The concept of gift giving is fairly simple – you give someone a token of appreciation during special occasions, such as weddings, birthdays, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and the like. You may also opt to give people close to you gifts for no apparent reason other than you simply want to, or you think they deserve a reward for a job well done. There are no hard and fast rules for gift giving, but it is important that your gift is something that the recipient will appreciate and that it is appropriate for the occasion.
The Japanese are admired the world over for sticking to their traditions. Their gift giving customs are part of their rich and colorful culture, and, as with all their other traditions, they are unique and fascinating.
Japan’s unique gift giving traditions
In Japan, however, the gift giving process – a common part of the Japanese culture - is more meticulous. There is a specific type of gift for different occasions, with special attention given to how the gift is wrapped. Generally, gifts that come in sets of four are off limits, because the number is considered unlucky, as it shares the same pronunciation as the Japanese word for “death.” Additionally, it is important that both the giver and the recipient use both of their hands when the present is being handed over, as it is bad luck not to do so.
Some of their traditional gifts include the following:
Omiyage are gifts or souvenirs that a person who recently came from a trip brings home to their friends, relatives, and co-workers. It does not matter if the trip is to another country, or to a neighboring province, or whether it is a long or short trip – omiyage required and while it does not necessarily have to be grand, it must be made in the place the giver travelled to.
Temiyage, on the other hand, are thank you gifts that are given to hosts when they are visited. Foreign visitors are not required to bring gifts, but when they do, the gesture is very much appreciated. You can bring food and other products that are unique to your home country.
The Japanese look forward to the months of June and December because it is customary for co-workers, friends, and family to exchange presents during these months. These gifts – Ochugen and Oseibo – are worth 5000 yen on average and can be anything from food, drinks, clothing, stationery, and household items. The gift-giving coincides with the giving out of bonuses to employees.
Oseibo is given towards the end of the year by employers to their bosses as a token of appreciation and gratitude.
Otoshidama, or a packet of money, are typically given to children on New Year’s Day. This is the traditional present given on the first day of the year, as opposed to the sweets or toys that children from Western countries receive.
Weddings, birthdays, and funerals
While it is customary in Western countries to give presents during these occasions, in Japan, it is much more preferable to give money, with the amount depending on how closely related you are to the recipient. Money is presented in a noshibukuro, a special envelope that is tied with a cord. You must choose the noshibukuro carefully, as there is one for every occasion – you do not want to give money in an envelope that is meant for newlyweds to one who is grieving the loss of a family member.
If you are unsure of what gift to give, it is best to consult with a Japanese friend. The Japanese might do approach gift-giving differently, but one thing it shares in common with other nationalities is that it does not matter how grand or expensive the gift is – it is the thought that counts.