.
Of course, there’s also the boss. In my case, as a school teacher I have 2 direct bosses, my vice-principal and my principal. Typically, these are the people you would buy the most expensive gifts for. To westerners, this may seem like sucking up to the boss or “brown-nosing” as my friends used to call it. However, buying a gift for your boss is a very important part of the Japanese corporate culture. Not doing it would cause far more hassle for you than any perception you are attempting to curry favour with your boss by doing so.
So outside of work, how about our friends?
Again, it is a reciprocal process. Think of the size and likely expense of any gifts that your Japanese friends may have bought for you last time they took a trip. As far as reasonably possible, try to keep the size and scope of your next gift to them as close as possible to what they previously bought for you. Of course the one exception to this is if you have a Japanese partner. My father always said to me “Be careful with your money, but never be afraid to spend a bit extra on that special lady in your life.”
This is certainly the case in Japan. When it comes to anniversary or birthday presents for your better half whether you are male or female, you should spare no expense. Japanese people can sometimes seem a bit cold and less expressive of their affections than those from other parts of the world, so to many of them gift giving at such times is an important expression of the love and respect that they feel for their partners. As such, you should reciprocate.
Christmas can be a tricky one. Though not as important as a partner’s birthday or anniversary, it is still an event of some significance, despite the fact that Japan has never been a Christian country. In a country that takes so many of its commercial and fashion cues from the United States, Christmas has become a major event in the Japanese calendar. Whilst buying presents for coworkers and friends is not necessary, for your partner and especially your children, Christmas is a time when you will be expected to spend a little. It’s also worth noting that for courting couples in Japan, it is Christmas Eve and not Christmas Day that is the major event. Make sure you book that Christmas Eve dinner at least 4-6 weeks ahead, as all the best restaurants fill up fast.
Japanese people are not that different from the rest of us. Whatever gifts you decide to buy, it’s the thought that counts. Don’t worry too much, in a society as polite as Japan, any gift will always be gratefully received.