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Gift-Giving Lessons from the Japanese

In Japanese culture, giving gifts to those you care about – friends, family, neighbors, teachers, business colleagues – is as much of a deep rooted cultural tradition as it is a socially expected obligation. Every aspect of the highly prized and valued process, from picking out the gift, to wrapping, presenting, and receiving the gift, is a finely executed art. Thus, the act of giving and the ritualistic manner in which it is performed often becomes much more important than the gift itself. If you are living outside of Japan, you can adopt some of these Japanese gift-giving traditions to make your own exchange of gifts more meaningful and significant.

Selecting the Perfect Japanese Gift

According to Japanese custom, choosing the right gift is an important step. A very expensive gift may be overwhelming and cause a person to feel guiltily indebted to you, whereas a cheap and irrelevant gift may be viewed as representative of your attitude toward the receiver. The best gift, then, is often a small, thoughtful gift that only you and the receiver understand the significance of (think inside jokes, stories, or circumstances). To the Japanese, the symbolism of a gift is carefully pondered. For example, gifts in pairs are considered lucky, whereas quantities of four or nine of something are unlucky and always avoided. Think about your own personal customs, symbolism, and beliefs in selecting well-intended presents.

Wrapping Your Gift with Care

Each step of giving is an art, but none so more recognizable to other cultures as the beautifully wrapped parcels from Japan. The way in which the object is wrapped is sometimes much more important than the gift itself. Often, Japanese men and women will have their gifts wrapped right in the department store, where trained staff delicately and expertly fold rice paper and mizuhiki craft cord into a work of art. For you, this is where you may let your artistic flourish shine! The aesthetic quality of the covering is crucial; wrap your gift carefully, beautifully, thoughtfully. Never give an unwrapped present.

Presenting the Gift to Your Recipient

When it comes time to hand over the precious item, Japanese custom demands an attempt to do it privately, discreetly, and without much attention. About-face is very important in Japan, and it could be horribly embarrassing and uncomfortable for the receiver to be presented with a gift they don’t care for in front of others. The giver is also expected to be very humble, passing off their offering with both hands and acting as though the present is no big deal, just a small trinket, nothing special… regardless of the quality or expense of the product. Humility and kindness in giving transcend into other cultures as well; you are extending a part of yourself and your heart in these transactions of generosity.

Appreciating Gifts You Receive from Others

The final step in the careful dance of Japanese giving is, of course, receiving the gift. It is unspoken law that if you give, you shall receive… and that if you received, you need to turn around and give back. Sometimes the process can become an ongoing competition of each party giving back a gift that was better than the last they received. But of utmost importance is the appreciation, the respect, and the gratitude for the thoughtfulness of another person. The gift is to be received with both hands, just as it is given, and contemplated. Japanese men and women will observe the beautiful precision of the gift wrapping, unbinding the gift ever so carefully so as not to tear or cut the enclosure, and then carefully wrapping it back up as if it had never been touched. This is a lesson we teach our children, to open things slowly to show appreciation, and one that should be repeated by ourselves. Enjoy your present, ask questions about it, and ponder in your mind how lucky you are to be blessed by another’s altruism.

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