By Y. Lin
After putting time, thought, and care into picking a gift, we brim with excitement to see the recipient’s reaction. Obviously, we want them to love what we picked for them! So you might be surprised to know that in some cultures, the way gifts are given (and received) is just as or even more important than the present itself.
This is certainly true in Japan. For the Japanese, gift-giving is a complicated dance steeped in tradition. Here we hope to introduce a few basic rules of gift-giving in Japan that will help you give with ease and confidence. When you follow these simple rules, the person receiving the gift will not only be thrilled by your awesome present, but will be impressed at your thoughtfulness for giving with care and respect for his or her traditions.
Ochugen and Oseibo — Summer and Winter Gifts
The two most well-known gift giving holidays are Ochugen (お中元) and Oseibo (お歳暮). Ochugen is given on July 15th in Eastern Japan (esp. the Kanto region), and August 15th in Western Japan (esp. the Kansai region). Alcohol, expensive confectioneries, meat, fish, etc. is usually given on these holidays.
Oseibo is given at the end of the year in December (best to plan delivery by Dec. 20), and originally a tradition originating with the presentation of gifts at an ancestor’s grave. Ordinary, consumable items are usually given–soaps, shampoo, alcohol, ham, juice, soda, etc.– things that will get a person through the coming year.
At these times of the year, certain gifts are often given to friends, family, teachers, clients, or co-workers–anyone whom you feel has supported you during the year and whom you feel gratitude towards. In the U.S., we often say that “It’s the thought that counts.” In Japan, thoughtfulness counts too, but the value of the gift matters as well. The idea is that the value of the present is in proportion to the debt that was incurred or to the importance of that relationship.
If you are in doubt about what to give, visit your local department store in the weeks leading up to these dates for ideas.
Other Special Days
There are also other special days where gifts are traditionally given:
- Monetary gifts are traditionally given at weddings to the couple being celebrated. In turn, the happy newlyweds bring souvenirs back from their honeymoon destination to give to friends and family who celebrated their special day with them.
- For Valentine’s Day, women give a box of chocolates to the special man in their life (or who they hope to be in their life), and as a courtesy, give small chocolate gifts to other male acquaintances, friends or co-workers. But don’t fret ladies, because on March 14 (White Day), the man returns a more extravagant chocolate gift to the special lady who presented him with chocolates just one month ago. While the customs originated with department stores trying to sell chocolate, the intricacy of Japanese okizukai (お気遣い) or “thinking of another” has made this Western holiday uniquely Japanese.
- Another famous Japanese holiday is the Coming of Age Day or 成人の日, designated as the second Monday of January. On this holiday, youths who have turned twenty, the legal age to drink, smoke, and vote in Japan, participate in an official ceremony held by their municipal government. Family and friends may then give them small gifts to celebrate this milestone.
- Christmas is a huge holiday in Japan though not quite the same as in Western countries. You’ll see shop owners deck out their stores to get into the festive mood, and restaurants offering special meals. Since the 1960s when Japanese families were encouraged to own homes, it has become a family event where people eat fried chicken (thank KFC for this tradition) and Christmas cakes, and children will receive presents. Since the 1970s, however, you’ll find that Christmas is more commonly associated with romantic young couples who celebrate by going on a Christmas date and exchanging gifts.
Key Things to Note When Giving Gifts in Japan
- Temiyage (手土産) - When visiting someone’s home, always bring a gift (common gifts are confectioneries in a box). If you are visiting from afar, a souvenir from your hometown is appropriate.
- Omiyage (お土産) - When coming back from a trip, it is traditional to bring your family, friends, and co-workers souvenirs from your travels.
- Sashi-ire (差し入れ) – Originating with the giving of food to prisoners, in modern usage, it is usually a refreshment given to someone who is carrying out a task (often assigned by the person giving the refreshment). This can be tea or candy, something small to show your appreciation.
- When presented with a gift, it is always polite to refuse it once or twice. Of course, when it is offered again (and it is almost certain that it will be), it’s polite to accept with much appreciation. If the gift is wrapped, wait until you are home to open it. If it’s open, make sure you show your gratitude for the specific item.
- Always give and receive gifts with two hands. This is considered gracious and polite.
- It is common to present flowers to people who are ill or are in the hospital, but never give white flowers or red flowers, camellias, lotus blossoms, chrysanthemum, or lilies; all of these flowers represent funerals in Japanese culture.
- Never give gifts in fours or nines. As in many East Asian cultures, the number four is a homonym of death. In Japanese, the number nine sounds like a word for suffering.
- Finally, when giving gifts, make sure to subtly announce that you are about to give the gift (do not surprise the recipient) and when presenting the gift it’s always good to show your modesty by noting the insignificance or the insufficiency of your gift. The phrase: tsumaranai mono desu ga (which translates to something like “it’s just a trifle”) is a much used phrase.
As you can see, gift giving is no simple matter in Japanese culture. But as in many things in Japan, the sincere thought that you put into the process is a reflection of the care and appreciation you have for your relationships–and that is certainly worth the extra effort!