A Surefire Way to Improve Relationships! Learn All About Japan’s Unique Omiyage Culture
If you come from a country where typical souvenirs are fridge magnets or snow globes, you might be surprised by the amount of beautifully packaged souvenirs, or omiyage in Japanese, to be found in Japan. Japanese people take omiyage extremely seriously! In fact, getting it wrong can be a major faux pas. Interested in learning how to navigate the world of Japanese-style souvenirs? Curious on how Japan’s unique omiyage culture works? Read on to learn all that and more!
What is Omiyage Culture?
Fundamentally, omiyage culture is the same as buying souvenirs in the West: it’s simply the practice of bringing back small gifts from your trip, either for yourself as a reminder of your journey or for your loved ones. In many Western countries, this is seen as a nice but optional thing to do. However, in Japan, people are expected to bring back souvenirs for everyone, including friends, family, and even coworkers. Some Japanese people also bring omiyage on business trips to give at meetings or company visits.
From a Western perspective, it might seem a little strange to bring back gifts not only for close friends and family, but for everyone at work, too. The reason behind this is that gift-giving in general is a very important element of Japanese culture. Whether it’s a thank-you gift or presents for new neighbors, gifts are considered a key part of building relationships. It goes without saying that we all want to get along with the people we work with every day, and thoughtful omiyage can help!
How to Choose the Perfect Omiyage
In other countries, small ornaments or lightweight items like magnets are very popular as souvenirs. In Japan, though, the most common type of omiyage you will see are boxes of individually-wrapped snacks or sweets. These are a safe bet for almost any situation because they have a good shelf life, are lightweight, and can be easily shared. Furthermore, most people like receiving treats that they can actually eat! Overseas, the most famous example of these are KitKats with flavors inspired by regional specialties. People who plan to give omiyage to those who they have a closer relationship with often opt for items like alcohol or handicrafts instead.
There are a few important points to consider when choosing omiyage. Firstly, and most importantly, they should be local goods. Why purchase something that the receiver can easily obtain themselves? Of course, the size of the modern omiyage industry means that the definition of “local” can vary - one of Japan’s most famous omiyage, the Tokyo Banana, is actually made in Saitama Prefecture! The reason why it's considered a Tokyo souvenir is simply because of its name.
That said, even if the actual production location isn't local, people will typically choose omiyage made with local ingredients and techniques. Japan’s long and varied history means that most areas have treats and crafts specific to the area that you can choose from, so actually picking out gifts with local components in them isn’t that hard. In the West, this can sometimes be a struggle. Also, a mass-manufactured trinket or bottle of duty-free alcohol from the airport might cut it in other countries, but it’s best to be more selective in Japan.
In fact, locality is so important that before online shopping became a thing in Japan, there was a flourishing shopping area in Osaka nicknamed “Alibi Alley” that sold souvenirs from all over Japan. This was a convenient spot for anyone who forgot to pick up enough gifts, or maybe told a white lie about how they spent their vacation! Even now, most people tend to pick out and purchase souvenirs in-store, so shopping areas like Alibi Alley are still thriving today. You can easily find similar shopping spots all across Japan.
How much do Japanese people spend on omiyage? If you are buying omiyage for someone in Japan, a budget of around 1,000 to 2,000 JPY is typical among friends. For a special person or a thank-you gift, many spend a little more. Plan to give omiyage to coworkers? Depending on the size of the company or department, this can be even more or a little less. Finally, for business purposes in which you plan to give omiyage to clients or people outside of your workplace, aim for around 5,000 JPY.
You may notice that prices vary a lot, even for similar types of items. It may seem appealing to buy a cheaper, bigger box of sweets, but be careful. If you are giving omiyage to someone in Japan, it’s good manners to pay attention to quality and presentation. If the gift receiver recognizes that the box of sweets or snacks is cheaper than what Japanese omiyage culture dictates it should be, they might think badly of you. If you’re not sure what to get, do a little research into what the local favorites are.
If you have bought omiyage before, you may wonder why the store gives you additional paper or plastic bags with your purchase. These are designed to be used when it’s time to give out your omiyage. Of course, it looks neater, and an individual bag gives the sense that you went out of your way to buy a present just for the recipient. It also makes it easier for the recipient to take your present home with them.
When giving omiyage in Japan, take the gift out of the bag and hand it to your recipient, making sure the label is facing them. It’s good manners to neatly fold up the outer bag and take it with you, rather than leaving rubbish for the recipient to deal with. Of course, if the recipient wants to keep the bag, you can leave it with them.
The Highs and Lows of Omiyage Culture
In Japan, omiyage is seen as a method of communication. It's a conversation starter, and is a way to show your consideration and appreciation. Shopping for omiyage can also be a fun part of your trip! It’s a way to learn about the local specialties, and many people enjoy browsing for the perfect gift.
Of course, any custom that moves into the realm of obligation can grate on people over time. People who come from big families or who travel often for work, for example, may find the process a burden on both their minds and purse strings. People can also feel pressure to spend more money than they are comfortable with in order to keep up appearances and remain on good terms with others. Unlike the West, where even a keyring is seen as a nice gesture, in Japan the quality of your omiyage can reflect on your taste and social sense. Some people can feel the pressure to get it right, especially if they need to give them in a work setting.
Some services are available to help make the process a little easier. For example, there are Japanese companies that sell omiyage from all over the world and even deliver them to your home after your trip! Some people like to use these services to sort out their omiyage in advance so that they can travel worry-free.
Try Japan's Omiyage Culture for Yourself
Luckily, if you don’t live in Japan, you can enjoy all the fun of Japan's omiyage culture with none of the pressure. The huge range of souvenirs to choose from in Japan means that you'll come across many local gifts that your friends, family, and coworkers will be thrilled to receive.
If you’re not sure what to get while you’re travelling around Japan, there is a wealth of information online about popular Japanese omiyage, so why not research the local specialties before your next trip to Japan?
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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