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Gift Giving Traditions in Japan / Tradition of Omyiage

        Gift-giving in Japan carries much importance. It must be done on the proper occasions and in the proper way. Gifts must be chosen according to protocol, wrapped according to protocol, and given according to protocol. The traditions are ancient & deep and sill honored today. Giving gifts is done not only on holidays and special occasions, but it is an integral part of the business culture as well.  The Japanese love "regional" gifts - it is very proper and required that when one goes a trip, you bring back gifts, and preferably regional specialties. On a par with the choice of an item, where it is purchased is equally important, and brand names (the higher the popularity the better) are desired.  At gift giving seasons, the large department stores in Japan have entire departments devoted to offering proper gifts for sale, as well as gift wrapping services. Year round, the "required" types of gifts for weddings, funerals etc. are always available. Adding to properly choosing a store and gift, how it is wrapped and presented is just as important. Items purchased from major department stores get presented in the wrappings and bags of those impressive places. Making small bags or wrappings from fabric is another very "proper" thing.

        Little decorative (especially hand-made) bags and items will always be a big hit with Japanese - especially women.  Food is also a good gift of choice since it can be consumed ... this is important for small Japanese homes and apartments with so little space.  Omiyage means gift, or more specifically, the type of gift one brings back to give to others when one has been away on holiday (vacation), or the gift that one brings when one visits someone's home.  Omiyage is also a "return" gift - one which you give to the person who has just given you a gift. Because gift-giving is such a huge thing in Japan, "generic" gifts are quite acceptable.  In nearly all train stations or neighborhoods, there are shops with stacks and stacks of boxes of various regional/local foods for travelers to bring back with them. Due to the "return gift" obligation, many homes have a "gift closet" stocked with a variety of nonperishable items that would be suitable as return gifts, or "emergency" omiyage.

        Gifting in Japan also has a certain ritual... one does not open the gift in front of the giver.  This allows the receiver to sincerely thank the giver for the gift, irregardless of whether they "like" the gift or not.... they can be "truthful" (save face) because they have not seen what is inside.  Often, because of this, the giver will tell the recipient what the gift is... then, if the recipient does not wish to open it later, they can set it aside (assuming it is not food), and use it as their omiyage to someone else! It is said that if you wait long enough, you will receive the gift back as it gets passed from friend to friend, relative to relative...

        There are two major gift-giving seasons (late spring, late fall) in Japan, when the stores lay out their gift-box displays.  One goes to the store with a list of obligatory addresses in hand, chooses which items to get whom, fills out the order/mailing forms, pays, and the store will take care of the rest.  The item will be properly gift-wrapped, addressed, and sent to your friends, relatives, and business associates. The gift-boxes are quite elegant - considering they may contain anything from cooking oil, to soy sauce, bars of  fancy soaps,  smoked salmon, and other assorted sea-foods... all in velvet-lined, wood-enclosed, cushioned elegance. There are stores where you buy your every-day things, then there are stores where you buy for others; expensive, bargains are not in the game, and the name of the object or manufacturer says it all.

        As a side note, when a gift consists of multiple items (such as sake cups), the total number should always be odd (as in 1,3,5, etc.). Odd numbers are lucky or auspicious. The exception is something that obviously comes in pairs - such as Hina Dolls, or "his and hers".  Equally important is to avoid giving 4 of anything. One of the Japanese words for 4 is shi which means death.  Even the Japanese will try to avoid saying it, and use yon instead.

        It is also important for you to remember what a person gave you as an omiyage because you are obligated to verbally thank them again the next time you see them.
        Gift wrapping and presentation is very important as mentioned. Many times a gift will be given in a furoshiki (wrapping cloth), and can be elegant for gift use, as well as completely utilitarian. There are many beautiful ones - usually nearly a meter square, and often made of silk, cotton ones dyed with indigo, and with the white sashiko stitching. A furoshiki is the Japanese version of a reusable tote bag. As mentioned above, the most preferred wrapping is that of the store where purchased, but next in line will often be furoshiki.
With thanks to Sue H.

Last updated 11/2013 © 1998 - 2014 G. Thompson/PuffinStuff, Inc.