A Guide To The Japanese Art and Tradition Of Gift Giving

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Are you planning to study or work abroad in Japan? If so, you’re more than likely going to have to get a gift for someone during your time here. Japan is known to have a big and extensive gift giving culture. Not following these traditions could give you a bad look.

In Japan the art of gift giving revolves around a omiyage, meibutsu, temiyage, and okaeshi, all Japanese terms to define different types of gifts ranging from souvenirs to thank-you gifts. Gift giving is very common in Japan, with most people buying gifts every month for the events that happen.

Need to learn more about gift giving in Japan? Read on and learn how to find that perfect gift for your Japanese family, friend, colleague, or business partner.

The Types of Japanese Gifts

A souvenir for you might be summed by the saying: “been there, done that, bought the t-shirt and a keychain.” If you want to thank someone for a favor, you usually just buy them dinner. You only give someone a gift when it’s their birthday or when it’s Christmas.

The Japanese also consider the occasion when they give gifts:

A souvenir is called omiyage. This is typically a local snack, produce, or alcoholic beverage from the place they visited. It can be an item that is considered a local handicraft like a fan or a piece of ceramic.

  • One major difference between the Western and Japanese concepts of “souvenir” is that an omiyage is specifically bought to be given to other people. You will not be eating the food you buy. You are obligated to give it away.
  • Under omiyage, you have the concept of meibutsu (prized dishes or delicacies). Each town or city has its own specialty. For example, you cannot go to Osaka without eating takoyaki (fried dough stuffed with pieces of octopus).

A thank-you gift is called a temiyage. It is given when you visit someone’s house or a home-like business establishment like a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). For example, if you’re a foreign exchange student who will have a host family, it is only polite to give a temiyage to your host family when you first arrive in Japan.

  • A temiyage is, just like omiyage, typically food. But it can be flowers, too. If you give food, try not to give something that can be bought near your host’s area.
  • A sub-form of temiyage is okaeshi. This is a small gift you give to someone who has given you a gift. For example, if you have a wedding in Japan, you will give an okaeshi to your guests.

Traditionally the Japanese do not give birthday or Christmas gifts. But these days, more and more people give gifts during these occasions due to Western influences.

When You Should Give Gifts

The gift can be food, alcohol, or any item that is about 5000 yen. Both Ochugen Oseibo gifts indicate gratitude or indebtedness for favors or help given during the year. During these two seasons, many employees receive bonuses, so they share the wealth with family, friends, colleagues, and bosses. You can also get gifts on the following ocassions:

  • All the time.
  • Any time you go on a trip, you will have to give an omiyage.
  • Any time you’re invited to someone’s house, you have to have a temiyage ready.
  • The Japanese actually have two main gift-giving seasons: Ochugen and Oseibo. A gift exchanged in June is called Ochugen while one exchanged in December is called Oseibo.

Again, giving thoughtful gifts is deeply ingrained into Japanese culture so it is not optional.

Why You Should Give Gifts

Look, I’m not good at giving gifts. If I was anywhere but Japan, I wouldn’t be buying anyone a gift. Does that make me a freak? Maybe. Beyond the idea of giving a token to people you live or work with, giving gifts has the following cultural implications in Japan:

  • Social Obligations – If you don’t give a gift, you will be implying that the other people are not important to you. In Japan, when you’ve just come back from a trip—whether it’s for business or pleasure—you are socially obligated to bring back a souvenir for your family, friends, or co-workers. If someone does something for you, you are obligated to say thank you.
  • The Collectivist Culture of Japan – As part of a community (i.e., a company), the Japanese always want to maintain harmonious relationships. If a disruption happens, like you going away on a trip, you will want to re-establish the harmony by bringing in some form of offering. You give an omiyage as if saying, “Hey, sorry for leaving on a trip, here’s something to thank you for letting me go for a while.”
  • Showing Gratitude – A gift is a physical embodiment of your gratitude for a long harmonious relationship, for a favor done for you, for an invitation into the home of a friend, for a visit when you’re in the hospital, or for coming to your party. Gift-giving can become a cycle of “the gift that keeps on giving”: you give someone a gift, the other person gives you a thank-gift, you give another gift as thanks for the thank-you gift, and on it goes.
  • Social Obligations – If you don’t give a gift, you will be implying that the other people are not important to you. In Japan, when you’ve just come back from a trip—whether it’s for business or pleasure—you are socially obligated to bring back a souvenir for your family, friends, or co-workers. If someone does something for you, you are obligated to say thank you.
  • Sharing Your Experiences – By giving people local food you can share the mood and feeling of the place you visited. This thinking comes from the old days when people would go on pilgrimages. The lucky few who could do this would bring back omiyage that the whole village would enjoy.
  • Celebrating Achievement – When a friend passes their college exam or officially becomes an adult (the Japanese have a coming-of-age ceremony for those who turned or will be 20 years old by April 1st of each year), then the gift is a way to celebrate this achievement.
  • Re-establishing Old Relationships – Japanese people who go back to their hometowns usually bring something for their family and close friends.
  • Establishing Relationships – It is customary to give a gift that is of high quality but not necessarily very extravagant during the first meeting with a potential business partner. There will be gifts exchanged in succeeding meetings but the first one has to have that wow factor. Some foreigners bring a wide range of gifts so that they can prepare something for any eventuality.

Gifts You Should Give

If you aren’t a gift person, you’re in luck because the Japanese don’t get all frilly and personal with gifts like we might do in the West. The gift and pastry industry in Japan is booming because of the culture, and you can find a shop on every corner. Below is a few ideas so you aren’t wasting your time trying to make something that might give the wrong implications.

  • Something edible is always a safe option.
  • Avoid homemade food or objects. Something artisan made is acceptable.
  • Pick something that matches the recipient’s personality or interest. Something sweet for children, something light for an elderly, something alcoholic for someone who loves to drink, something refined for a boss. If you don’t know the personality of the recipient, then just pick something popular.
  • The gift has to be wrapped meticulously. Try to get something that is already pre-wrapped. If it’s not wrapped, you have to wrap it. Attach a note and place it in a paper bag if it’s for a co-worker or business partner.
  • Colors are also important. Pastel colors are okay. Red is associated with funerals or love. Bright colors are generally considered ostentatious.
  • If you bring flowers as temiyage, try to avoid flowers used for funerals like white Chrysanthemums.
  • If you’re from the US and would like to give some temiyage, the basic rule is to buy something you cannot buy in Japan. If you know the recipient loves a certain sport, gifts related to those are all great options. Local candies are great too. I’m from Ohio, so bringing back Buckeye chocolates is always a hit.

Where To Buy Gifts in Japan

Finding gift shops in Japan shouldn’t be a problem. If you are going to a huge tourist spot like Tokyo or Osaka, expect to find shops selling all kinds of local themed souvenirs. Almost every station has a gift shop selling confectionery gift boxes like Tokyo Banana or Godiva.

Looking for something unique or traditional? Old neighborhoods and areas of Japan typically have souvenir stores that specialize in that sort of thing. If you’re from Tokyo, I can recommend going to Asakusa, or taking a trip to Kawagoe in Saitama Prefecture.

How To Give Your Gift

Gift giving is like a ritual. The basic steps are:

  1. If it’s for a whole group, take it out of the bag and place the box on a communal table and announce what it is. Let people get what they want. If it’s for a family, give it to the mother or father. Don’t just leave it on a table. If it’s flowers as temiyagi, give it at the entrance of the house.
  2. If it’s for an individual, make sure that no one else is around when you give it. Take it from the bag and offer it with both hands and a bow. This is especially important if you are giving it to a boss or a potential business partner.
  3. It’s a Japanese tradition for the recipient to refuse the gift twice or thrice, saying that it is not needed. Keep offering the gift until she or he finally accepts it.
  4.  As you hand the gift to family or friends, say something modest like “This is simple, but…” or “This is boring but…” or “I don’t know if you will like this, but…” As you hand the gift to a co-worker or a boss, say something like “This is a token of my appreciation…”
  5. Gifts are not opened in public. Doing so is considered rude to the giver.

Additional tips

  • The gift should not be very expensive because you might embarrass the receiver. But it shouldn’t be cheap either. In Japan, it’s not the thought that counts, but about item and the way it’ received.
  • Consider the strict hierarchy of Japanese society. Do not give the same gift to the boss and the staff. Try to make a gift to the boss a little bit better.
  • If you’re giving a gift for a business meeting, try not to give a token with your company’s logo, especially if it’s the first meeting. This could be taken as something cheap and unnecessary promotion.
  • If you give tokens at a meeting, give it at the end of the meeting, not at the start. Giving the token at the start may mean you are rushing the proceedings.
  • If you’re unsure about omiyage, just get the local flavor of the KitKat or Pocky. With over a hundred KitKat or Pocky flavors to choose from, you’re sure to find something good.

Now You Are Ready

If this information helped you any, you should be more than ready to enter Japan’s realm of gift giving comfortably. Rest assured, if you follow my tips and suggestions above, you should have no worries about offending your recipient. Although there is a lot of concepts involved here, the Japanese would never refuse or show open disdain for a gift you’ve gotten them, especially from a foreigner.

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