Whether it be for a wedding, business meeting or returning from a trip, the culture of gift giving in Japan is one of the most prevalent in the world.In Japan gifts are given for almost any occasion, from graduating to weddings and even to finalise a business deal. However, unlike in some other cultures, in Japan the emphasis is more on the ritual of gift giving than the gift itself…
When to Give Gifts
Although they do not typically celebrate birthdays or Christmas in Japan, this has become more popular due to strong influences from the West in recent years. Younger generations in particular are observing these occasions more and more.
‘Ochugen’ occurs during summer, in the middle of the year, and gifts are given as a sign of gratitude to others. ‘Oseibo’ occurs in December and is seen as a sign of indebtedness. The gifts are normally food or alcohol related – given to family members, close friends and colleagues. This is in keeping with the Japanese custom of Giri – a kind of obligation or duty.
It is crucial to follow certain traditions in terms of Japanese gifting etiquette:
- It is important to give and receive gifts with both hands; a sign of respect
- When receiving a gift, one ought to modestly refuse the present up to three times before finally accepting
- It is considered rude to give a present to only one person when in a group of many people
- It is also seen to be rude if one opens a gift in front of a large group of people
- To give a gift at the beginning of any meeting or encounter is deemed to be a way of rushing proceedings. Presents should always be proffered at the end
One superstitious quirk in Japan relates to numbers. Giving a gift in pairs is seen to be extremely lucky, whereas offering four or nine of anything is seen to be unlucky and is best avoided.
It is common to give money as a wedding gift which should be offered in an odd number. If an even number of money is given, this is seen to be easily divided between the couple and so brings about superstition that the pair might split.
It’s All in the Presentation
How a gift it is presented is just as important as what is inside; along with bows, ribbon and beautiful paper, it is also customary to present gifts in cloths which can be re-used.
These are known as Furoshiki (originally meaning bath spread – as they were used in ancient times to wrap a bather’s clothes) and have been a way to wrap and conceal gifts for a long time in Japan.
The colour of a gift’s presentation is just as important as how you present it. Pastel colours are best, as red is most commonly associated with funerals or sexuality and bright colours are thought to be ostentatious.
Another important occasion when Japanese give gifts is Omiyage which is a tradition whereby travellers bring back gifts for friends, family and co-workers.
This dates back to the Edo period when a lucky few would go on pilgrimages and bring back souvenirs for the villagers who weren’t able to go. Because of this custom there are many ‘Omiyage’ shops in Japan, which specialise in tourist and souvenir gifts.
It is also quite common for women to gift men chocolates on Valentine’s Day. The day was first introduced in Japan in 1936 and has since developed into a tradition: women offer out chocolates to all their male friends and co-workers, with their favourite receiving the best and most chocolate.
Unpopular males aren’t quite so lucky – receiving a sparse amount of the cheapest chocolate. On March 14, known as a ‘reply day’, men are then expected to return a gift of at least three times the value. Oftentimes this will be jewellery. If a male were not to return the gift, it would be seen as an indication that he considers himself above his female friend.
Lastly, we come to the tradition of O-kaeshi, simply a gift to say thank you. These are given commonly at weddings or parties and should normally be half the price of the original gift.
Sophie is an etiquette coach who has the rare ability to make the intricacies of etiquette approachable and fun. She travels around the world coaching families, individuals, corporates and independent schools. Sophie has honed her craft without losing her easy-going charm.