Japan has a strong gift-giving culture. Giving each other gifts is taken for granted, whether at work or while traveling. Gifts are very important in Japan. From the small handkerchief package at the store entrance to the vacation souvenir to the sake bottle as a host gift, you will encounter them sooner or later as a traveler. It is estimated that there are over 50 occasions to give someone a gift in Japan.
Humans and gods
Gifts in Japan have a religious origin in Shintoism, one of the two predominant religions in Japan. While in Christianity, giving is valued more highly than receiving, here people exchange gifts to the gods for favors. Naorai, for example, is the sharing of food with gods: People made offerings to gods in ancient Japan in the form of food to eat together afterward. This is where, for example, the gifts of money to children at New Year, otoshidama, originally also such a religious offering, come from. In the past, however, children were given mochi – rice cakes that symbolized the divine soul.
The offerings were thus a gift to the gods, which the gods returned so the people could share. This principle of give and take, which is behind the term giri, is still deeply rooted in the Japanese mind today. The way it is followed can even reveal a person’s character.
Give and take
Giri’s concept states that a gift should always be reciprocated. This is not just a friendly gesture: especially in the countryside, people were always dependent on the help of others. If one did not stand by one’s neighbors materially and offer them appropriate gifts on certain occasions, one could not expect support even in times of need. Even in the cities, mutual attentions were a kind of social insurance. Today, favors and services are still reciprocated by small gifts, such as an elaborate treatment by a doctor.
However, gifts in Japanese antiquity had both material and spiritual benefits. According to Shinto belief, if someone was ill, he needed positive energy in the form of mostly edible gifts from healthy fellow human beings to recover more quickly. According to the Japanese calendar, there are also years of life considered particularly unlucky (yakudoshi): For children, for example, three, five, and seven years. This gave rise to the ritual of children going from door to door, asking for food at the age of seven. The only exception to reciprocity: accepting gifts from sick people or people of ‘bad’ age would bring bad luck and should therefore be avoided. Today, three-, five- and seven-year-old children are instead dressed in traditional clothing on November 15th and led to shrines to ask the gods there for another happy and healthy year with donations and prayers.
Gift-giving preserves harmony
Nearly half of all gifts in Japan are formal and serve to maintain social relationships and harmony – ‘Wa’ in Japanese. In working life, gifts are indispensable, especially to business clients.
Among the most important occasions for gift-giving in Japan is New Year, when people prefer to send New Year cards with the name Nengajo. There are two other big days in the year when people should especially think of relatives, higher-ranking people such as superiors, customers, teachers, and doctors: Ochūgen, the mid-year gift in July, at the time of the Buddhist Bon holiday to commemorate the deceased, and Oseibo in December. Although oseibo gifts are usually presented by December 20th, they have nothing to do with Christmas. Rather, they are meant to show gratitude to higher-ups for their kindness during the past year. People spend between 3000 and 5000 yen (about 20 to 35 dollars) on them. These days, gifts are usually practical: salad oil, cans of food, and drinks, for example.
Among friends and co-workers in Japan, it is common to buy small souvenirs when traveling. Local sweets or small figurines are very popular. That’s why you often see stores that offer especially such souvenirs in Japan, in Japanese ‘Omiyage’. You can also find Kokeshi, traditional, intricately painted Japanese wooden dolls, which have been a popular choice for hundreds of years – especially as a lucky gift for children.
No celebration without a gift – Japan’s gift culture
There are more than 30 private occasions and ceremonies in Japan on which gifts are given. Among other things, the family receives gifts from relatives, friends, and acquaintances at births, weddings, school graduations, and funerals. A traditional gift for weddings, for example, is high-quality lacquerware. However, even this is not without reciprocation: on the next occasion, the family must return the gift – for instance, as a souvenir from the honeymoon. That’s why it’s so important in Japan to make the price of a gift clear: That way, the recipient knows how much they should return. Since the recipient is obligated to do something in return and is thus burdened, the gift is not chosen to be too expensive if possible.
By the way, on Valentine’s Day in Japan, only men get something, and usually chocolate. In the office, the quantity and quality of sweets can show them how popular they are with their female colleagues. They have to return the favor to their wives, girlfriends, and co-workers on “White Day,” which takes place a month later on March 14th.
When you are invited home by someone in Japan – a rare and very kind gesture – one should always have a hostess gift with them. When handing over the gift, people like to modestly add that it’s just a boring little thing and often reveal what’s inside, unlike us. Also, if possible, you should wait for the gift until you are alone with the person – unless you have a gift for everyone present.
If you receive a gift yourself, you should only open it when you are asked to or when the giver has already said goodbye. It is also good manners to politely decline the gift once or twice before accepting it with the modest statement that it is too much.
The right packaging for every occasion
A gift must be beautifully wrapped, showing sincerity, appreciation, and effort invested in the present in Japan. In addition, the color of the packaging plays an important role in its meaning: pink is a positive and popular color, as are yellow, orange, and green. Blue is considered feminine, while noble purple symbolizes prosperity. Red is associated with strong emotions. On the other hand, it is often used in invitation cards for funerals and should not be chosen for gift envelopes. White and black should be avoided if possible. The white color is ambiguous: it can represent purity, death, and rebirth, while black is a largely unfortunate color. The combination of red and white is a happy, powerful combination, while red and black signify sexuality.
If you give money in Japan, which is often the case at big celebrations, it must be in an envelope. In the case of oseibo and ochūgen, the packaging is particularly traditional: the occasion and the giver’s name are indicated above and below the gift ribbon, respectively. Often, the original packaging of the store where the gift was purchased is also used so that the recipient can recognize the origin and value of the gift at first glance. But things get really traditional with Japanese furoshiki clothes. Furoshiki have been popular as packaging for hundreds of years: they protect the contents and provide another precious element that can be reused in various ways.
Similarly, people use tsutsumi (‘packets’) with special, precious paper. An example is chiyogami – Japanese paper that is not cut but folded almost origami-style. Asymmetry and an odd number of folds, by the way, are considered more aesthetic and happy in Japan.
Gifts from the heart
However, strict, regulated gift-giving is used only in a formal context. Relationships within the family and between friends are called Ninjō and also imply far more personal gifts. Ninjō means “human feeling” and suggests giving gifts from the heart rather than out of obligation. If you want to bind someone to you, you can use a small gift and possibly turn an acquaintance into a friendship. Appropriate gifts on birthdays and similar occasions are a relatively modern phenomenon.
In the meantime, ’empty,’ formal gift-giving has come in for criticism, especially from young Japanese, who see little sentimental value in it. In their opinion, little value is placed on the taste and personality of the recipient when giving gifts. This type of gift-giving is also reflected in the fact that people like to send gifts instead of handing them over personally. Traditional concepts, communal motives, and the benefits of such gifts are now being questioned.
Nevertheless, Japan, with its gift-giving culture, remains a society with a very high value on interpersonal relationships. Because things are much more individualistic in our country, we should also remember from time to time to show our loved ones that they are important to us.