The Japanese Art of Gift-Giving

Introduction

Let’s admit it, who doesn’t like getting gifts? We all love getting a personalised present from someone. Some of us enjoy hunting for the perfect present for another. Giving and receiving gifts in Japan are whole new, revolutionary levels that you can’t even imagine!
 
It’s no secret that the Japanese culture is unique in so many ways, and this is one of them. Their polite and respectful mannerisms are deeply inbuilt in various aspects of their lives. That’s no different for their gift-giving culture. For the Japanese, it is more than giving someone a souvenir or presents. It’s an act of appreciation, a show of respect and a presentation of gratitude.
 

The Japanese Art of Gift-Giving

Birthday present. Father giving gift to daughter, closeup

East Asia has a long and important history of gift-giving. Japan is one of them. The Japanese do not take gift-giving lightly, as many other traditions in their culture. It’s a serious act that strengthens relationships and maintains ties with one another. It can also be a way to show fondness for the other.
 
There’s no limits to gift-giving in Japanese culture. It can be casual or business, personal or political. 
 
One thing that is unique to the Japanese is the numbers. There’s a superstition that giving it in pairs or some even numbers brings about good luck. Giving it in a set of fours or nine is seen as unlucky. It’s best to avoid those. 
 
During weddings, money can be given as a wedding gift. When it comes to the number, though, offering an odd number is best. If you give an even number, the Japanese see it as an easy split of amount between the couple. This brings about the superstition of the easy split of the pair. 
 
The Japanese art of gift-giving is an elaborate and limitless one. Don’t be disheartened if you don’t know all the rules and superstitions that come with it. The Japanese will definitely understand. That mannerism is part of their culture as well!
 

Types of Japanese Gifts

Utsunomiya, Japan – April 4, 2019: Famous Tochigi prefecture citrus lemon filled mochi flavored with strawberry flavor in souvenir gift boxes in store retail display

On top of their detailed specifics to the art of gift-giving, there are also various types of Japanese gifts. These different types are given (and received) during different occasions and people. Here’s a summarized list so you’ll know the difference between them.
 

Omiyage

The omiyage (おみやげ) is generally known as souvenirs brought home from a trip. They often consist of local snacks or produce, or even local alcoholic beverages from the place they went. Some might even bring back a local handicraft that represents the place.
 
This act of bringing back a piece of their travels dates back to the Edo period. During that time, there were only a few lucky ones that had the luxury to go on journeys and bring back souvenirs for the ones who weren’t able to go.
 
One key point to note is that omiyage refers to the gifts for others and not the ones you buy for yourself.
 
A sub-category of omiyage is the meibutsu (名物) which refers to prized delicacies from a specific city. Each area has their own specialty, like how takoyaki (fried balls with octopus cuts in the middle) is unique to Osaka.
 

Temiyage

Temiyage (手みやげ) refers to the gifts given to friends, family and host family when one visit their home. While it is not expected of people to give them, it is a nation-wide practice that’s appreciated. 
 
The gift shouldn’t be too cheap or too expensive. Recommended products that are great as temiyage gifts include food, drinks and any unique products from your home country or city
 

Okaeshi

The tradition of okaeshi (お返し), which translates to returning something, is a simple, small gift as a way of saying thanks. Okaeshi is usually given at parties and weddings.
 

Who Do You Give the Gifts?

In short, you can give gifts to just about anyone.
 
Generally, these gifts are often given to those who you might feel indebted to or to show appreciation to. It can be your family members, the host family that took care of you, colleagues or even your boss. 
 
When Do You Give the Gifts?
 
The Japanese give gifts all the time. If they go on a trip, they’ll come back with omiyage to give out. If they’ve been invited to another person’s home or establishment, they’ll get a temiyage ready for that. 
 
There are also specific times of the year where the Japanese will go into the full gift-giving mode. Here are some of them listed!
 

Ochugen & Oseibo

The two special seasons for gift-giving is the ochugen (御中元) and oseibo (御制帽)
 
Ochugen is set in the summer and lasts from the first of July to the fifteenth. People in Japan make their rounds to give gifts to people that they appreciate and are close to them. This is a tradition that started during Obon (お盆), a Japanese Buddhist custom to honour the ancestor’s spirits
 
Gifts can be just about anything. These can include food, alcohol, housewares and other related products that the receiver might appreciate
 
The winter gift-giving season is the oseibo. 
 

Birthday & Christmas

While birthdays and Christmas aren’t traditional Japanese traditions, the people of Japan have adopted the western ways and use these occasions as reasons to give gifts as well. It’s not necessary and definitely not expected, but it’s always nice to have them on these special occasions, isn’t it?
 

Japanese Gift-Giving Etiquette

The Japanese are well known for their proper etiquette, so it’s no surprise that the Japanese art of gift-giving has its own set of etiquette. Here are some to take note of:
 
  • Always give and receive gifts with both hands as a sign of respect.
 
  • It’s Japanese tradition to refuse gifts twice before accepting it. If you’re giving them, expect up to two refusals. If you’re receiving them, modestly refuse it before finally accepting.
 
  • Gifts are not opened in public as it’s considered rude to the giver.
 
  • If the gift is for an individual, make sure there isn’t anyone else around before giving it to them as an act of courtesy to the others.
 
  • Gifts are often given at the end of any meeting or encounter. Giving it at the start is a sign of rushing the meeting.
 
  • The price of the gift should be kept in mind. It shouldn’t be too expensive but not too cheap either.
 
  • There’s a strict hierarchy in Japanese society. In other words, what you give your colleagues shouldn’t be the same as what you give your boss.
 

Gift-Giving Tips

Now that we got the nitty-gritty details out of the way, here are just a few fun tips that are nice to know. It might even add on to your gift-giving experience!
 

Presentation

The way a gift is presented is just as important as what’s in it. This includes the bows, paper and ribbon used to wrap the gift.
 
The Japanese often present their gifts in cloth that are often reusable. This cloth is known as the furoshiki (風呂敷), which refers to the bath spread as it was originally used to wrap a bather’s clothes in ancient times. Over time, it has been used to conceal gifts in Japan.
 

Colour

Keep in mind the colour you use for the gift wrapping! Some Japanese might be sensitive to that. But, as mentioned before, they’ll definitely understand if you don’t particularly know.
 
Go for pastels as they’re the safest bet and the best option. Bright colours are often associated with being too flashy and showy, and red is linked to funerals or sexuality.
 

Conclusion

There’s so much thought put into gift-giving in Japanese culture that it might even make the rest of us look bad. But that’s just the unique art of it all. It’s praiseworthy how serious the people of Japan take gift-giving that it’s ingrained in the Japanese culture.
 
With all that you know about the Japanese art of gift-giving, will you take it up as part of your own gift-giving ways?

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