Don’t Get Caught Out! Things You Might Not Know About Japan’s Gift-Giving Culture
Gifts are a huge part of Japan's culture, and they're not just fun to receive, but they're important for the person giving them, too. Giving gifts are considered an important form of communication, a well as a way of building and maintaining good relationships. This is why understanding the basics of Japan's gift-giving culture can really help you out while you're in Japan! Here are some tips for navigating Japan's complex gift-giving culture.
When Should You Give a Present?
While Christmas and birthdays are standards in the West, there are some other times where a present may be expected that are good to keep in mind when you're visiting Japan.
Seasonal Gift Giving Periods
There are two seasonal gift giving periods in Japan: ochugen in July and oseibo in December. At both these times, the custom is to give gifts to thank people who have helped you in some way, such as doctors, teachers, or professional contacts. People also give these gifts to friends and family.
While this type of gift-giving is declining among the younger generation, it's a nice way to stay in contact and thank the people in your life. Some workplaces, schools, and hospitals have a policy of declining these gifts to avoid any suspicions of bribery or unfair treatment, so if you’re giving to someone who has helped you in a professional capacity, it’s best to ask beforehand to avoid any awkward situations.
Since ochugen falls in midsummer, popular gifts include foods that are good for hot weather such as fruits, juices, or jellies. In the winter for oseibo, meats and seasonal vegetables are popular. Standards like gift cards, sweets, alcohol, or household items are standard year round.
Gifts for Visits
Western etiquette guides usually caution against visiting someone’s house empty-handed, and Japan is no different. These presents in Japan are called temiage, and it’s something you should keep in mind if you’re invited to someone’s house in Japan. You should also bring temiage in business settings when visiting other companies or clients while in Japan.
What should you give as temiage? If you are coming from outside town, something local to where you live is the best choice. If you’re coming to Japan from overseas and know you’ll be visiting people, gifts such as sweets or snacks from home is sure to go down well. At the bare minimum, though, avoid picking something up in your host’s neighborhood on the way over. After all, your host is sure to have prepared for your visit, so it’s good manners for you to organize a gift beforehand, too.
Good choices for a visit are gifts like sweets, fruit, or flowers. If you have been invited for a meal, wine or a special dessert like cake is also good. Wait until you have been invited inside and greeted your host properly before giving your gift, unless, of course, you have brought something that needs immediate refrigeration. In business settings, it's best to choose something with a decently long shelf life that can be easily shared among the office.
While it is common in both Japan and the West for friends to give someone who has recently moved housewarming presents, in Japan, you should also prepare some presents for your new neighbors. This practice gives you a chance to introduce yourself and get to know your neighborhood straight away.
Typically, you should give presents to the neighbors that immediately surround you. As a guide, if you live in a house, you should visit the two neighbors on either side of you, as well as the three across the road and behind you. In an apartment, you should give a gift to the neighbors on your floor, and to the neighbors who are directly above and below you.
In the past, soba noodles were a common gift. Today, sweets or household consumables like bath salts or cleaning products are well-received. You can find packaged gift sets for this purpose at department or variety stores. As these gifts are given mainly as a way to break the ice with your neighbors, there's no need to overdo it! Most people aim to spend around 1,000 yen or less per gift.
Gifts of Support
Another occasion that you should prepare a gift for is omimai, which is a visit to someone who is ill or otherwise going through a difficult time. In these occasions, your purpose is to provide your support, so there are some important things to keep in mind.
Firstly, if someone is unwell, it’s best to check beforehand whether or not they can have visitors. If they’re not, you can send a gift such as fruit or flowers rather than bringing them in person. If it’s possible that they may be on a restricted diet, items they can use like comfortable pajamas or books to read while they recover are thoughtful gifts.
If you're giving flowers, be careful about the ones you choose! Potted plants should be avoided, because the word for taking root, netsuku, sounds the same as the word for being laid up in bed. White flowers like chrysanthemums are traditionally used for sad occasions, while poppies, camellias, and other flowers that lose their petals easily can be a depressing image for someone who is sick.
If someone has suffered another type of unfortunate event like a natural disaster or house fire, and you can’t provide help in person, your omimai gift should be cash or some other immediate necessity.
Another type of omimai is jinchu-mimai. Originally, this word referred to the act of giving support to soldiers on the frontline, but today it serves more as a metaphor for visits and gifts to support someone who is hard at work. This could be anything from working on a big project, putting on a performance or exhibition, training, or studying for an important exam. Since these are gifts of encouragement, it’s best to give something that will keep their energy and spirits up like sweets, vitamin drinks, or alcohol.
In Japan, the standard wedding gift is cash. For friends or other non-family members, the vast majority of people give a gift of 30,000 yen. If this seems specific, it’s because there are some superstitions around the amount of money you should give. 20,000 yen is easily divided into two, which is considered a bad omen for a couple. 40,000 yen is also considered unlucky because the number four, shi, sounds the same as the word for death, which is probably why 30,000 has become the standard.
While the vast majority of people give 30,000 yen, today some people say that 20,000 yen is acceptable, especially for younger guests, since it can represent the two members of the couple. For family members, a gift of 50,000 to 100,000 yen to help the couple start their life together are common.
In Hokkaido, a pay-your-way style wedding is more common, and this style is spreading around Japan as people opt for less formal and expensive weddings. For these types of weddings, instead of a gift, each guest simply pays an entry fee that covers the cost of the reception.
In these cases, while it's not required, some people like to give an additional gift as well. If you choose to do this, it’s best to send it before or after the wedding so that the couple or family doesn't need to deal with it on the day. Homewares, wine, and matching items are all popular choices, but for tradition’s sake, items that can cut or easily break are best avoided as they insinuate the breaking or cutting of the couple's relationship.
There are quite a few differences in how Valentine's Day is celebrated in Japan compared to other countries. In Japan, women give a gift of chocolate to express her feelings on Valentine's Day. At its heart, this gift is a romantic gesture, but it’s also common to celebrate the day with gifts to friends, classmates, or coworkers without any romantic undertones.
Chocolate given as a way to express love are called honmei-choco, or "true feelings" chocolate, while chocolate given just as a gift is called giri-choco, or obligation chocolate. Gifts between women on Valentines Day are usually called tomo-choco, or friend chocolate.
If this seems a bit of a heavy burden on women, they're not out of pocket long! White Day, which falls a month later on March 14, is a day for men to give women a gift in return. While Valentine's Day gifts are almost always chocolate, White Day is not so restrictive. Initially, candy companies marketed marshmallows as the ideal White Day gift, but today, sweets in general are popular. Among couples, it's sometimes said that the value of the return present should be two to three times the cost of the original chocolate, so gifts like accessories or clothes are also common.
Do's and Don'ts of Gift Giving
If you are a visitor in Japan, it's most likely that Japanese people won't expect you to perfectly understand local customs, and will appreciate your gesture for what it is. Still, whether you're buying a gift for business, family, or friends, it's best to know the basics!
The traditional standard for wrapping presents in Japan is a little different to the wrapping paper and card combo you might be familiar with. Of course, for more casual presents among friends and family, this style is perfectly OK, but for more formal occasions like ochugen, oseibo, or a gift for a wedding, knowing the conventions will go a long way.
Noshi-gami is a type of paper covering that goes over your present. These have the occasion written on the top part, and the giver’s name at the bottom.
Noshi themselves are a small good luck charm that goes on the noshi-gami. They can either be made of paper, or simply a printed illustration. Originally, the central, yellow part of the noshi was a strip of dried abalone, but today they are usually made entirely of paper. The main thing to remember about noshi is that they are appropriate for celebrations, but not for sad occasions like omimai gifts or condolences. If you request this type of wrapping at a department store, you can let them know the occasion and they will choose the appropriate style for you.
Another part you’ll see on noshi-gami is a bow called a mizuhiki. These are sometimes printed, but you will often see mizuhiki made with cord on envelopes used for cash gifts.
There are also rules for which mizuhiki to choose. These can be complicated, but the main thing to remember is that bow-shaped mizuhiki, called chou-musubi, are bows that can be undone and re-tied, and are for recurring celebrations, like New Year's or childbirth. The second main type of mizuhiki is called musubi-kiri, which means “tied once”. These can’t be easily undone, so they symbolically represent a once-off event like weddings.
In Japan, it is very important to give a gift in return in most occasions. This type of gift is called okaeshi in Japanese.
A rule of thumb to remember is to give a return gift half the value of the cost of the present within a month of you receiving it. It’s also polite to contact the gift giver directly to thank them, too.
There are some exceptions to this rule, however. Cash wedding gifts don't require okaeshi, as the meal at the reception and the customary gift given to wedding guests are considered enough. Ochugen and oseibo gifts are fundamentally a thank-you gift in and of themselves, so they don’t typically require a gift in return. Instead, be sure to send a thank you letter to to let them know how much you appreciated the gift.
How to Give a Gift
When you buy a gift in Japan, you will usually be given an extra paper bag to carry the gift in. In some cases, people instead choose to wrap the gift in cloth called a furoshiki. Whatever style you choose, you should always take the gift out of its carry bag or wrap and present it using both hands. It’s not polite to talk up the quality or price of the gift you’ve brought, so it’s best to say something humble about what you’ve brought, just like people often say their gift is “just a little something” in English.
What if you can't give the gift in person? You can usually arrange delivery of gifts at department stores or even convenience stores. Gift cards and catalogue gifts are also a popular choice for long-distance gift giving. Gift catalogues are like a gift card, but instead of going to a store, the recipient receives a catalogue they can order their gift from. While this may be a little less personal, surveys have shown that these are some of the most popular types of gifts to receive in Japan. Some catalogues have a theme, while some can be all-encompassing, 500-page volumes that include everything from spa days to charity donations and even holidays.
There are many other times of the year that Japanese people like to give gifts, including occasions most of us are familiar with like Christmas, birthdays, and Mother's and Father's Day. So, keep these tips in mind if you are giving and receiving gifts in Japan, and you're sure to appreciate just how far a kind gesture can go!
*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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