The Art Of Omiyage — The Tradition Of Gift Giving In Japan

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An omiyage (お土産, “gift from a trip”) is a traditional Japanese gift from a traveler to their friends or family. It can be food, souvenirs, or other gifts of regional specialties. Omiyage is typically bought at the destination, but it can also be made by the traveler and given as gifts.

But it doesn’t stop at Omiyage. Gift giving is a huge part of Japanese culture. In fact, it’s so important that there are even specific stores and shops just for buying gifts! But where do you start when shopping for someone else? What about customs surrounding gift-giving in Japan?

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 Art Of Omiyage
Photo 139283803 © JuanmahmoDreamstime.com

4 Different Types Of Japanese Gifts

To the Japanese, gift-giving is a way of showing how well you know someone because each type of gift conveys an individual message. There are four types of gifts that can be given in Japan: omiyage, meibutsu, temiyage, and okaeshi. Each type has its own meaning so it’s important to take note when deciding which one to give!

1. Omiyage

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, Omiyage is a popular tradition in Japan where people purchase souvenirs from their travels to share with friends and family. However, this can be as simple as a local snack, candy, or even an alcoholic beverage like sake!

When I go back home to visit my family in the United States, this tradition has rubbed off on me, and I am always finding myself bringing my favorite Japanese snacks and drinks home to share with my parents and childhood friends.

2. Meibutsu

Meibutsu is the concept of gifting or giving specialty items that certain regions are known for. Some examples include food, clothing, drinks, and even sharing cultural traditions and activities. For example, you can’t go to Osaka without eating takoyaki.

3. Temiyage

Temiyage is often given when visiting someone else’s house. It can be for your host family or to thank someone for hosting you in their home while traveling Japan. A temiyage usually consists of food, but it can also be flowers. If you are gifting food, try not to give something that can be bought near your host’s area.

4. Okaeshi

Okaeshi is given to someone who gives you something; in this case, wedding guests would give an okaeshi as a token of appreciation after attending. However, because Western culture has influenced Japanese society more and more over time, there are now many cases where okaeshi are exchanged on special occasions like those mentioned above.

The Art Of Omiyage

When Should You Give Gifts In Japan?

The Japanese tradition of Ochugen and Oseibo is a great way to show gratitude or indebtedness for favors or help given during the year. Whether it’s food, alcohol, or any item that costs around 5000 yen, these two seasons provide many people with an opportunity to share their wealth with friends and family. The following occasions are also good chances to give gifts:

  • 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.
  • All the time.
  • Any time you go on a trip, get your friends and coworkers a omiyage.
  • Any time you’re invited to someone’s house, get a temiyage.

Again, giving thoughtful gifts is deeply ingrained into Japanese culture so you should definitely follow this, otherwise, you might leave a bad impression. Here’s a quick example. I invited some friends to my apartment that I haven’t invited before. Everybody brought a temiyage which included a homemade cake, and snacks from their hometown.

Don’t worry though, once you’ve been friends long enough you won’t have to keep bringing over a temiyage every time you visit their house or vice versa.

The Art Of Omiyage
Local souvenir gift shop in street of Naritasan Omote Sando in Narita old town for travelers people walk shopping and travel visit at Chiba on March 31, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan

Why Should You Give Gifts In Japan?

Look, I’m not good at giving gifts. If I was anywhere but in Japan, I wouldn’t be buying anyone a gift unless it was for a birthday. That’s just kind of how it is where I was born. Does that make me look bad? Probably. But in Japan, does as the Japanese do. Beyond the idea of giving a token to people you live or work with, giving gifts has the following cultural implications in Japan:

A Social Obligation

If you don’t give a gift, you will be implying that 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

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.

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. This could be an easy way to meet up and rekindle old friendships from high school or even middle school.

Establishing New 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.

The Art Of Omiyage
Kuidaore Taro souvenirs at Dontonbori, Osaka

Where Can You Buy Gifts In Japan?

As mentioned previously, finding a gift shop in Japan shouldn’t be a problem at all. If you are going to be staying in a big city like Tokyo or Osaka, you can easily find kiosks in major train stations selling all kinds of souvenirs and confectionary gift sets like Tokyo Banana. You can also checkout shopping centers as they’d probably have a bigger selection of gift sets.

Looking for something a little unique or traditional? Old neighborhoods in Tokyo are typically full of souvenir stores. If you are staying in Tokyo, I can personally recommend checking out Asakusa, Jimbocho, Kagurazaka, and even Kawagoe in Saitama.

The Art Of Omiyage

Japanese Gifts You Should Give

If you’ve always hated the exhausting task of trying to find a perfect gift for a friend, then you’re in luck. Japan has one of the most unique cultures when it comes to gifts and they make it easy on us as well. The Japanese culture requires no frilly or personal gifts like in some other countries so bringing something as simple as doughnuts from your favorite bakery could make for the perfect gift.

Below are some safe gift ideas:

  • Something edible is always a safe option. I don’t recommend getting food or snacks that you can find anywhere in Japan. Try looking for local shops, or shopping at a gift shop that sells local snacks.
  • Unless you are giving a temiyage or a meibutsu, 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 the 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 that is popular to be safe.
  • Again, this falls in line with anything beyond a temiyagi or a meibutsu. The gift has to be wrapped. Luckily in Japan, a lot of gift stores have pre-wrapped options available. You should also consider attaching a note and placing it in a paper bag if it’s for a co-worker or business partner.
  • Colors are very important in Japan. Pastel or neutral colors are always the safe options. Completely avoid the color black, as this is associated with funerals and death. Try to avoid bright colors too since they are considered to be ostentatious.
  • If you are buying flowers, try to avoid flowers like white Chrysanthemums that are used in funerals. To be extra safe, you should check out this article here so that you know the different meanings associated with each flower type in Japan.
  • If you are coming from a different country and would like to gift a temiyage to someone in Japan, the basic rule is to buy something can’t buy in Japan. If you know the recipient loves certain things about your country, getting a gift related to that is the best option.

    Local candies are also a solid choice too. I’m from Ohio, so bringing back the infamous Buckeye Chocolate is always a hit.
The Art Of Omiyage

How Do You Give A Gift In Japan?

Much like most things in Japan, gift-giving is a ritual. Here are some basic steps you can follow for any occasion when you are presenting your gift to the recipient.

1. Initial Presentation

If you are presenting a gift to a whole group, take it out of the bag and place it on the table in front of everyone. Announce what it is, and invite everyone to take from it. If it’s for a family, give it to the mother or father. Don’t leave it on the table or wait for someone to take it. If you are giving flowers, give them to the recipient right away at the entrance of the house.

If you are giving a gift to an individual, make sure that you are in a relatively private place. Take the gift from the bag and offer it with both hands and bow. This is especially important if you are giving it to a boss or potential business partner.

2. While Presenting

It’s a Japanese custom for the recipient to refuse a gift multiple times before accepting it. Don’t be offended and shy away after being rejected. Keep offering the gift until they finally accept it. In some cases, it’s considered rude or immodest to outright accept a gift. You can also see this sort of behavior when complimenting a Japanese person.

3. What To Say

As mentioned above, not only will your recipient be modest, but you’ll have to be as well. As you hand the gift off, say something like “This is simple, but…” or “This is boring, but..” or even “I don’t know if you will like this, but…“. Sounding too sure of something can make you out to be too proud or arrogant.

If you are handing a gift to a co-worker or boss, say something along the lines of “This is a token of my appreciation…“.

4. What To Expect After

Don’t awkwardly stand around and wait for the recipient to open the gift. In most cases, gifts are not opened in public. Don’t be offended, because in Japan, opening a gift in front of the giver can be considered rude.

The Art Of Omiyage
TOKYO, JAPAN – OCTOBER 31, 2017: Gift bottles with wine on the counter in the store. Frame for text

Additional Gift-giving Tips

Although we pretty much covered everything, there are still some additional tips and advice that can help you out in the long run.

1. Price

When purchasing a gift, it should not be too expensive. This could lead to unintentionally embarrassing the receiver. Although it shouldn’t be too expensive, it shouldn’t be too cheap either. In Japan, it’s not so much the thought that counts, but more about the item and how it’s received.

2. Hierarchy

Japan still swears by social hierarchy. In terms of gift giving, do not give the same gift to the boss as you would a co-worker or staff. Try to make the boss’s gift a little bit better.

3. Unnecessary Promoting

If you are giving a gift in a business setting, try not to give anything with your company’s logo on it, especially if it’s the first meeting. This could be taken as an attempt at unnecessary promotion and give a bad impression.

4. When In Doubt

If you are completely lost about omiyage, just grab a local flavor of KitKat or Pocky. With over a hundred flavors to choose from, you are sure to find something good.

Ready To Give A Gift The Japanese Way?

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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